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Savannah and Charleston: a journey back in time

Jonathan van Bilsen



July 2, 2017

Savannah and Charleston: a journey back in time

History has always been a favourite interest of mine and coupled with travel, I am amazed at the historic significance of places I visit. Two months ago, in an effort to escape the winter blahs, I flew to Savannah, Georgia and found myself immersed in the opulence of pre-civil war architecture and society.

For those of you venturing a trip to the south, I flew Porter Airlines to Myrtle Beach, a mere two hour jaunt. I rented a car and drove two hours to Charleston, where I stayed for three days. Enroute I stopped at Brookgreen Gardens, about an hour outside of Charleston, and strolled around acres and acres of manicured lawns, fantastic flower gardens and dozens of sculptures. Brookgreen was once a huge plantation, but the gardens are all that remain. I did find it interesting to learn that rice was the main crop farmed during the pre-civil war era. I had always thought it was cotton and was quite surprised.

For me, the best way to see a city is to immediately get on a hop-on-hop-off tour to experience a feel for the place.  I then spend the rest of the time exploring. In Charleston, unfortunately the service did not exist, however, I quickly discovered a great walking tour of the old city. Seeing a vast variety of antebellum homes, many of which had been restored to their former glory, was very interesting.  You can almost glimpse southern belles in their flowing gowns, walking along magnolia-scented avenues.

Charleston has many churches, most of which are built on a grandiose scale. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, and is known for its stained glass windows. The brownstone exterior facade has been made to look like brick, giving this church a unique appearance.

Charleston, was one of America’s busiest ports, back in the day, but is better remembered for Fort Sumter, where the civil war allegedly began. Tours of the fort run daily and include a boat ride, as it sits on a small island.

One of the most photographed spots in Charleston is the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ or Rainbow Row, as the area is also known. It is a stretch of large, historic homes painted in a variety of pastel colours.

From Charleston, it is a two hour drive to Savannah, Georgia, but you can easily make it a day trip by stopping at several plantations along the way. Boone Hall was first built in 1681 when a series of Live Oak trees were planted along a potential road. Live Oak trees are named such, because the leaves stay on the trees year round.

A tour of the house includes the private residence of the current owners, and most of the furniture dates back to the civil war era. The gardens are well maintained, but a stroll along the slave cabins is an eye-opener for the way history has recorded the co-existence between African Americans and European descendants who settled in the area. Boone Hall is one of America’s oldest, working, living plantations, and has been continuously growing crops for more than three hundred years.

Another plantation, Middleton Place, is also worth a visit, as it has been in existence for over 250 years. It was planned by an architect who designed most of the gardens at France’s Versailles Palace and has the distinction of being known as America’s oldest landscaped gardens. There are two lakes with unique outbuildings and many giant oak trees. Watch your step though, as you may run into a ‘gator’ or two along your trek. The mansion has been fully restored and the furniture dates back to the original times. Guides explain in detail the workings of the plantation, and at times it seems you have travelled back to a bygone era.

Continuing on to Savannah is a pretty drive, especially if you stay off the Interstate highways. Small farmhouses dot the country side and quaint villages appear around bends. Beaufort is worth the stop, as it is a seaside town with a spectacular beach. Unique shops and eateries are found among many souvenier haunts.

Once you reach Savannah, be prepared to be immersed in history. Large antebellum houses line most of the streets in the old city. Many have been restored and are worth a visit. Davenport House may be the most famous as it is fully restored, but my favourite was the Harper Fowlkes House with its interesting history. The house was built in 1842 and was neglected for many years. It was in a less desirable part of the city and there was little interest in anyone purchasing it. The house went up for auction and in 1939 when Alida Harper, a Georgia socialite, purchased it for a mere $9,000 (about $150,000 in today’s economy). Although not for sale, the property is valued at $5 million. 

Savannah has a pedestrian area known as the City Market, where one can find many eateries, boutiques and of course, pecan shops. It is next to Broughton Street, the main shopping street of the city. A stroll along the waterside opens up an entire new world with dozens of restaurants, bars, souvenier shops and clothing boutiques, keeping visitors busy for hours on end. 

Charleston and Savannah are two amazing cities to visit, especially if you are thinking of a fall or spring getaway. Temperatures can vary, but September and April tend to hit the low eighties. Bring your sunscreen and a hat and get ready to travel back in time to America’s mid nineteenth century.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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