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Hurry to Savannah to slow down

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Tourists flock here year round -- you can spot them this time of the year wearing shorts and Nikes and with cell phones on the hip -- but moss-draped Savannah also has something to offer those of us who have been here more times than we can count.

You can enjoy the traditional landmarks, but you are likely to discover something new if you put forth a little effort. The beaten path, River Street, is where the action is: quaint bars, restaurants, and bistros, upscale hotels, and gift and souvenir shops. You can find something old -- Olympia, the Greek restaurant that has aged gracefully -- and something (recently) new -- Paula Deen's food emporium, The Lady and Sons, which she owns with her sons, Jamie and Bobby.

Savannah is a year-round destination because of the weather, which is usually becoming most days of the year. You see the horsedrawn carriage tours meandering around the endless squares, finding their way to Fort Jackson, built in the 1800s to protect Savannah from attack by sea, or to the Juliette Gordon Low House, the birthplace of the founder of the Girl Scouts. Many tourists choose to walk, taking respite among the parks and beside the countless fountains.

On a recent trip, we were introduced to the rooftop lounge at the Bohemian Hotel by friends Bill and Linda Schermerhorn, who live on nearby Skidaway Island. If you want to enjoy an unforgettable experience, find a table on the patio overlooking the river at sunset.

A small skiff bounces along on the waters of the Savannah, heading up river, and giving way to a cargo ship headed out to sea and some distant destination. Savannah is now the second largest port on the eastern seaboard. That becomes graphically obvious as you look north to the docks where freighters are loading and offloading. It is not, perhaps, a scene an artist would rank with the sunset at Key West or on the Zambezi or the Indian Ocean, but fascinating and emotionally stimulating nonetheless.

Looking north, you see the Talmadge Bridge, which essentially connects Georgia with South Carolina. The speed limit on the bridge is 55 mph, but from the rooftop of the Bohemian, the big rigs-the 18 wheelers-seem to be creeping along. There are commercial developments and warehouses all around, but the setting sun over the bridge and the Savannah has romantic charm and invokes inspiration as the clientele of the bar commingle toasts with endless laughter. There is an ingratiating urge for hospitality, which occurs when people gather and underscore uninhibited fellowship.

Michele Smith from Ludowici is a smiling waitress, a little petite, but who can carry big trays of drinks and hors d'oeuvres in each hand. She's too young to remember the reputation of her hometown prior to the Interstate when it was such a notorious speed trap that the governor put up billboards warning tourists to avoid Ludowici. She got a kick out of the history lesson. Hostess Angela Sheets, who hails from West Virginia, came here to find work and has no desire to leave. "Savannah has everything you can do that you can't do in West Virginia," she said.

When you are a port city that attracts sailors, tourists, pretty young girls looking for work, and locals with "geechie" influenced sounds, the amalgamation of accents that appears when you converge on a popular watering hole makes you think you might be in some European city rather than Georgia's laidback Savannah. Sundown on the Savannah bathes the city in natural light but soon gives way to the flickering of the street lights-from the natural to the artificial, befitting the landscape and the times.

Savannah, the home of Uga, the Georgia mascot, is a place where you come to slow down. If you don't come by that naturally, there are dozens of squares, one-way streets, and mossy oaks to make it happen, whether you like it or not.

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.