It was 11 p.m. on a muggy May night in Savannah when we came to an eerie, three-story mansion on a quiet square with moss-covered trees — the last stop on our ghost tour.
The home on Abercorn Street, a dilapidated Greek-revival structure, is owned by two sisters but has sat empty for decades, our tour guide, Kerry, explained. And while it doesn’t have the documented tales of horror, like other homes in Savannah, it was reportedly built on an old slave burial ground and is a source for strange activity, he said.
“A lot of people get weird feelings when they come here, and some people lose battery power on their phones or cameras,” Kerry said. “People have captured orbs and other strange things in pictures. It’s pretty creepy.”
“Sure, whatever,” I thought as I casually snapped a few pictures on my cellphone.
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As someone with the psychic sensitivity of a baloney sandwich, I had never seen a ghost and wasn’t expecting much.
But the next day, as I scrolled through the photos, chills ran down my spine as I spotted a glowing orange light and what looked like an otherworldly face in one of the photos.
OK, maybe it was a reflection off a street sign, but it was my first ghost picture, and I was going to run with it.
They call Savannah America’s Most Haunted City — a town rich in history where remarkably well-preserved Gothic mansions tower over garden squares draped in silvery Spanish moss.
It was a place I had longed to visit, and this year I finally convinced my partner, Craig, after running through the list of typical vacation destinations: Europe? Too expensive. Hawaii? Meh. Mexico? Been there.
“Why don’t we go to the South?” he said. “It’s like going to another country.”
We settled on a roughly 400-mile road trip that would take us from St. Augustine up the Georgia coast and through South Carolina Lowcountry, ending in Charleston. With Civil War history, antebellum mansions, ghosts, alligators and fried food, we figured the trip had a little bit of everything.
And for a couple of bar flies in a region known for its moonshine and Southern hospitality, we planned to meet many new friends. And we did.
St. Augustine is often overlooked for more popular destinations in the Sunshine State, but for history buffs and fans of Spanish Colonial architecture, it is well worth the visit.
The town was founded by Spanish explorers in 1565 and is the nation’s oldest European settlement. Its main attraction is the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest fort in the continental United States. It’s a must-see for the historic reenactments of cannon and musket firings and sweeping views of St. Augustine Bay.
We enjoyed strolling along cobblestone streets in the historic district, and had a tasty barbecue dinner at Mojo BBQ on Cordova Street, followed by beers at Scarlett O'Hara’s Pub — next door to Rhett’s Piano Bar.
We passed up the chance to go to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth just outside of downtown after hearing it was a tourist trap, but others might enjoy it.
For just under $100 a night, the Cozy Inn, a top choice on TripAdvisor, was perfect for a short stay.
The next day we crossed the Georgia border, passing tall trees and gas stations peddling peanuts and preserved alligator heads.
After a roughly three-hour drive, we were in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous by the best-selling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or as residents simply call it, “The Book.”
Set on a scenic bluff overlooking the Wilmington River, Bonaventure is arguably one of the most stunning cemeteries in the world. We wandered the lush pathways surrounded by 250-year-old live oaks covered in Spanish moss and marveled at the haunting statues of angels and grieving women.
A few of the cemetery’s famous residents include Johnny Mercer, who wrote Moon River, Jim Williams, the unfortunate protagonist from “The Book,” and the poet Conrad Aiken, whose grave is actually a stone bench that invites visitors to sit and rest. The 160-acre cemetery offers several highly rated daytime tours and a spooky night tour.
We opted to stay in Savannah’s historic district in a 19th century brownstone vacation rental we found through vrbo.com. And for about $165 a night, we had our very own apartment on Jones Street, one of the prettiest streets in the city.
The beautifully unique historic district sits on a gird of 22 open squares that follows the original design by General James Oglethorpe when he founded the city in 1733. While much of the Old South burned in the Civil War, Savannah was spared when the mayor formally surrendered the city to General William T. Sherman in 1864.
From pirate attacks and yellow fever to slavery and war, Savannah has a macabre history and residents are proud of its Southern Gothic appeal. The town offers more than 30 ghost tours by foot, horse carriage, trolley, and even a hearse.
“It’s a city that believes itself to be haunted,” said resident Laurie Garner, one of our new bar friends. “Everyone has a ghost story.”
We took advantage of the lax open container policy and went on one of the city’s free walking tours with beer in hand. Our guide gave us an excellent overview of famous landmarks, like the Mercer-Williams House, which is featured in “The Book.”
For lunch we sipped on mint juleps and ate fried green tomatoes and crispy chicken livers at The Olde Pink House, a former antebellum mansion that was converted into a restaurant. For dessert we had two scoops of creamy chocolate at Leopold’s Ice Cream.
By far our favorite culinary experience was Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, a Southern soul food restaurant so popular people line up two hours before it opens to make sure they get in by lunchtime. At Mrs. Wilkes, you eat family-style with 10 people to a table as you pass bowls of creamed corn, oxtail stew, collard greens, black-eyed peas and platters of heavenly fried chicken.
We watched the sun set over the Savannah River from a rooftop bar called Rocks on the Roof, and then took a pedicab to Forsyth Park, where we strolled around a majestic white fountain.
“Wow, this place is so romantic, if Craig proposes to me right now I might even say yes,” I thought.
In the morning we drove into South Carolina Lowcountry and the tall trees gave way to salt marshes caked with oyster beds. We passed shrimp boats and Sea Islands as we made our way to Beaufort, South Carolina’s second-oldest city.
The small seaport is known for its concentration of antebellum- and colonial-style mansions that were once vacation homes for the region’s wealthiest plantation owners before the Civil War. Some of the homes are so large they span more than half a block. Beaufort also has a thriving arts scene and its quaint downtown is home to several art galleries.
About 70 miles east is sophisticated Charleston, once the wealthiest and largest city south of Philadelphia. Today, Charleston is a town rich in Southern charm where horse-drawn carriages rattle down streets lined with antique churches and flickering gas lamps.
Charleston and Savannah have long had a friendly rivalry, where Charleston is seen as a more cosmopolitan, grown-up version of Savannah, and Savannah is the laid-back town with true hospitality. As an old saying in the South goes: In Atlanta, they ask you what your business is; in Charleston, they ask you your mother’s maiden name; in Savannah, they ask you what you drink.
We chose a budget-friendly hotel about 15 minutes outside of the city center, but for those on a bigger budget, the town has many mansions that have been converted into fabulous bed and breakfast inns that can cost around $500 a night.
We toured the Charleston City Marketplace, where we picked up packages of cheesy grits and Carolina rice, and stopped at a few bars along busy Market Street, one of the town’s tourist hubs. And no trip to South Carolina is complete without trying shrimp and grits — at the popular Poogan’s Porch Restaurant on Queen Street, I savored sweet local shrimp and creamy grits with a squeeze of lemon.
Through Groupon we found a deal for a walking tour on Charleston’s history of slavery, and we were fascinated to see that some of the historic mansions still have thick metal barbs over entryways that were designed to keep out intruders in the case of a slave revolt. The city also has a museum on the site of a former market that once housed slave auctions.
At twilight, we walked along the historic Battery seawall and took in views of Fort Sumter — ground zero for the Civil War — as the smell of Confederate jasmine mingled with the salty sea air.
As two Southern California kids from a land of sunshine, burritos and flip-flops, we had expected the Old South to feel like another country.
But as we experienced the American history; the charm, kindness and hospitality; the South felt, surprisingly, like home.
If you go
The Cozy Inn, 202 San Marco Ave.; 888-288-2204, thecozyinn.com. Rooms from $77.
Bayfront Westcott House Bed & Breakfast, 146 Avenida Menendez, 904-825-4602, www.westcotthouse.com. Rooms from $229.
Food and drink
Mojo BBQ,5 Cordova St.; 904-342-5264, mojobbq.com. Entrees $14-$37.
Scarlett O'Hara’s Pub, 70 Hypolita St.; 904-824-6535, scarlettoharas.net. Dinner entrees $13.95-$24.95.
No Name Bar, 16 S. Castillo Drive; 904-826-1837
Check it out
Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest fort in the continental U.S., 1 S. Castillo Drive; 904-829-6506, nps.gov/casa/index.htm
Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront, 102 West Bay St.; 800-306-1665 or 912-721-3800, bohemianhotelsavannah.com. Rooms from $278.
Presidents’ Quarters Inn, 225 E. President St.; 800-233-1776, www.presidentsquarters.com. Rooms from $189.
Food and drink
The Olde Pink House, 23 Abercorn St.; 912-232-4286, plantersinnsavannah.com/the-olde-pink-house. Entrees $18-$35.
Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, 107 W. Jones St.; 912-232-5997, mrswilkes.com. Lunch only; $18.
Six Pence Pub, 245 Bull St.; 912-233-3151, sixpencepub.com. Sandwiches $5.95-$10.95; entrees $11.95-$13.95.
Check it out
The Mercer Williams House, 429 Bull St.; 912-236-6352, mercerhouse.com
Forsyth Park, Drayton Street and Park Avenue
Bonaventure Cemetery, 330 Bonaventure Road
Sixth Sense Savannah Ghost Tours, 404 Abercorn St., 866-666-3323; 6thsenseworld.com
Town & Country Inn and Suites, 2008 Savannah Highway; 843-571-1000, thetownandcountryinn.com. Rooms from $99.
Market Pavilion Hotel, 225 E. Bay St.; 843-723-0500, www.marketpavilion.com. Rooms from $450.
Food and drink
Poogan’s Porch, 72 Queen St., 843-577-2337, poogansporch.com. Dinner entrees $21-$33.
Pearlz Oyster Bar, 153 E. Bay St.; 843-577-5755, pearlzoysterbar.com. Dinner entrees $10-$25.
Check it out
Battery & White Point Gardens, East Battery & Murray Blvd.
Palmetto Carriage Tours, 8 Guignard St.; 843-723-8145, palmettocarriage.com