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Kid-Friendly Zones: savannah, georgia

by Elaine Labalme


Savannah is the belle of the south, a riverfront city whose history and architecture captivates residents and visitors of all ages. The downtown area is a National Historic Landmark District and it is here that families will spend most of their time, amid live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and locals who embody a leisurely pace.


Where to stay: The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa is a tall, cream-colored structure on a spit of land in the Savannah River. Since it's connected to the city's convention center, conference attendees stroll by giggling kids as they scamper to the resort pool. A spacious lobby is plumped with seating areas that serve as respite and meeting area and lead to rooms done in dark woods and taupe tones. Westin's signature Heavenly Bed and Heavenly Shower are all that, and you should request a high-floor room with a view of the river and downtown Savannah, the better to remain in the city's thrall. The pool at the heart of the property will prove a magnet for kids and parents, and steps away, all can play a game of ping pong, pool or foosball. Not much farther away are the resort's new clay tennis courts and the resident pro will lend you racquets (you provide the balls). Touted by many as the best brunch in Savannah, Aqua Star is the place for make-your-own pancakes that can be padded with berries, chocolate chips and almonds, and there are at least a dozen more offerings for this midday meal. Once you finally tear yourself away from this winner of a resort, jump on one of the ferryboats that ply the river from early morning till midnight and are quick to deposit you in the heart of city center action. http://www.westinsavannah.com/ Doubles from $172.


Squared away     Downtown Savannah is graced by 22 world-famous squares, a plan created by the city's founder, James Edward Oglethorpe. The squares are beautiful and restorative, and city residents must have been grateful because they've placed Oglethorpe's name on just about everything ever since. While families traveling with young children or grandparents will want to consider a tour of the squares via trolley or horse-drawn carriage, the quintessential experience is a self-guided walking tour of some or all of the squares, a relatively easy feat since the squares are grouped together. The squares bisected by Bull Street are touted as among the loveliest, and it's hard to disagree. Begin at Johnson Square, where a simple white marble obelisk at the center is a monument to Brigadier General Nathanael Greene, second in command to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The square is green and lush and you'll find two fountains at either side of the monument, completing the set piece. Continuing down Bull Street away from the river is Wright Square, named after James Wright, the governor of Georgia from 1760-1782. A stone and marble monument to William Washington Gordon, founder of one of Georgia's earliest railroads, is at the center of the square and the gnarled branches of live oaks provide a soothing canopy against the sun.


To the right of Wright Square is Telfair Square, awash in green shrubbery and magnolias. The Telfair name is prominent in Savannah society and linked most visibly to the Telfair Museum. Down Barnard Street is Orleans Square, drenched in Spanish moss and with the German Memorial Fountain at its center. This relatively new fountain commemorates the efforts of German-Americans in establishing the colony of Georgia. Next to Orleans Square is Chippewa Square, home to a monument to James Oglethorpe by renowned sculptor Daniel Chester French, who is also credited with the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. Blooms perfume the square and if you squint closely enough, you can “see” Forrest Gump sitting on a bench at the edge of the square as he waits for a bus to take him to Jenny. Like many of Savannah's squares, Chippewa Square is surrounded by lovely buildings and informative plaques are plentiful.


Antsy kids (tired parents?) may want to take a break at this point and the definitive spot is Gallery Espresso at the corner of Bull and Perry Streets. The baked goods are made in house and summer soups including a cooling gazpacho hit the spot. Oldie-but-goodie couches and chairs and colorful local art round out the scene. http://www.galleryespresso.com/ Refreshed, continue down Bull Street to Madison Square, laid out in 1839. Among the prominent buildings surrounding the square are St. John's Church, the pink Green-Meldrim House (General Sherman's headquarters during the Civil War), and the bright orange Sorrel Weed House, one of the largest homes in Savannah and the perch from which the opening scene of Forrest Gump was filmed (remember the feather?). The next square as you travel down Bull Street is Monterey Square, surrounded by ever more gorgeous buildings and awash in trees, shrubs and flowers. A monument to Polish patriot Casimir Pulaski, who at one point saved the life of George Washington during the Revolutionary War, is a focal point of the square. Bull Street temporarily ends at Forsyth Park, which dates to the 1840s and is named for former Georgia Governor John Forsyth. The ample greensward is Savannah's first recreational park and is easily identified by the Forsyth Fountain, a large structure that is European in feel and often used as the backdrop for wedding photos. Jungle gyms and other play features allow kids to leg it out at this city-center gem.


Exit the park toward Abercorn Street and make your first stop Calhoun Square, which may not be as green as some of the other squares but possesses a certain sweetness. Next up on Abercorn is Lafayette Square, as lush as many of its brethren and filled with beautiful plantings. At the corner of Abercorn and East Harris Streets is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a Roman Catholic Cathedral which dates to 1896 and whose tall spires evoke the French Gothic style. The interior is stunning. http://www.savannahcathedral.org/ Continuing up Abercorn toward the river is the Colonial Park Cemetery, dating to 1750 and the final resting place of many prominent Savannahians. Oglethorpe Square, also bisected by Abercorn Street, is surprisingly simple considering the pedigree of its namesake. Reynolds Square, also on Abercorn, is a pretty setting that has at its center a statue of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Walk along Congress Street and skip past Johnson Square (it was first on the tour) to get to re-fashioned Ellis Square, easily the most modern of the squares. At its center are a cavalcade of water jets to cool off sweaty kids and anyone else who's game. The square anchors one end of City Market, a two-block long pedestrian thoroughfare teeming with shops eager to nab tourist dollars. At the far end of the Market is tiny Franklin Square, whose brick underfoot is juxtaposed against the large sculpture of young volunteers from Haiti who served during the Revolutionary War. Saving the best for last, stop in at Vinnie Van GoGo's, a bare-bones pizzeria across from Franklin Square that offers seating indoors and out. Don't let appearances fool you – this locals' favorite is knows for slices big enough to make a meal, especially once you top them with four or five of the nearly 20 offerings. Expect to stop in more than once during your visit to Savannah as kids simply cannot get enough of this place. http://www.vinnievangogo.com/


Art-history     The Telfair Museums owe much to Savannah philanthropist Mary Telfair, whose bequest helped fund what is the oldest public art museum in the southern U.S. The collection of three buildings is a feast for the senses and will enchant families. The Telfair Academy, housed in the Telfair family home – make that mansion – is a showcase for American and European art. The downstairs galleries house a permanent collection while the upstairs rooms are home to rotating exhibits like “American Impressionism,” featuring the paintings of much-loved artists including Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase. Kids will be agog at the high-ceilinged rooms with ornate moldings and fanciful friezes. At the Jepson Center around the corner, a modern edifice designed by international architect Moshe Safdie, all eyes land on the grand staircase at the heart of the building. Expect exhibits such as one on Marilyn Monroe including photographs of the cinematic icon by a pantheon of celebrated twentieth-century photographers. Kids will enjoy a respite in the third-floor ArtZeum, a creative play space.

The Owens-Thomas House was originally the home of banker Richard Richardson, who commissioned English architect William Jay to design the residence in 1816. The finished product still stands as one of the finest examples of English Regency architecture in the nation. Sadly, Richardson suffered a reversal of fortune and only lived in the finished house for three years. The Marquis de Lafayette stayed in the house in 1825 and by 1830, it belonged to Savannah mayor George Owens and was in the Owens-Thomas family until 1951. Among the home's extant features are old slave quarters (and a smattering of the original “slave paint,” a deep blue mix fashioned from buttermilk, indigo and lime), one-time coal-burning fireplaces, and two-foot-thick “tabby” walls composed of oyster shells, lime, sand and water. The home was the first in Savannah with indoor plumbing (it was here before it was in the White House), and also one of the earliest houses in the city to have gas lighting. The parterre garden is not original to the home but an oasis nonetheless. http://www.telfair.org/


An historic home that will resonate with children – and their parents – is the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. Low is best known as the founder of the Girl Scouts, though she and her family were notable Savannahians long before the girl group was a glimmer in her eye. The house was initially built for the mayor of Savannah and the Gordon family became its occupants in 1831. Although the family was considered upper middle class, the home is grand by most standards and still bears many original Gordon family furnishings. An accomplished artist known as “Daisy” to friends and family, Low married prominent Brit William Low and moved to London. Having met Robert Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, on her travels, Low started the Girl Guides in the U.S. in 1912 at the age of 52 and forever changed the habits of young ladies from needlepoint to camping, tennis and basketball. The group changed its name to Girl Scouts in 1913 and the Scouts purchased the Low home in 1953. http://www.juliettegordonlowbirthplace.org/


Kid-tastic!     While many of Savannah's gems require an inquisitive nature and an appreciation of another era, you can still find attractions and adventures that suit the younger set. The Georgia State Railroad Museum offers rides on steam or diesel engines and tells the story of the rails via exhibits and a collection of vintage rail cars. http://www.chsgeorgia.org/Railroad-Museum.html Old Fort Jackson dates to the 1800s and is the oldest brick fortification in the state. Expect kids to channel their inner soldier with ease. http://www.chsgeorgia.org/old-fort-jackson.html On the road to the coast is the Oatland Island Wildlife Center, a conservation and education facility that's home to a variety of species including cougar and armadillo, bald eagles and the American alligator. http://internet.savannah.chatham.k12.ga.us/schools/oat/default.aspx At the end of the road is Tybee Island. Once known as “Savannah Beach,” the seashore is, effectively, Savannah's beach and a playground for families during the summer season. The Tybee Island Light Station dates to 1773 and the lighthouse is still in operation. http://www.tybeelighthouse.org/


Where to eat: Wiley's Championship BBQ is off the beaten path but well worth a detour. Perhaps half a dozen tables indoors and half as many out cater to discerning, barbecue-loving patrons. In-the-know folk start their meal with “redneck nachos,” thick house-made potato chips smothered with pork, Mexican cheese, jalapenos and a sweet sauce. Order a full (not half) plate of nachos – you won't regret it. Wiley's brisket and ribs are equally appealing and sides including collard greens and baked beans are sublime. http://www.wileyschampionshipbbq.com/ At The Public Kitchen, a minimalist spot with dark wood tables surrounded by large glass panes that bring the outdoors in, the dish you want is shrimp and grits, a plate of homey goodness plumped with chorizo sausage, peas and tomatoes. Not exactly second fiddle are the terrific burgers. http://www.thepublickitchen.com/ The Olde Pink House is a Savannah institution still worth a visit. Angle for a table in the downstairs tavern, a low-ceilinged space with exposed brick walls, a stunning horseshoe bar and fireplaces at either end. The menu is a meat-lover's dream and features steak, pork and lamb though there are plenty of choices to satisfy kids including pulled pork sliders with barbeque sauce. Portions are huge and the food is rich in the best Southern tradition. http://www.plantersinnsavannah.com/the-olde-pink-house/ Alligator Soul puts an utterly modern spin on low country food and they've got game. The setting is uptown in this downstairs space, a long backlit bar framing a room defined by brick arches and an exposed wood ceiling. Adventurous eaters will enjoy the alligator sausage, a surprisingly light bite. It's a nice counterpoint to the rich shrimp and grits which are not to be missed. Order the elk medium rare and it's paired with a blueberry foie gras pudding, while the Soul Creole is a play on jambalaya in the best New Orleans style. http://www.alligatorsoul.com/

All good Savannah meals end at Leopold's Ice Cream, in business since 1919. The old-fashioned ice cream parlor features regular flavors including caramel swirl and lemon custard alongside seasonal favorites such as huckleberry cheesecake and orange blossom. http://www.leopoldsicecream.com/


Elaine Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and twelve-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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