The table at Mrs Wilkes Dining Room groans. Bowls of collard greens, mac and cheese and candied yams cover its surface, and my fellow diners and I look on in delight.
A server finds space for a last, teetering plate of fried chicken, and we tuck into the feast with relish. It’s my first taste of Savannah, Georgia, and it’s delicious.
Mrs Wilkes has been a city staple since 1943. A no-frills boarding house and dining room, it dishes up Southern food in titanic portions and serves it family-style to friends and strangers sat around the same large tables. There are few better introductions to Savannah, the “Hostess City of the South”.
I’ve been in the city for less than 12 hours and its nickname is already ringing true. Kissing the border with South Carolina, Savannah has a warm climate and even warmer people.
And a new direct flight route from Heathrow to Charleston, a South Carolina city two hours from Savannah, means reaching this Georgian bolthole is now easier than ever. Launching in April with British Airways, the route allows your clients to visit two cities dripping in Southern charm in the space of a single trip.
Savannah’s sultry heat swallows me up as I step out onto the cobbled streets of the Historic District. This entire, walkable area of the city – the oldest in Georgia – is a National Historic Landmark, and the past is never far away.
I find it moments from the restaurant in Chatham Square, a plaza enveloped in Spanish-moss-covered oak trees. General James Oglethorpe, who established Savannah in 1733, built the city to an exacting grid design. He constructed 24 squares just like this one – today 22 of them remain, all leafy oases in the middle of the city.
History is built into Savannah’s architecture too. Much of Georgia was razed to the ground during the Civil War as William Tecumseh Sherman, a formidable Union general, tore through the state in 1864. But it’s said Sherman spared Savannah as he was so enamoured by its beauty.
Preservation efforts began in the 1950s and have ensured the Historic District’s buildings remain in glittering condition. Highlights include the soaring French Gothic-style Cathedral of St John the Baptist.
While history is palpable along the streets, it’s beautifully captured in the city’s historic homes too. I take a tour of the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters, a 19th-century Regency-style mansion, part of the Telfair Museums group (daily tours are included in the price of entry to its three museums).
Our guide talks animatedly about the home’s former proprietors as we move from room to room, each space swelling with period furniture and portraits in gilded frames. We also explore the preserved slave quarters: here our guide offers poignant insights into the enslaved peoples that once lived in the mansion’s underbelly.
A rattling ride on an Old Town Trolley Tour or a guided walk with Noble Jones Tours are other great ways for clients to unravel Savannah’s rich history. (Hop on/hop off trolley tours start from £26.67 with Viator, tours with Noble Jones Tours start from $25pp).
Yet Savannah is not stuck in the past. It’s home to the Savannah College of Art and Design, whose students inject the city with a fierce creative spirit. SCAD Museum of Art and Design, with its avant-garde contemporary collections, is a top spot to experience the fertile art scene here. Forsyth Park, the city’s green core, also holds the popular Sidewalk Arts Festival each spring.
The city’s modern heart beats down by the river too. Former cotton warehouses are filled with sleek restaurants, quirky clothing stores and boutique hotels.
City Market, meanwhile, is a hotbed of culture and eclectic shopping. I pass an afternoon in this humming section of the Historic District, dipping into dinky gift shops and art galleries. A guitar-wielding singer warbles country music as the sun sets, and I sit on a broad wooden bench and drink in the scene.
You’ll not go hungry in the “Hostess City” either. Creative, chef-driven restaurants are springing up all over town, championing local produce and breathing fresh life into Southern cooking.
Clients can choose between modern American food at Public Kitchen (think Savannah shrimp and grits or succulent New York strip) and upmarket offerings at Emporium Kitchen and Wine Market, the swanky restaurant at the new Perry Lane hotel.
One afternoon I plump for lunch at Sandfly Bar-B-Q, whose “Memphis Born Savannah Made” plates come highly recommended. Of the two locations, the downtown spot, housed in an old-school streamliner diner car, is the standout. I prop up the bar, my plate loaded with fried okra, mac and cheese and slabs of Texas toast. Meat-loving clients can feast on pulled pork, beef brisket or smoky sausage too.
After dinner, clients needn’t look far for a sundowner. Savannah’s options range from a flight of beer at Service Brewery, a laid-back veteran-owned-and-run spot, to craft cocktails at basement Alley Cat Lounge.
I take a free early evening tour of Ghost Coast Distillery, opened in 2017. Co-owner Chris Sywassink eagerly rattles through their various craft liquors as we wander amid the stills and barrels.
If clients can tear themselves beyond the city limits, more treasures await. A 15-minute drive away, there’s the Wormsloe State Historic Site, with its alley of arching oak trees and its colonial-era ruins. Nearby there’s also the haunting Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous by John Berendt’s 1994 book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
I spend my last afternoon on Tybee Island, affectionately known as “Savannah’s Beach”. Birds circle the landmark lighthouse and laughter carries from a lively beach bar as I wander along the champagne sand. As evening falls, I drive back to Savannah, sand still between my toes – and, as I knew she would, the “Hostess City of the South” welcomes me with open arms.
Book it: North America Travel Service offers four nights in Savannah from £1,525pp, including flights from London to Savannah, four nights at the Andaz Savannah, a Tybee Island dolphin tour and a Haunted Pubs of Savannah tour. northamericatravelservice.co.uk