Vail Daily travel: Southern coastlines, cuisine and estates in Savannah and Charleston

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to the Daily
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens features one of the most photographed historical bridges.
Kimberly Nicoletti | Special to the Daily |

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part travel series about Charleston, South Carolina. Read the first article at

Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, may be located in different states, but when it comes to coastlines, cuisine and estates seeped in Southern charm, the borderlines begin to blur.

Life along the sea

Both Savannah and Charleston hold a rich history as port towns, and the charming, uneven cobblestone roads provide a tactile feel of life in the 1700s and 1800s.

Savannah is known as America’s first planned town, with street grids and public squares, 22 of which still emanate their own unique personality and tribute to history. The town radiates a comfortable, welcoming feel, with casual shops and, of course, a nearby beach town.

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Tybee Island sits 20 to 30 minutes east of Savannah. Three public beaches and two river shorelines offer everything from kayaking and surfing to fishing and festivals. Fort Pulaski National Monument pays tribute to one of George Washington’s Revolutionary War soldiers, and it played a significant role in the Civil War. Hiking through the 5,365-acre park leads to lush vegetation, forested landscape and a lighthouse.

While kayaking or simply soaking in the soft sand may be the best way to experience Tybee Island, the most exhilarating way to explore Charleston’s harbor comes in the form of sail or motorboat.

Sandlapper Water Tours offers Charleston’s only guided water tour, with local historians who narrate the region’s history, from battles and shipwrecks to pirates and plantations. Its Nature Tour pulls up crabs in a pot; stops at the uninhabited Morris Island, populated by birds and shells; and seeks out dolphins, which regularly play in the harbor.

The Schooner Pride lends a tranquil, romantic sail, with its 84-foot stature. While the crew is happy to answer any questions about Charleston’s skyline dotted by ornate steeples, its main fort or the expansive Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the emphasis remains upon soft breezes and gentle, rocking waters.

Tasty tables

The South is known for its hospitality, and with it comes plenty of traditional and innovative food.

Savannah Taste Experience guides visitors’ taste buds to savory She Crab Soup at a modern grill, located alongside the river; through Low Country Shrimp and Grits at Tondee’s Tavern (rumored to be the first place the Declaration of Independence was read); onto Shepherd’s Pie; and into the surprisingly tasty domain of alligator burgers.

Savannah is also home to some of the best sweets in the nation, including melt-in-your-mouth cupcakes at Mabel’s, flavored honey at Savannah Bee Co. and the legendary Leopold’s ice cream, which always has a fairly long line, but memories of the buttery, frozen dessert linger long after. Anyone can sample Leopold’s Tutti Frutti, the same flavor that inspired the pop song.

Just as Savannah Taste tours educate visitors about the history and oddities of town, Charleston companies such as Charleston Culinary Tours sample their way through various regions of the city.

Charleston tour guides take pride in the town’s history and the distinctive cuisine it has produced. Excursions range from the spices, smells, seafood and sweets of historic downtown to the up-and-coming, trendy Upper King Street, as well as mixology, chef showcase and farmers’ market delights. You’ll walk away with a new appreciation of smoked barbecue, West African dishes, French cuisine and low country recipes, as well as the latest celebrity chef creations.

Lavish estates

While Savannah boasts the original home of the Girl Scouts and historical plantations, such as the 1737 Wormsloe, Charleston impresses with its own spreads. Each mansion deserves at least a half-day in which to stroll, especially Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.

Both the Civil War and an 1886 earthquake left the 1705 Middleton Place neglected until the 20th century, when a descendant restored the estate and gardens. The Garden Club of America named it “the most interesting and important garden in America” (partially because it is America’s oldest landscaped garden), and at least half of Middleton’s 37 numbered sights include formal gardens, which reflect various principles of design, from green walls, arched camellia allees, classical sculptures and rose varieties to triangular gardens, terraces and ponds. The main house acts as a museum, filled with fine art, china, silver, books and more, while outbuildings demonstrate low country workers’ lives on a plantation.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens offers a Nature Train Tour, which ushers visitors throughout the property, along lakes, rice fields, rivers and gardens, while the Nature Boat floats from a dock hidden among blooming gardens toward historical rice fields.

The Drayton family acquired the estate in 1676, and the house tour reveals a pre-Revolutionary War existence, along with an antebellum cabin and biblical garden. Unlike Middleton Place, Magnolia’s gardens are known as America’s oldest Romantic-style, informal gardens, which seek to cooperate with nature and “create a tranquil landscape like Eden, where humanity and nature are in harmony.”

Though some still consider Savannah and Charleston rivals (a contention that began more than two centuries ago), it’s nearly impossible to choose between the historical and cultural coastline cities.

Fortunately, they’re located only 107 miles from one another, so it’s quite practical to tour both — though you may want to plan much more than a week’s worth of vacation to do it all.

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