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Visiting the two Ss: Savannah and Sapelo Island

By Ronda Racha Penrice Travel and TV Columnist | 5/10/2013, noon
Savannah Along The River Front

Many Atlanta area residents, whether they were born or attended school there, have so many roots in Savannah that there’s never a reason not to visit. But even a place we think we know can still surprise us and Savannah is definitely one that keeps us on our toes. And when you add in Sapelo, there’s even more reason to head south. 

For those who haven’t been in the last year, the new Andaz Savannah in Ellis Square might warrant a stay. Formerly the AVIA Savannah, the Andaz, which opened in September 2012, is a part of Hyatt’s relatively new boutique brand. In North America, Andaz can only be found in California, New York and soon Hawaii so the Savannah location is truly a big deal.

Adopting a more loft-like décor, the Andaz is more design-future than the gothic-past of many Savannah hotels.  Also they don’t charge you for everything and even provide complimentary drinks and snacks in the room. For even better fare, Square 22 Restaurant and the Square 22 Bar are just downstairs.

Location is everything and Ellis Square is arguably the most prime of them all, with many restaurants and clubs, not to mention cultural sites like the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, within walking distance of the Andaz. Although Ellis Square was a parking garage for many years, its history as a hub of activity dates back centuries. Black women, many of them enslaved, sold their fresh vegetables in the Savannah City Market there in the 1800s. Unfortunately, there were also slave auctions nearby.

Life during enslavement was complex and, to prove it, the First African Baptist Church, one of the oldest, if not oldest, black churches in the nation dating back to slavery is nearby. A stone’s throw from there is the statue to Haitian soldiers who fought for American independence in 1779. Legend has it that one of Haiti’s revolutionaries, Henri Christophe, was in that bunch of just boys from Saint Domingue, as it was then known.

Only a 15 to 20-minute drive away is Café Florie, a colorful eatery run by two cousins whose mothers hail from Savannah, that’s even garnered praise from The New York Times for its “organic soul food,” largely sourced from local black farmers. The meat loaf is almost always a hit.

Should more culture be on the menu, do make the hour or so drive from Savannah to Sapelo Island. Ferries are extremely limited so advanced reservations, made through the Sapelo Island Visitors Center, operated by the Georgia State Parks, by calling (912) 437-3224 or at gastateparks.org are required. Throughout the year, they offer guided-bus tours regularly on Wednesdays (8:30 a.m. -12:30 p.m.) and Saturdays (9 a.m. – 1 p.m.) plus add others during various times of the year.

If you are unfamiliar with Sapelo, it is much like the more famous South Carolina Sea Islands but less populated. It is believed to have been the first European settlement in the U.S. but there is no definitive proof. Officially Thomas Spalding, who was a Georgia Senator and U.S. Representative, purchased it and developed a plantation that grew cotton, corn and sugar cane. In all, Spalding enslaved an estimated 400 people from Africa and the Caribbean. Today, remnants of the plantation are barely standing.

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Sapelo Island beach.

In the early 20th century, automotive pioneer Howard E. Coffin purchased the island save for the land owned by former slaves. A victim of the Great Depression, Coffin was bought out by tobacco baron R.J. Reynolds Jr. Today, the Reynolds’ home is an attraction but so is Behavior Cemetery, circa 1805, in which Africans were reportedly buried facing east towards Africa.

The black population has dwindled considerably, with only one community Hog Hammock (or Hogg Hummock, as some locals spell it) remaining. In recent years, it’s become even harder for the self-proclaimed “saltwater Geechees” to hold on to their land. Just last September, The New York Times ran a story on how property taxes skyrocketed overnight. One descendant, who paid just $362 in property taxes in 2011, was hit with a bill of $2,312, a nearly 540 percent increase, in 2012.

Founded in 1994, the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society’s mission is to preserve and revitalize Sapelo. Every October, they sponsor the Annual Cultural Day Festival. For more information, just visit sapeloislandga.gov.

So whether it’s Savannah alone or both Savannah and Sapelo, one thing is certain: it will be a memorable trip.