Savannah has that rare problem that other tourism destinations would love to have: There’s too much to see and do. Especially when you have only three days and a dog in tow. Tybee Island doesn’t allow dogs on the beach and Savannah is full of historic inns that either don’t allow pets, or charge a hefty fee for the privilege.
And then there’s the Brice. This newish boutique hotel property housed in a renovated old Coca-Cola bottling plant a block away from the riverfront in Savannah’s Historic District isn’t only pet-friendly, it’s pet-enthusiastic.
The first thing we saw upon entering the hotel was a welcoming station for dogs. As we checked in, the staff made certain that Geraldine, our basset hound, was gifted with treats. After check-in, free wine and cocktails were served in the lobby, so we left Geraldine in the room, thinking it would be uncouth to bring a dog to this social hour, but soon discovered that dogs were very much a part of the festivities that spilled out into the courtyard.
This was my first trip to Savannah in many years, so I was intent on doing things I hadn’t done before, as well as revisiting some favorite spots from previous visits. The first stop was Forsyth Park — my first time setting foot in the city’s major green space. At 30 acres, it’s much larger than the 22 squares that dot the historic district, and just as picturesque. Set much farther back from the riverfront than all those squares, this is where Savannah comes to unwind on massive rolling lawns, along promenades canopied by live oaks dripping with the obligatory Spanish moss, and around an iconic spouting fountain.
Buskers belt out songs, craftsmen sell their homemade wares, Frisbees are thrown, hands are held, dogs are walked and picnics are had. Forsyth Park is the beating heart of Savannah, and it makes for a good introduction to the city, especially if you arrive in town early with a dog and check-in isn’t until 4 p.m.
Another place I had heard about but never visited was the Telfair Museums, plural, because Telfair has three different sites — the Telfair Mansion, the Jepson Center for the Arts and the Owens-Thomas House. The Jepson Center and Telfair Mansion are across Telfair Square from each other, while the Owens-Thomas House is on the other side of downtown (near the Brice).
All are worth a visit, but if you have time for only one, head to the Jepson Center, especially if you’re traveling with kids. There’s an interactive gallery geared toward them. It’s also where you’ll find the “Bird Girl” statue made famous by its star turn on the cover of the 1994 best-selling book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The statue was removed from Bonaventure Cemetery after the success of the book and film because it was drawing too much unwanted attention. Now, it’s tucked into a back corner of the Jepson.
Beginning this month, the Jepson will feature a Monet exhibit, “Monet and American Impressionism,” that will run through Jan. 24, 2016.
One place the sightseeing trolleys don’t stop is Pinkie Master’s on Drayton Street, unless there’s a dive-bar trolley I missed somewhere. Jimmy Carter once stood on the bar here to give a campaign speech when he ran for president. Draft beer at Pinkie’s is served in plastic cups, cash only.
Again, we left Geraldine in our room, figuring dogs weren’t allowed inside pubs, but saw a giant labradoodle lying next to the bar as soon as we walked in. We met a guy at the bar who claimed to have invented the Jumbotron, and another who swore he was friends with Slash, with the pics on his phone to prove it. Drinks, popcorn and free pizza (between 7 and 8 p.m. every Tuesday) were served by an outgoing bartender who befriended everyone at the tiny bar.
If the kitsch of touristy Savannah becomes too much to bear, Pinkie’s is the antidote, Savannah’s dive-bar version of the pub from “Cheers,” the walls filled with pictures and mementos from its illustrious past.
One of the great things about Savannah’s historic district is you can feel like you’ve strolled back in time. Gas lamps still flicker in parks and on sidewalks that are part of a street grid laid out in the 1730s. Narrow cobblestone streets and stone slab staircases centuries old are still in use.
Anytime you walk or drive up or down the bluff dividing River Street and Bay Street, you feel as if you’re going through an outdoor living history museum. Author Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired to write about pirates and lost treasure when he walked these same steps during his time here in the 1800s. Indeed, in Savannah, you’re walking in the footsteps of history as you trod the same stones as the earliest Georgians.
On Tybee Island
Not every city has a beach for a backyard. Only 25 minutes from downtown, Tybee Island has long been nicknamed “Savannah’s Beach.” It was even officially called Savannah Beach for a brief period in the 20th century. Most people visit either the city or the island in a single trip, but if you’re coming to the area for the first time, go to both places. If you don’t want to worry about driving and parking, you could make it a day trip to the beach by taking the Tybee Shuttle (weekends only) from the Savannah Visitors Center downtown.
Since we were traveling with a dog, we opted to stay the night on Tybee instead of making a day visit. Don’t miss the north end of the island, because that’s where you’ll find the least crowded beaches and such historical gems as the Tybee Island Light Station. The best view in the area awaits at the top of the lighthouse tower via a long circular staircase. Across the street is Fort Screven, where you can walk the walls of the old battery and learn about the island’s rich history inside at the Tybee Island Museum.
The center of the action on Tybee’s beach is at the pier and pavilion near the south end. This is the place for people watching, strolling, fishing and special events such as fireworks on various holidays. You can walk your dog in the adjacent pedestrian-friendly village area, but if you get caught with one on the beach, it’ll cost you a $290 fine. Otherwise, Tybee is dog-friendly with two dog parks, plenty of quiet, old neighborhood streets worth exploring and lots of patio space at some restaurants. Like Savannah, Tybee has too much to see and do, even for dogs like Geraldine, who was content to sniff around the rest of the island, and snooze in her doggie bed at the cottage while the humans went to the beach.
Savannah is a 3.5-hour drive southeast of Atlanta via I-75 and I-16. Tybee Island is 25 minutes to the east along the Islands Expressway/U.S. 80.
WHERE TO STAY
The Brice. Rates start at $184; no self parking; valet parking, $26 a day; no extra fee for pets, but guests must sign a waiver taking responsibility for any pet-related damage. 601 E. Bay St., Savannah. 912-238-1200, www.bricehotel.com.
On Tybee Island
Mermaid Cottages. This vacation rental agency has cottages of all sizes spread across the island, including many that are pet-friendly. Rates vary significantly between properties but start in the $125 range. 912-704-4618, www.mermaidcottages.com.
THINGS TO DO
Telfair Academy (aka Telfair Mansion), 121 Barnard St., Savannah; Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 W. York St., Savannah; Owens-Thomas House, 124 Abercorn St., Savannah. General info phone number and website for all three museums: 912-790-8800, www.telfair.org.
Pinkie Master’s. 318 Drayton St., Savannah. 912-238-0447, pinkiemasters.net.
Tybee Island Light Station and Museum. 30 Meddin Drive, Tybee Island. 912-786-5801, www.tybeelighthouse.org.
Tybee Island Shuttle. $5 per person, each way. Operates Fridays-Sundays. Departs from the Savannah Visitor Information Center, 301 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Savannah. 912-388-3380.
Savannah Visitor Information Center. 301 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Savannah. 912-944-0455, www.visitsavannah.com.