At Home in Motion - 2005-10-01(2)

Georgia and South Carolina

Set a Spell

Driving through the low country, April I. Torrisi finds out what southern comfort really means.

I do declare that flying into Savannah's airport and retrieving my rental car could not have been any easier or more enjoyable. Within minutes I had my luggage and was driving towards mysteriously charming Savannah. There, my husband and I stayed one night at The Mansion on Forsyth Park—a 126-room property that opened in April. Built to be a replica of the original mansion, it offers over 8,000 square feet of meeting space, the Poseidon Spa, and an art gallery that provides "art breaks" during meetings.

Adorned with over 400 eccentric, contemporary pieces of art that are illuminated by beautiful crystal chandeliers and sconces throughout the property, The Mansion is practically an art museum itself. There is even Versace furniture in the lobby and a special display of women's hats that date back to the 1860s outside of the 3,500-square-foot ballroom, which features gold leafing on the ceiling and columns. (One of the three Bosendorfer pianos resides there for concerts.) The original, 18,000-square-foot, Victorian-Romanesque mansion was built in 1888 and has been restored and made into 700 Drayton Restaurant, with eight private dining rooms and outside dining as well; the Carriage Wine Cellar and Casimir's Lounge are available for events. The 700 Kitchen Cooking School has daily and weekend packages, and is ideal for groups, offering a Culinary Challenge, an Iron Chef-esque teambuilding program.

After settling in, my husband and I decided to take a drive around Savannah and were enamored with the sight of Spanish moss draping over the massive oak trees that dotted each street and all 21 squares of the city. Avoiding the heat and humidity, we elected to experience Savannah's antebellum mansions via air-conditioned car with Charlie Parker serenading us on the sound system. Our first pit stop was River Street, a cobblestone area on the Savannah River featuring loads of bars and eateries. Since Savannah has no open container provision, we carried our spirits outside and meandered through town. After River Street we were "fixing" for a traditional Southern meal of fried pork chops, fried whole catfish, and macaroni and cheese—which we got at the Olde Pink House, the oldest building in town, which dates back to the 1700s. The next day we craved some more southern comfort and enjoyed a family-style meal at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room. Mrs. Wilkes has turned the bottom part of her beautiful mansion—originally a boardinghouse—into a lunch-time, family-style eatery serving southern food galore, from fried chicken to black-eyed peas to creamed corn to collard greens to banana bread pudding. It was the best $13 I spent in Savannah!

We then cruised into Bluffton, SC, in the low country, only a 20-minute trip from Savannah. Upon entering the eight-mile path leading to the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, we were fascinated by the unspoiled 20,000 acres that it resides on. Dating back to 1750, 15 separate plantations once defined the area and now the Inn reflects Palmetto Bluff's rich heritage. The inn is imbued with a retreat-like ambiance, suited for executive travelers, and romantic getaways, or for family, friends, and couples. It houses the River House Restaurant, a beautiful screened-in veranda overlooking the May River that is ideal for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, and 5,537 square feet of meeting and outdoor function space that includes a wine cellar/room in addition to an outdoor event pavilion (holding 100 people) with a treehouse.

Retiring our rental car for a few days, we hopped onto the complimentary bikes that the inn provides and headed to our cottage on the river. (The inn also features 50 cottages that range up to to 1,140 square feet and from one- to four-bedroom Village homes that can be rented out by groups.) Living in a tiny one-bedroom in the West Village of Manhattan, we were awed by our spacious, luxurious accommodations, and giddy to have a house to ourselves for the next few days. It was stunning: a gas fireplace, screened porch, and a beautiful bathroom with a steam room built into the shower. Taking comfort in our new home, we relaxed, got rejuvenated at the spa (a freestanding facility designed like a plantation home, where treatment rooms have their own private screened verandas adorned with old-fashioned bathtubs), swam in its lap pool, and biked around the May River Golf Club's' Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole golf course and the Village, which comprises a chapel, post office, eatery, and bookshop, as well as 30 or so homes, with many more in the works.

Before heading back to New York, we enjoyed a boat ride on the May River that offered spectacular views of low-country marshland, which also happens to be garnished with the freshest oysters on the East Coast. There, we caught shrimp and spotted many dolphins. Courtesy of a tour by Palmetto Bluff Outfitters, we visited Page Island, which is used for teambuilding exercises, picnics, camping, and kayaking.

Whether it was the comfort food, the friendly hospitality complemented by the inhabitants, or the natural beauty, the South left me intrigued and drawn to its laid-back lifestyle.