Archive for the 'Moon Charleston and Savannah' Category

Savannah Book Festival success!

February 28, 2013
In the author signing tent at the Savannah Book Festival (photo Geoff L. Johnson)

In the author signing tent at the Savannah Book Festival (photo Geoff L. Johnson)

This past Feb. 16 I had the utmost honor of being a presenting author at the Savannah Book Festival, highlighting my travel guides in the Moon handbook series. Over its brief five years of existence, the Book Festival has evolved — exploded might be a better word — from a modest event featuring lesser-known regional authors to a marquee calendar
event featuring some of the nation’s most popular writers and writer/celebrities.

Some of the authors who came to Savannah this year hawking new books included Al Gore (The Future), T.C. Boyle (San Miguel), Gregg Allman (My Cross To Bear), Paula McLain (The Paris Wife), Jake Tapper (The Outpost), Dave Barry (Insane City), and James Patterson (too many to count), among many, many others.

While to a certain extent one might bemoan the slightly decreased focus on  local/regional authors — though there are still quite a few of us  participating — there is little doubt that by showcasing more nationally known authors, the Savannah Book Festival has successfully achieved its goal of being a bona fide national event on par with any other such book festival in the country.

Don’t take my word for it. Take it from the C-SPAN’s Doug Hemming, whose network broadcast Al Gore’s presentation live:

“The caliber of nonfiction authors that Savannah is going to have this year is as strong as any festival we cover,” Hemming said in a recent article.

The attendance was also nothing short of gobsmacking. On a cold, blustery day, several venues in and around historic, moss-draped Telfair Square were packed with festival attendees — about 10,000, according to estimates.  (And they bought over 3,000 books!)

Many authors, such as Gore and Boyle, saw some people turned away simply because there was no more room. While I was not quite that popular, nonetheless I filled my presentation room to capacity, and the presentation went extremely well. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.


‘Hello, Mr. Vail’: Jekyll Island’s historic phone call

January 25, 2013

During its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the membership of the fabled, ultra-exclusive Jekyll Island Club on Jekyll Island, Ga., comprised one-sixth of the entire world’s wealth. The roster of members included such titans of American industry and finance as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Joseph Pulitzer.

These were not only the “one-percenters” of their day, they were more accurately called the one percent of the one percent.

The Jekyll Island Club

The Jekyll Island Club

The billionaires in the Jekyll Island Club chose the island for their getaways specifically because of its tranquility, and especially its remoteness from prying eyes and ears who might divulge some of the literally world-shaping decisions being made there, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913 (which as its detractors like to point out, is neither federal nor a reserve, but a wholly privately-owned consortium — as indeed was the Jekyll Island Club itself).

Another event of enormous significance happened on Jekyll Island on this day in 1915, when the world’s first trans-continental phone call — actually a four-way conference call of sorts — partially emanated from the Club.

The story goes like this: The historic call had been intentionally planned to inaugurate the San Francisco World’s Fair. But Club member Theodore N. Vail, the first president of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) and proprietor of that historic phone line itself, was stuck at the Jekyll Island Club recuperating from a leg injury.

The stretch of the AT&T phone line between New York and San Francisco he was about to use passed through through 13 states. Though comprising only four copper wires, about 130,000 poles were needed to prop them up on their journey overland. On Jan. 25, 1915, about 1,500 AT&T employees were positioned across the length of the east/west line as well as between Jekyll and New York, prepared to address any issues with the call.

Alexander Graham Bell — yes, that Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone — started the event around four in the afternoon by speaking from New York to his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was positioned in San Francisco. Vail and J.P. Morgan, Jr. listened to the conversation in a parlor in the Jekyll Island clubhouse.

And so began the four-way call between Jekyll Island, New York City, San Francisco, and President Woodrow Wilson in Washington DC.

A huge media event for the time, the call included speeches by officials and a chat about the weather in Georgia between Vail and another person.

While waiting for President Wilson to be patched into the call, Bell and Watson were cajoled into recreating their famous first words over the first phone call, consisting of Bell saying, “Mr. Watson, come here please, I want you.”

Except in this reenactment, Watson responded to laughter that it would take at least a week for him to get to New York.

At that point Wilson’s voice chimed in to join the congratulations. He was eventually patched through to Jekyll Island, saying: “Hello, Mr. Vail.” To which Vail replied, “Who is this?”

“This is the President,” said Wilson. “I am glad to hear your voice. I have just been speaking across the continent this afternoon.”

The apparently quite laconic — or possibly just nervous — Vail said, “Oh, yes.”

“Before I give up the telephone,” continued Wilson, “I wanted to extend my congratulations to you on the consummation of this remarkable work.”

When Wilson closed by wishing Vail a speedy recovery from his injury, Vail gave what today would be a fairly politically incorrect reply from a major CEO:

“I am getting along very nicely. I am sort of a cripple, that is all.”

Even today, Jekyll Island is pretty sleepy. It’s no longer owned by those wealthy few, but by the people of the state of Georgia. Indeed, an act of the state legislature specifically reserves Jekyll as a recreation spot that must be accessible to “all the people” of Georgia.

Though every vehicle must pay a $5 parking fee to get onto the island, its amenities, including the formerly exclusive haunts of the ultra-rich, are accessible to the general public at reasonable cost. You can even stay in the Jekyll Island Club itself, now a four-star hotel (at three-star prices) and a National Historic Landmark.

As I write in Moon Charleston & Savannah, which includes a chapter on the Golden Isles of Georgia, the north end of Jekyll features most of its noteworthy sights. “Driftwood Beach” on the northeastern end, its namesake wooden ornaments the byproduct of the steady erosion constantly shaping all of Georgia’s barrier islands, is a great place for a peaceful and/or romantic stroll on the sand.

Driftwood Beach

Driftwood Beach

The Horton House ruins are an excellent example of tabby construction, that building material combining oyster shells, lime, sand, and water. (Contrary to old-school opinion, the Spanish didn’t build any tabby construction on the Georgia coast. The technique was used by later British settlers.)

The tabby ruins of the Horton House

The tabby ruins of the Horton House

And of course you can still visit the excellently preserved Jekyll Island Club itself, complete with croquet green.

The Jekyll Island Club Hotel

The Jekyll Island Club Hotel

The grounds of the Club are themselves a great place to meander; here’s a beautiful, ancient Live Oak.


Jekyll Island was known to the Spanish as Isla De Ballenas, island of the whales, a reference to the right whale breeding ground just off its coast. For whatever reason the Spanish never built a mission on Jekyll — possibly because adjacent St. Simons Island featured a sizeable mission already.

In any case, today Jekyll Island is still redolent with history, from the oyster shells in its tabby ruins, themselves taken from ancient Native American shell middens, to the old Club itself.

‘Secession Winter’ & the Seizure of Ft. Pulaski

January 3, 2013

The quick takeover of Ft. Pulaski outside of Savannah by Union forces in 1862 was the first-ever surrender of a fort due to the use of rifled cannon. The new technology greatly enhanced the muzzle velocity, and hence the penetrating power, of artillery, and literally overnight made classic masonry fortresses like Ft. Pulaski — once considered the most advanced fortress in the world — instantly obsolete.

Ft. Pulaski, Cockspur Island between Savannah and Tybee Island

Ft. Pulaski, Cockspur Island between Savannah and Tybee Island

(Sophisticated earthworks, however, would prove much more resilient to artillery and later to aircraft-delivered bombs, and remained a major feature of warfare through World War II. You can see examples of earthworks added to Ft. Pulaski between the old brick fort and the Visitors Center.)

Much less known than the Confederate surrender of Ft. Pulaski is the earlier Federal surrender of the fort on Jan. 3, 1861, to 134 troops of the Georgia militia. While the Civil War itself wouldn’t start until April of that year with the firing on Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor, that so-called “Secession Winter” was full of activity — not only by Southern states responding to the previous November’s election of Abraham Lincoln by formally leaving the union, but, as in the case of Ft. Pulaski, seizing Federal military facilities when they could.

National Park Service pic of a replica Secession Banner being raised over Ft. Pulaski during a recent reenactment

National Park Service pic of a replica Secession Banner being raised over Ft. Pulaski during a recent reenactment

Contrary to popular opinion, the familiar Confederate battle flag, often incorrectly called the “Stars and Bars,” was far from the first Confederate banner. In fact, during that Secession Winter the most prevalent flags were the various Secession banners of the states, usually incorporating a single red star.

As I write in my recently updated guidebook Moon South Carolina, you can find an excellent collection of Secession banners and other Confederate unit flags at the little South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, right next to the enormous and comprehensive South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, S.C.

An example of the Secession banners & regimental flags at the SC Confederate Museum & Relic Room in Columbia SC

An example of the Secession banners & regimental flags at the SC Confederate Museum & Relic Room in Columbia SC

Notes from the Seed Underground

October 17, 2012

One of the overarching themes involved in trying to write an intelligent travel book for intelligent travelers is the new focus on food: Good food, of course, but more and more “good food” means locally/regionally sourced cuisine.

The food experience has become an ever more important component of tourism, and the Georgia/South Carolina Lowcountry (especially the Charleston area) is in many ways on the leading edge of this trend. The obvious irony is that this “new” trend is really a throwback to the most tried-and-tested, old-fashioned ways of growing and preparing food, yet more proof that there’s nothing new under the sun. In this case, literally under the sun…

In this week’s Connect Savannah, the newspaper that serves as my regular job, we have an excellent piece by our Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos on the “new” revolution in food, with a particular focus on seed/crop conservation. Jessica interviews the great Janisse Ray, one of the most beloved authors and activists in Georgia. Janisse’s work combines a profound love and respect for the indigenous ecosystems of Georgia’s wide coastal plain with a refreshingly non-wonky approach that is at once accessible and deeply affecting.

Here’s a pic of Janisse on her farm. (Of course there’s a cow in the photo so I couldn’t resist.) This is actually how she lives, she’s not just playing a character:


Janisse’s travels and research involve not only the vast network of marshes on the Georgia coast — estuaries of mighty rivers such as the Altamaha — but on the legacy of the ancient longleaf pine forest ecosystem that once dominated the entire southeast.

In her new book The Seed Undergroundhere’s a nifty public radio piece on it — Janisse approaches seed conservation more from the family farm angle, the concept also has a huge proponent in Charleston uber-chef Sean Brock, who runs a couple of high-profile restaurants (McCrady’s, Husk) featured in my new edition of Moon Charleston & Savannah.

The key for farm-to-table to be more than a passing fad is of course the “table” part. There has to be an immediate payoff, and in this case the payoff is the simple fact that farm-fresh, locally-sourced food simply tastes better!

A walk through Walterboro

February 1, 2012

It’s nice to see the Tuskegee Airmen get some attention with the recent release of the film Red Tails, however negatively the actual film might have been reviewed. While the Tuskegee Airmen — more properly the 332nd Fighter Group — had their roots in Tuskegee, Alabama, not many folks know that many of them trained just up I-95 in Walterboro, South Carolina, at the old Walterboro Army Air Field (now Lowcountry Regional Airport) from April 1944 to October 1945.

You can see a well-done memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen at the Lowcountry Regional Airport just on the outskirts of Walterboro, in an area where you don’t need to pass through any security measures:

While it’s not technically true that the Tuskegee Airmen “never lost a bomber” during their escort missions over Germany in World War II, who cares? They had an excellent wartime record and helped contribute mightily to the eventual desegregation of the U.S. armed forces during the Truman administration immediately following WWII.

But there’s a lot more to Walterboro. It is quite simply one of the most delightful small towns in the South, all the more enriching in that for the most part it seems to have weathered the economic recession that has devastated so many small towns in the region.

For most visitors to Walterboro, the first thing they notice is the beautiful array of moss-draped Live Oaks all around. Walterboro has one of the finest urban canopies you’ll see, and they know it too, as evidenced by the frequent Live Oak silhouette often used on marketing materials.

Silhouettes actually have a history in the Walterboro area as a form of folk art, first popularized in antebellum days and now experiencing something of a revival. The back of the old circa-1950 drive-in screen — which closed in 1990 — features a huge stylized representation of these folkloric silhouettes.

The 1950 drive-in, now dormant

The main drag of Walterboro is Washington Street, now dominated by dozen or so antique shops, the single major influence in the economic resurgence of the town. A forward-looking and savvy marketing campaign, mostly targeting travelers on I-95, has funneled customers to this charming avenue in search of affordable quality antiques.

The view on Washington Street

The stores themselves are quite nice, with a selection of goods funky enough but also upscale enough to attract big-market antique dealers from all over the region, who use Walterboro’s retail shops almost as a wholesale outlet.

But the prices in Walterboro aren’t big city — the typical piece at a Walterboro store is probably half or even less than what you’d pay for the same piece in a shop on Antique Row on Charleston’s King Street — a piece which that shop may have actually purchased in Walterboro!

Another imaginative bit of marketing in Walterboro’s effective multi-pronged outreach strategy is the “red rocking chair,” central to their slogan “Front Porch of the Lowcountry.”

Here’s a red rocking chair at an outbuilding on the grounds of the wonderful South Carolina Artisans Center:

The S.C. Artisans Center is a cooperative showcase for dozens of regional artists. Their wares are far more than tourist kitsch and might really surprise you with their overall artistic integrity and ingenious handiwork.

The South Carolina Artisans Center

But the big news is the relocation and significant upgrade of the Colleton Museum (Walterboro is in Colleton County, S.C.). Once located in the Old Jail building, the Museum has moved into a beautifully restored place a few blocks down Washington Street from the antique stores.

The new Colleton Museum & Farmers Market

In my time as a travel writer documenting South Carolina and Georgia, I’ve seen quite a few small-town museums. They’re all charming, but some are better than others. The Colleton Museum puts the rest in the shade.

The number of exhibits is significant, and they’re all presented in a very aesthetically pleasing fashion. There is a small exhibit honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, but most of the exhibits detail in lovingly nostalgic fashion some element of the daily lifestyle and folkways of old Colleton County, from prehistory to plantation through the modern day.

An exhibit at the Colleton Museum

And admission is always free.

A recreated church scene within the Colleton Museum

If you get hungry while in Walterboro, I suggest heading straight to Duke’s Barbecue. There are a bunch of places throughout South Carolina named Duke’s, but it’s not actually a chain. Most of them owe their culinary ‘cue provenance to the dispersal of an old Orangeburg barbecuing family, the Dukes.

The legendary Duke's Barbecue

Needless to say, the Duke’s in Walterboro uses the tangy mustard-based barbecue sauce particular to the South Carolina midlands, a legacy of the original German settlers to the area brought in by the Lords Proprietors in the colonial era as a spur to populate the hinterland. It’s an unusual taste, but once acquired becomes somewhat addictive.

Unusual Savannah

January 20, 2012

I wanted to start off the new year with a photo essay of some of my favorite lesser-known cool and quirky things around Savannah that you won’t find highlighted in the usual tours and tourist material. Let’s start off in typical local fashion with, yes, a cemetery.

The Sheftall family burial ground near Garrison Elementary off West Boundary Street

The Levi Sheftall family burial ground and the nearby Mordecai Sheftall plot are memorials to one of Savannah’s oldest families, one which played a key role in Savannah’s efforts to fight for American independence.

While the Jewish diaspora was generally late in coming to most U.S. cities, Savannah and Charleston are notable exceptions. Indeed, Savannah’s Jewish population came over in force within a few months of Gen. James Oglethorpe’s initial landing in February 1733. While the vast bulk of these early coastal Jewish settlers were of Sephardic heritage, with roots on the Iberian peninsula, the Sheftall family itself were Ashkenazi Jews.

The interior of the Sheftall burial plot

But neither Sheftall plot was the first Jewish burial ground in Savannah — that was on present-day Oglethorpe Avenue, then called South Broad Street. A plaque is all that’s left to indicate that burial ground today.

One thing that’s not a gravestone but is often mistakenly thought to be one is the old White Bluff Road marker at Bull and Anderson Streets. Though now at the fringe of the beginning of the Victorian District, it once marked the southern edge of Savannah and signaled the extention of Bull Street into White Bluff Road — though today Bull Street is actually called that for several more miles westward.

The old White Bluff road marker in its little 'cage' at Bull and Anderson

Charleston, of course, is famous for its “single houses,” a unique design attributed to Charleston’s original Barbadian founders. A Caribbean style, the single house features south-facing piazzas (the better to attract and corral dominant breezes) and sits length-wise on the lot — meaning the “front yard” is actually on the side of the house.

While Charleston is absolutely chock-a-block with single houses, Savannah has only a handful. Here’s one of them.

A rare example of a Charleston-style single house in Savannah

Another unique feature of Charleston architecture is the frequent use of “earthquake bolts,” introduced after the enormous 1886 earthquake, which was the largest to hit the U.S. east coast in recorded history. While Savannah did indeed feel the earthquake and many buildings were damaged here, earthquake bolts simply didn’t come into widespread use.

Here’s an exception:

Earthquake bolts on a Savannah house; also note the 'ghosting' between the windows, evidence of a prior window

Near that Savannah single house is this strangely out-of-format street sign at Abercorn and Hull. I’ve always liked this tiny sign — why I’m not quite sure:

Odd street sign at Hull and Abercorn

The furniture shop 24e at 24 E. Broughton has been in the same family for decades. Go upstairs to the second-floor showroom to see these well-preserved old walls with the original painted advertisements pretty nearly intact:

Old advertisement mural upstairs at 24e on Broughton

Here’s another one:

Another old advertisement in 24e

On the south side of Bay Street on the east end of downtown is the remnant of an old business which harkens back to the days before the tourism boom of the ’90s, when downtown and the waterfront in particular were still pretty seedy, and where you went to find a good time — any good time you wanted.

What kind of good time? Take a close look at what’s left of this signage and decide for yourself:

Old signage on Bay Street


Detail, Bay Street signage

And another:

Detail of signage on Bay Street

Getting the picture yet? On a more innocent note, here’s an interesting little doo-dad just off the sidewalk on Whitaker Street:

Interesting fountain thingie

Just around the corner at the entrance to the popular bar Hang Fire (which itself was long home to downtown’s longest-running strip bar back in the day; the original stripper pole is hanging over the bar), is this collection of confiscated illegal IDs:

Part of the display of confiscated fake IDs at the entrance to Hang Fire

Speaking of drinking, let’s close with a quintessentially quirky Savannah artifact, the famous “Countdown to St. Patrick’s Day” sign at ground-level at the Knights of Columbus building at Bull and Liberty:

The countdown to St. Patrick's Day at the K of C; by now the numbers are a lot closer

Kindle much?

March 30, 2011

I admit I’ve previously been pretty skeptical of the digital book phenomenon. As an old-school paper-sniffing bibliophile from early childhood — my family still jokes that I used to read encyclopedias for fun, which is true — the whole concept of reading an actual book on a computer screen, as opposed to the sundry other things one usually reads via computer, once seemed gimmicky at best, vaguely offensive at worst.

I must say, though, that when I found out how many e-books are being sold now — in other words, when I realized that e-books seem to be helping book-lovers rather than hurting them — I began to change my tune.

For example, the recently released digital edition of my own Moon Charleston & Savannah has done very well recently in the Amazon rankings for regional travel titles. While this mirrors the success the dead-tree version has also had, it provided an awesome morale boost to see the title also performing well in the Kindle realm.

The most recent edition of my book

I don’t have a Kindle or other book-reader, yet. I may never buy one. But the nearly immediate embrace of the technology by book-lovers from the ground up as convinced me to welcome this particular change, rather than dread it. There’s no way a screen can replace the printed page, but if the second-best thing still involves reading the book — as opposed to not reading at all — then I’ll take it.

Water buffaloes in Charleston?

February 9, 2010

One of the newer features of the beautiful Middleton Place plantation outside Charleston is the addition of a couple of water buffalo to the stable area. While the historical provenance is there — antebellum Middleton did employ a few of these Asian imports to work the rice fields — most of all they’re just a lot of fun.

The two boys — named Adem (Earth) and Berk (Solid) — hang out in a little fenced-in muddy area in back of the stables. They are a little feistier than typical livestock. They like attention, but they’re a little on the aggressive side.

Looks like a lot of people want to come to Savannah…

March 5, 2009



My travel book Moon Charleston and Savannah is out, and is doing quite well at Amazon.  It’s a rare day when it’s not in the top two or three travel books from those cities, and often it’s the number-one seller in both categories.

In the current economy, I have to say I’m quite pleased with the numbers.

I’ll be having a book signing at the Barnes & Noble at the Oglethorpe Mall here in Savannah, from 2-4 p.m. I’m contemplating giving away free “Morekis Dairy” T-shirts for each book signed…..