Forget Boston, forget Chicago - Savannah is the place to be on Paddy’s Day

AmericaBy Eugene Masterson
Our man Eugene soaks up the very special atmosphere of St Patrick's Day in Savannah
Our man Eugene soaks up the very special atmosphere of St Patrick's Day in Savannah

SAVANNAH in America’s Deep South exudes old-school charm and style, and is a city that you can’t help instantly falling in love with.

This beautiful riverside town has long been near the top of my American bucket list.

Irish TV viewers first became aware of the magnificence of the mansions and elegant tree-lined neighbourhoods of this lovely city through the mid-1990s drama series Savannah, which starred a young George Eads (of CSI fame).

But it is more well known for being the backdrop to Forrest Gump’s famous ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ scene. Delivered by Tom Hanks in the 1994 Oscar-winning movie, the reflective storytelling moment on a bench in Chippewa Square is cinematic gold.

That bench, put there by the movie’s producers, has sadly been removed, but there are several more in the square to sit on and do your own Gump-style pondering. 

Despite the marvellous architecture, wonderful southern hospitality and its celluloid noteworthiness, what drew me to Savannah, America’s first ‘planned city’, was its amazing St Patrick’s Day parade.

Savannah has the second-biggest St Patrick’s Day parade in all of America, outside New York.

Forget Boston, forget Chicago - Savannah is the place to be on Paddy’s Day.

Everyone wears green, everyone is Irish for the day - more than half a million people line the streets to watch the three-and-a-half hour-long parade, which has been a mainstay of the city’s celebrations since 1812.

A large batch of Gardai marching in uniform took part in the spectacle, which included high school bands, military outfits and representatives of the city’s Irish-American community.

There’s huge Irish heritage in the city, particularly from Wexford. 

What makes it so popular is that Savannah is one of only a handful of cities in the US which permits outdoor drinking. Once you pay $5 for a wristband, you can buy a pint of beer from a street vendor and walk through the squares and down the cobblestoned River Street, where outdoor musicians entertain green-clad revellers, similar to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations.

Most of the fun-loving folk there have never been to Europe, let alone Ireland, but they love to chat and are all ears to learn about our history and culture.

There are several Irish bars, such as Kevin Barry’s and McDonoughs, and a Scottish hostelry, Molly McPherson’s.

The communal bonhomie of the Savannah revellers on St Patrick’s Day was patriotic and heart-warming - everybody was good natured and well-behaved (no fighting, misbehaving and loutishness unlike in certain areas back home). 

Forsyth Park, where the fountain’s water is dyed green for the occasion, is also thronged with partygoers, as are the city’s 24 squares, all of which have different themes and identities.

But be prepared if you want to go to Savannah for Paddy’s Day – hotels are booked out for years in advance and can charge exorbitant prices. ]The four-star hotel we stayed in was charging €350 a night for our three-night stay, yet off-peak you can book it for around €150 a night.

Even a motel on the outskirts of the city can cost E250 just for a room for one night around March 17, when normally it would cost E70. But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you’ll never forget.

Once the celebrations are out of the way, it’s time to explore (with a hangover) what the city has to offer, and understand why it draws 16 million tourists a year.

General James Edward, who had previously founded the colony of Georgia (named after King George II), founded Savannah in 1733. He designed his new capital as a series of neighbourhoods centred around 24 squares, which now make up its downtown historic district.

Unlike most US cities, and in keeping with its historical architecture, Savannah does not boast any skyscrapers. 

To tour the city, take one of its many informative Old Town Trolley Tours, which last 90 minutes, and bring you through the city’s historic, colonial and Victorian districts.

Many of the neighbourhoods survived the destructive Civil War, when Georgia and Savannah were part of the Confederacy, but all of the majestic plantation mansions were burned to the ground.

Savannah was also a strategic port during the American War of Independence, and to this day its biggest industry is from maritime activities.

You can jump on and off the trolley and visit the quaint former home of Juliette Gordon, the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA, and the city’s 23-karat gold leaf-clad domed City Hall and the Telfair museum of Art. The museum houses Sylvia Shaw’s Bird Girl, made famous on the cover of the 1994 book The Garden of Good and Evil (and subsequent film). 

If you love ice-cream, pop into Leopold’s on Broughton street, on the city’s main shopping thoroughfare. Leopold’s has been in existence since 1919 and its period parlour sees queues of salivating punters stretching around the block.

Georgia is located on the Atlantic seafront, and Tybee Island is an idyllic holiday resort lying 17 miles outside of Savannah. It has plenty of hotels, allowing sunworshippers to lap up the rays on its impeccably clean, golden beaches.

There’s an informative marine centre and aquarium near the huge wooden pier, while an historic lighthouse also appeals. Beach and souvenir stores line avenues, along with top eateries – Fannies on the beach has incredible shrimp dishes.

And the Crab Shack is a fantastic and fun outdoor restaurant, with cracking platters of seafood.

The Savannah area has idyllic weather conditions, with temperatures hitting lows of 70s and highs of 90s throughout the year. It was 82°F (28°C) during my visit last month.

So, sumptuous Savannah has a varied appeal, with different strokes for different folks – much like the famous Forrest Gump box of chocolates. :