Ok, it’s time for me to come clean. I was happily born and raised in this amazing city of Savannah, Georgia (some 40 ah-hem years ago) but never have I ever taken a guided tour. I know. What was I thinking? The phrase ‘better late than never’ comes to mind because recently, I had the opportunity to change my misguided ways and experience the Historic District with fresh eyes aboard a trolley with Old Savannah Tours.
First step, tickets. And like most everything these days those can be easily purchased online at oldsavannahtours.com. I chose the Historic On/Off Tour since it seemed to have the most flexibility to it. As the name indicates, I can stay on when I want or hop off to explore the company’s 15 designated points throughout downtown. If I were brand new to the city, I would definitely have stopped at many – if not all – of those points but on this day, I chose the ‘on’ option of the tour and start to finish it took just over an hour.
Upon arriving at the main offices of Old Savannah Tours (on MLK Jr. Boulevard, just across from the Visitors Center) I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Tour company has its own free parking (speaking as a not-so-great parallel parker that’s always a highlight). A helpful staffer guided me to my spot and I made my way across the street to the parking lot at the Visitors Center where my tour would depart.
The trolley was as beautiful as it was nostalgic. I made my way down the middle aisle past the gleaming wooden benches of this open-air vessel and found a seat near the middle. Within just a few minutes, the trolley had filled up nicely and our driver greeted us with a warm welcome; though he was much, much more than just a driver! Originally from the New England area, this relative ‘newcomer’ was also our witty guide for the day and it didn’t take long to realize he knew infinitely more about the city than this Savannah native (and that alone made this tour exceptional!).
Our tour began at the west end of Historic Downtown and steadily made its way east, veering north and south as needed to navigate the city’s iconic squares. As we approached the historic Savannah Theatre, I spotted a lady who looked like she stepped straight out of a Southern plantation. Lo and behold it was Mrs. Matilda Sorrel herself (or at least a dead ringer for her – pun intended). Even more surprisingly, Mrs. Sorrel boarded our trolley and began sharing her sordid and intriguing life story. You see, that’s another ‘something special’ about Old Savannah Tours, as you make your way through downtown, you’re going to run in to any number of famous Savannah Characters who ‘bring history to life’ as the company says. And believe me, they REALLY do! You forget for a moment that it’s 2017, not the 1800’s, and Mrs. Sorrel’s larger-than-life personality engages and delights in unforgettable ways. Her visit lasts but a few moments and then we’re off again, meandering the squares and city streets, learning of the city’s history (and gossip from back in the day of course), and making stops every so often to let riders depart and other tour guests hop on board – this is, after all, the on/off tour.
As we round another picturesque corner, our guide points out the oval plaques on select homes with a year imprinted on them – each circa 1800s – indicators of the homes’ longevity in this city. They would be easy to miss, but once you notice one of them, suddenly you see these historic markers everywhere! A subtle yet striking reminder of just how deep this city’s roots go. I was particularly drawn to a little, inconspicuous sky-blue cottage that I’m sure I had passed dozens of times before when I realized we were approaching our next stop – and our next character!
This time it was the extremely bubbly and sweet Susie King Taylor, dressed in plantation-period clothing and simply bursting with pride to tell us how she became the first black teacher for freed African-American students to work in a freely operating freedmen’s school in Georgia and also went on to help found the American Red Cross. Just as with Mrs. Sorrell earlier in the tour, I felt as if I had been immediately transported back to Miss Taylor’s era and was reminded of just how brave she, and so many others like her, must have been at that pivotal time in America’s history.
After sharing her story, Miss Taylor waved us a cheery goodbye and we were on our way once again – next stop, River Street. As we passed the open-air marketplace, located on the river itself, yet another spritely character boarded our trolley – this time, it was a vibrant young lady of the Geechee culture. The Geechee people are direct descendants of West Africans who settled on the Georgia coast and have carried on their rich traditions and unique dialect for centuries. Our visitor was kind enough to give us a sample of her own unique language (as well as a friendly lesson) before wishing us well and sending us along to our next stop.
As much as I enjoyed each character’s visit, it was just as much fun watching other passengers as they delighted in these real-life snippets of Savannah’s history. Day to day, tour by tour, Old Savannah Tours has nearly a dozen different characters ready greet guests as part of the adventures aboard an Old Savannah Tour. Sometimes, a pirate ghost will hop aboard in search of buried treasure, or the city’s founder, James Edward Oglethorpe. And if you’re riding along and you see an exuberant young man holding a small suitcase running alongside the trolley, don’t be alarmed, that’s just Forrest – he’s a really nice young fella who’s sure to tell you a thing or ten that his mama always said.
It’s cliché but true, time really did fly during my tour. Though it lasted just over an hour, it seemed like only a few minutes. I laughed at our driver’s quirky sense of humor and was awed by his vast knowledge and driving skills in very tight turns. I shared in the excitement each time a new character hopped on board and quite literally ‘brought history to life.’ And at the end of our tour, I not only knew my city better, I fell in love with her all over again.
All in all, I’d say Old Savannah Tours is a must for any visitor – or resident for that matter! You’re sure to laugh, learn, marvel and take home a little bit of the unique charm that makes this Southern gem so absolutely irresistible. Just be sure to keep your eyes open; you never know which Savannah character might hop in the seat next to you!
Tour as You Please
Though a trolley is an excellent way to tour the city, it’s not the only way to see Savannah. Here are some more means of transportation so you can explore as you please – and have a lot of fun while you’re at it! (Please note, there are multiple options when it comes to choosing your tour company – these are but a few of the many choices available and we encourage you to search online to find out more).
1. Noble Jones Tours: daily walking excursions led by licensed, professional guides (noblejonestours.com)
2. Genteel & Bard: high-end history and ghost walking tours (genteelandbard.com)
3. Architectural Tours of Savannah, LLC: a 90-minute walking tour that uses a narrative timeline of the city’s architecture (architecturalsavannah.com)
4. Savannah Dan Tours: stroll through Savannah guided by a Southern Gentleman who is well versed in all things Savannah. (savannahdan.com)
1. Savannah Riverboat Cruises: learn about the history of Savannah, her port, past and present all while floating down the Savannah River. (savannahriverboat.com)
2. Bull River Cruises: step out of downtown and experience group tours that explore the natural beauty and history of the Georgia Coast. (bullriver.com)
1. Savannah Bike Tours: a great way to orient yourself to Savannah’s sights, people and things to do. (savannahbiketours.com)
2. Segway of Savannah: rest your legs and see Savannah’s beauty via Segway – the company even says no experience is required! (segwayofsavannah.com)
3. Slow Ride: this 100% pedal-powered tour features a 15-person “bicycle” with an expert guide and five tour choices (savannahslowride.com)
By: Heather Grant, Contributing Writer