The historic port city of Savannah, Georgia beckoned as we burrowed deeper into the southeastern United States. Our chosen route departed from Columbia, South Carolina and followed US-321 through sleepy little towns, past many abandoned and dilapidated buildings, and along cotton fields stretching for what seemed like miles into the horizon on both sides of the road. We deliberately avoided I-95 simply because barreling down the highway mile after tedious mile isn’t an appealing travel option for us. Back roads are definitely slower but when we’re not in a hurry, we’ll typically choose a scenic rather than frantic drive.
The Savannah River creates the border between South Carolina and Georgia, and we knew our travel day was winding to a close as we drove over the river and spotted the city from our temporary perch atop the bridge. Our destination was Skidaway Island State Park, which is on the southeastern side of the city roughly 15 miles outside of town. Driving into the park was like entering a fairy tale as trees draped heavily with Spanish moss lined each side of the road, creating a tunnel of pillowy streamers seeming to celebrate our arrival.
When making a reservation at Skidaway Island, you don’t choose a specific site – you choose from the available sites upon arrival by driving (or biking or walking) around and selecting whichever vacant site you prefer (although the park is implementing site-specific reservations in January 2018). This was a first for us, so it took us a few loops to scope out the park and finally decide on a site. The park was also still fairly crowded, so our options were limited – we arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and observed more people leaving the next day freeing up yet more sites after we were already parked. So if the park is fully booked and you’re the last to arrive, you’re left with whatever single site is still available (at least until January, anyway).
When visiting a Georgia state park, each location charges a $5 entrance (parking) fee even if you have reservations at the campground. Upon checking in, I was prepared to pay our $5 fee until one of the helpful park employees explained the benefits of an Annual ParkPass. The pass, which costs $50, allows the bearer into all Georgia state parks without paying the $5 parking fee with each visit. We weren’t planning to make ten visits to Georgia parks this year, so I didn’t think the pass made sense for us. But we then learned (which isn’t listed on the Annual ParkPass website) that a pass ALSO grants one night of free camping plus 10% off all nights of camping during the year. So we bought a pass, got a free night of camping ($40 at Skidaway Island), 10% off our current reservation ($16), plus saved the $5 fee. With two more stops at Georgia parks after this, the pass already paid for itself and would save us a little money in the future. The 10% discount is credited back to the card you used to make online reservations whenever you arrive and check-in at the park. Not sure why you can’t select the discount online when making reservations, but that’s not the way Georgia runs the program.
The park was hosting a food truck festival during the afternoon of our arrival, so we strolled to the picnic area after getting the RV parked. After browsing the offerings from the five or six trucks (tacos, ice cream, fried food sandwiches, Irish classics, Cuban food), we each decided on something to eat and Ashley enjoyed her shepherd’s pie as I tucked into my shrimp po’ boy (which wasn’t bad, but I should’ve just waited until the next time we make it to New Orleans).
Skidaway Island is a beautiful park, peaceful during the day as the mossy trees seem to muffle noise and nearly silent at night with the exception of sounds made by creatures lurking in the nearby marsh. As the sun sets, the moss seems to glow with a soft light as though the tree limbs are emanating magical energy. Visitors can wander the trails for a deeper glimpse into the forest and surrounding marsh, or bike over a root-covered path to view historic spots, like a destroyed still and a midden heap of discarded shells left by Native Americans. As far as facilities, the bathrooms were always clean, the showers were fine, and the staff and camp hosts were friendly. The campground offers washers and dryers, either water and electric or full hook-up sites, and even cable TV at each site – but we didn’t test that so I can’t say how well it worked. For a full campground review, please read the Wheeling It post – which is incredibly informative and detailed, as usual, and prompted our decision to book some time at Skidaway Island.
We covered all of the trails in the park, either on foot or by bike, soaking in the views and the warm weather. While the campground was fairly crowded, the trails were never congested and we saw only a handful of people out at the same times we were. Thanks to the mild temperatures during the day, I practiced the mandolin outside (quietly, so as not to disturb the neighbors) rather than in the RV, which lead to our introduction to our campsite neighbors on the second day of our visit. While fumbling my way through a new (to me) Irish fiddle tune, I happened to look up and see someone politely approaching our site from the road. The man (whom I recognized as half of the couple who just arrived beside us) stopped and pantomimed knocking on a door in midair, and I walked over to say hello. He asked what I was playing and then shared that his wife plays the hammered dulcimer and he plays the fiddle, and maybe we could play sometime that week. Naturally, I said that would be great – assuming they could tolerate by beginner abilities.
We played together on a couple of afternoons during our stay, and I quickly learned they were obviously skilled Old Time and Celtic-style musicians, welcoming, friendly, and eager to help a couple of beginners. Ashley even joined one day with her fiddle! They directed us to some excellent resources online, as well as some festivals we’d like to check out some time in our travels. If you’re interested in Old Time or Celtic music, check out the Charlotte Folk Society website for information on gatherings, instruments for sale, and lots of musical resources for musicians of any skill level. So thank you Ed and Theresa – you’ve given us a great introduction to Old Time music and inspired more exploration on our part (not to mention much more practice)!
I know this is essentially an RV travel blog, but I’d like to share a bit more about music. For people who don’t know me personally, my main instrument is the saxophone. I’ve played since I was a kid, eventually finding jazz music and receiving formal jazz instruction starting in 10th grade. What drew me to jazz was the improvisational aspect – spontaneously creating music with a group of musicians, allowing a solo instrument to take the lead during certain parts in any given song while still playing as part of a cohesive whole group. The same thing appeals to me in bluegrass music – everyone is playing the same song, yet a solo instrument steps forward and plays an improvised solo over the established chord progression. Check out Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, or the Punch Brothers and watch some YouTube videos for an example. Sometimes bluegrass bands play Old Time tunes, a classic Old Time melody with added improvised solos – but “Bluegrass” is not synonymous with “Old Time”.
During our brief visit with Ed and Theresa, I learned that pure Old Time music doesn’t feature this solo aspect of bluegrass or jazz. Playing an Old Time tune is about finding consensus among everyone in the group. It’s more of an oral (or maybe “aural” is better in this case) tradition where players know the same song, yet they know their own version of the tune. When they sit down to play, Old Time musicians play the same song over and over again, listening to the subtle nuances in each others’ versions, making tiny adjustments to the melody, until eventually they are all playing the same song note for note – and it all happens in real time, usually at a fast tempo.
The style originally developed before electric amplification, and bands were required to add multiple instruments of the same type to be heard over the dancing crowds. I never considered this type of group playing until Ed described it to me, and it’s fascinating. It seems like such a simple thing, getting everyone to play the same song note for note – but this isn’t classical music where each musician has written sheet music as a starting point. These musicians are playing songs that each have multiple – often quite different – versions, and they are adjusting on the fly – by ear, no less – to many other musicians until they achieve a Zen-like focus and play each note the same as the other. It’s a level of musicianship that I’d like to hear first-hand and someday be able to play when the opportunity arises.
Back to the RVing and traveling – we chose Skidaway Island because we wanted the opportunity to see the city of Savannah if possible. The city is consistently highly ranked as bike-friendly, so we were hoping to ride into town and take a look around. We knew this wouldn’t exactly be easy since we were about 15 miles away, but Savannah and the surrounding region is generally flat, so it wasn’t out of the question to make the trip on bikes. Skidaway Island is connected to mainland Georgia by two bridges – one is fairly steep but has dedicated bike lanes, the other is basically flat but doesn’t have much of a shoulder to stay out of the way of traffic. We eventually decided to make the trip after consulting multiple online sources for the “best” bike route into downtown Savannah from Skidaway.
Aside from the two bridges, the trip was fairly easy. I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking a family ride with young kids from Skidaway into Savannah – the Diamond Causeway is heavily traveled by autos, without much of a shoulder or a bike lane for a couple of miles – but for average bicyclists familiar with road riding, it’s certainly possible. That being said, we only made the trip in and back a single time – neither one of us really wanted to repeat the journey. If the flat bridge had a dedicated bike lane or a separate lane similar to some of the bridges in the Florida Keys, it wouldn’t be as harrowing. Also, the Diamond Causeway would greatly benefit from a dedicated bike lane along the non-bridge sections as well. But after reaching Savannah proper, the city has plenty of bike lanes or recommended bike routes which makes it convenient to navigate the city on bike despite the traffic.
Our first stop after pedaling into town was Foxy Loxy Café for cappuccino and kolache (a pastry traditionally filled with fruit, but has since morphed to include meat, cheese, eggs, etc.). The café is located close to the Savannah College of Art and Design but the café wasn’t overrun with people, despite school being in session. Highly recommended for coffee and a snack if you’re in the area.
We then pedaled to Forsyth Park, the 30-acre greenspace well-known for the historic fountain and the Confederate Memorial Statue. When entering the city from the south, visitors first encounter Forsyth Park before reaching the 22 green squares placed orderly throughout the city. General James Edward Oglethorpe originally drafted the design for Savannah based on a grid layout, with 24 squares (city park areas) distributed among the commercial and residential areas. Two of these squares have been lost to development over time and one was destroyed to build a parking garage, but then replaced after the garage was demolished, bringing the current total back to 22. The presence of these squares certainly makes a walk through Savannah more refreshing than most other cities of similar size.
With the abundant sights, restaurants, shops, and bars to choose from, we didn’t bother trying to visit as many as possible during our short visit. We instead found a place to lock up our bikes and casually stroll through town on foot, knowing that we wanted to start our ride back before the sun fully set (and yes, we have lights and reflectors for our bikes but wanted the sunlight for increased safety in this case).
We grabbed a couple of macarons from Marché de Macarons for each of us as we walked, stopping in a couple of squares along the way and taking a few minutes to explore a tea shop. I wanted to visit one of the city’s breweries, but neither Service nor Southbound were open early enough to fit our self-imposed deadline, so we opted instead to grab a little more food as the afternoon wore on and maybe a draft beer from a bar instead of the brewery source. The Ordinary Pub came as a recommendation from a friend, who convinced us with her description of “bottomless Mimosas and pork belly donut sliders.” We skipped the Mimosas and opted for a couple of local beers instead (Southbound’s Hop’lin IPA for me, Second Self’s Thai Wheat for Ashley) to accompany our pork belly sliders served on donut rolls with onion jam (as though we really needed more sugar at this point, but man they were delicious little bites).
As evening approached, we wandered along River Street on the way back to our bikes. We passed many more shops and restaurants but didn’t peek into any of them. I’m positive we missed out on some interesting places to see, but we chose not to fit anything else into this trip into Savannah. We unlocked our bikes and reluctantly began our 14 mile journey back to Skidaway Island and our RV.
Savannah is a city of ghost stories, quaint squares, and historic charm – which we’d like to discover more of on a future visit. But Skidaway Island State Park is unique and picturesque enough in itself that visitors don’t even need to see the city if you can be content immersing yourself in nature on the outskirts of town. We never made it to Bonaventure Cemetery (featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), nor did we see any live music downtown. But we did savor the mysterious evenings under the moss-covered live oak trees in Skidaway, learn more about music first-hand from gifted musicians, and manage to squeeze in a tiny taste of downtown Savannah in the process.