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Savannah, Georgia Rescues our Family Vacation

"You did what?" I asked the desk clerk at the hotel on Hilton Head Island. "We gave away your crib to another family," he replied sheepishly. "We didn't think you were coming." This, after a three-hour flight delay due to fog, a one hour drive in the dark along an unknown road, and a 1:00 a.m. arrival with a one-year-old baby and two preschoolers in tow. Could he tell us who had "our" crib so that we could go and knock on their door to ask for it back? Definitely not. We would have to ride out the night with the baby running around the rooms, waking everyone else with glee.

In the morning, we hunted down the free breakfast promised in the brochure.There, in the lobby bar, where smoke still lingered from the night before and where a large screen was showing wrestling matches, was a small table was set up with coffee, drink crystals, and donut holes covered in icing sugar. Surely, not breakfast! Again, the kids were thrilled- stuffing away donuts and sugared drink between wrestling holds and thrusts was their idea of a good time. Our hotel had been booked in haste, chosen because of its ocean location, and because we could play tennis. But our room had no real view of the ocean (unless you went out onto the balcony, turned sidewise and winced), the tiny pool was unheated, it was too windy to walk on the beach, and every time you set foot on the court, there were monstrous charges.

Savannah came to our rescue! When we heard that only 52 miles south, there was a St. Patrick's Day parade, the second largest on the Continent, we fled for this supposedly genteel city. What we discovered was a city bursting with surprises from the St. Paddy's celebrations (this year's parade is on March 16) to pirate stories and ship models to forts dating back to Civil War days. The Paris newspaper, Le Monde, has called Savannah "the most beatiful city in North America." But we found this historic settlement, laid-out in parks and squares and overlooking the Savannah River, to be but a backdrop for a place that was made for exploring,with lots for families to see.

The best place to start is at the Visitor Centre downtown, a restored passenger rail station; they can advise how to reserve a horse-drawn carriage ride or where to catch a trolley tour, or a 1-hour Haunted History tour, sure to dredge up Savannah's ghosts. Much of the city's life still revolves around the riverfront, personified by the Waving Girl Statue on River Street. It commemorates Florence Martus who waved at every returning ship for 43 years, with the hopes that each vessel might be bringing back the husband she had just married before he set off to sea. Kids should also enjoy the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum with its ship-in-a-bottle collection and models of seaworthy craft from Viking warships to nuclear-powered vessels. The River Street Train Museum has a miniature village and train collections for the transportation buff. This summer, a restored 100-year-old sailing ship, will be open to youngsters who want to climb aboard and see how sailors actually lived. Nearby is Tybee Island, a beach community 18 miles east with a lighthouse and a historic fort. There, you can rent boats for deepsea fishing or bikes for cycling. The quiet streets and 5 miles of white sand offer a welcome time-out from sightseeing.

Savannah is also known for its good eats. It was here that chicken fingers were invented (at a pub-like place called Spanky's Pizza Galley), and there's a host of dining establishments that welcome children. Two must-sees are The Pirates' House, a 1754 inn used by Robert Louis Stevenson as a setting in Treasure Island. Today, its 23 dining rooms are festonned in pirate paraphanalia. The gift shops sells doubloons; in the restaurant's nooks and crannies, kids may find pirates lurking in the shadows. The other famous establishment is Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House. Since the 1940's, Selma Wilkes has been serving lunch family style with ten guests at each table tucking into fried chicken, rice, beans and biscuits; line-ups start forming outside her house about 11:00 a.m.

A prime reason for visiting Savannah this summer is that the city will have its own opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics, light its own torch, and host the Olympic sailing events between July 19 and August 3. Big screens will be set up to show races; you will also be able to buy tickets for one of the specatator boats travelling out onto the water. Canadian world champion sailors such as Tine Moberg-Parker, Ross Macdonald and Eric Jespersen will be fighting for medals. For information, call (912) 231-1996.

On our final evening in Savannah, we met an old man walking his pooch. The kids stopped to pat the dog, and the man asked if we would like to see the inside of a restored historic house. This man was a perfect stranger, but seemed so eager to give us a tour, we obliged. As we admired his high-ceilinged library and the view of the river and bridges lit up at night, the Mrs. brought candies for the kids. We never found out who this couple were, but to the gentleman and his lady, many thanks! This was southern hospitality, Savannah-style. We'll be back some day for sure. To contact the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, call 1- 800-444-2427.





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