Tahlequah Daily Press

Features

February 24, 2012

Two Southern cities awash in charm

TAHLEQUAH — I’m lucky to have family members living fairly close to “the beach”; otherwise, I probably would never have felt warm sand between my toes, or plunged into the surf. Walking across peddles to a boat ramp at Tenkiller just isn’t quite the same.

One of the best beaches I’ve ever seen is at Hilton Head – a tiny island tucked into the corner of South Carolina, practically a handful of grits’ throw from Savannah, Ga. The first time we were at Hilton Head was in early September 2010. The weather – and the ocean – couldn’t have been more perfect. We were there on business, and my sister drove up from Florida to join us. Then we went down to Savannah for a day or two – another enjoyable experience.

Coincidentally, we were back in the Hilton Head/ Savannah area for a few days in January this year. Though the area is beautiful whatever time of year you visit, March through September are best, if you want to play in the ocean. I might have been able to stand the water; I didn’t have the nerve to try, but we did do some beachcombing. Instead, I swam laps two days in the pool at Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa Hotel, and since the ambient temperature was fine (the air was about the same temp as the water, both in the high 60s), it worked out OK, although several people looked at me as if I had a screw loose, and a couple asked if I was Canadian.

The Marriott property is right on the beach, and if you’re in Hilton Head, you want to be on the beach. Hilton Head is sort of a sleepy little community, very attractive and well-appointed – what you might expect from a place that caters to relatively wealthy retirees. It’s known for its golf courses and beachfronts, and there’s not much else to do – except dine at fabulous restaurants, of which there are plenty. One remarkable aspect of Hilton Head is its strict zoning; all the businesses and parking lots are built “behind” stands of trees along the main thoroughfares, so you see a lot of “green.” Signs can only be so high, and of a certain style, and most of the discrete strip malls and other buildings are of a type as well. It’s a good example of how appealing a city can be with controlled planning. It’s easy to get around, and you probably won’t have to drive more than three or four miles in any direction to get what you need.

There’s one advantage to visiting in late January: You’ll get there in time for Restaurant Week, which was a pleasant surprise. Most of restaurants on the island were offering prix fixe specials for $20 to $28, which included at least three courses: appetizer, entree and dessert. Some, instead of dessert, featured an appetizer, soup-or-salad course, and entree. Several included a glass of wine with your meal; those that didn’t had wines on special. These weren’t your typical “chain” restaurants, though the island does have those; they were fine dining establishments, making the price a real bargain. Many overlook the ocean, for a spectacular view. And almost all offer a discount early dinner menu.

Paring down to a handful from the array of top-drawer restaurants on Hilton Head wasn’t easy, even with the help of our concierge. But based on our experience, her recommendations, and conversations with others on the island, I have a few don’t-miss picks. Almost all feature seafood – and the seafood there is some of the best you’ll find anywhere. And since there’s always a Southern twist to any menu, you’ll find plenty of grits and fried green tomatoes, which we tried whenever we could – and there’s always a slice of key lime pie. The hospitality in each of these cases is exceptional (and all have websites).

1. Bistro 17 Wine Bar. This charming little French place has exceptional steak frites and onion soup. We ate outside; even though it was drizzling, gas radiant heaters kept us cozy.

2. Old Fort Pub. Perched on the intracoastal waterway, among moss-draped oaks, this establishment offers American cuisine with a distinct Dixie flair, so you’ll want to try the cheese grits. The skillet-roasted calamari is tasty, and on the entree list, the venison medallions and Cajun Carolina trout are great choices.

3. Skull Creek Boathouse. This waterfront eatery stays crowded, and it boasts a more boisterous atmosphere, but the seafood is well-priced and tasty. Among the treats: shrimp and grits, with smoke sausage and tasso ham gravy; flounder almondine; and pecan ginger-crusted mahi-mahi.

4. Ela’s Blu Water Grill. Another elegant place with a terrific view, this is one of the newest restaurants on the island. It has superb Maryland crab cakes, and in  honor of my friend-since-childhood, Diane Stotts, I had her favorite dish: scallops. I don’t often risk scallops, because if they’re too fishy, I won’t eat them, but these – with crab risotto, truffled herb and lemon beurre blanc – were to die for.

5. CQ’s Restaurant. This was probably our favorite. It’s in Harbor Town, which is a  “gated community,” so you’ll have to pay $5 to get in. (You can return the following day for some good shopping, I’m told.) CQ’s has a homey “low country” ambiance, built with bits and pieces of other older buildings, plus sepia-tone photos from days gone by. For an appetizer, I had the steamed mussels, which were very good; Chris had the quail with sweet potato. I can heartily recommend the sliced venison filet and the lobster pasta for entrees.

We only had one evening in Savannah, so we knew we had to make the most of it. We chose to stay at a bed-and-breakast that had impressed us on our last trip out: the Kehoe House (www.kehoehouse. com). And we weren’t disappointed. This beautifully restored, three-story home, built in 1892, has an aura like we’ve never experienced. And the staff treated us, and everyone else, like royalty – giving an enhanced meaning to the age-old phrase, “Southern hospitality.” After the experience, my husband would not stay anywhere else. Amusingly enough, some of the “locals” view it with trepidation because at one point in its history, it was a funeral home, and there are supposedly ghosts still in residence. Savannah folk tend to believe in other-worldly spirits, and there’s even a “ghost tour” we took when we were there in 2010.

The Kehoe has more than a dozen rooms, each named after a person of note from Savannah. We stayed in what’s considered to be the best room: the Johnny Mercer. It had a lovely high bed, a small sitting room in one of the alcoves, a bathroom, and two private verandas you access by raising one of the huge window panes. After dark, we sat out there with glasses of wine, and when the ghost tour rolled through (in a retrofitted hearse with a bubble on top), I intoned, “WooooooOOO!” and I heard people inside the hearse laugh.

Breakfast was made-to-order – decadent fluffy blueberry pancakes and grits and sausage, in my case, but some of the guests had omelets or other culinary delights. Fresh fruits and juices were on the menu, too. The Kehoe also offers its guests a wine and hors d’oeurvres reception every evening in the parlor. We met some interesting people from all over the country and stayed for the entire time, chatting and enjoying a tasty pineapple dip, fruit and cheeses. There’s also a dessert reception later, but we were so full after eating at a nearby restaurant, 45 Bistro, we had no room for dessert.

45 Bistro came recommended by the staff at Kehoe, and it’s in the Marshall House, one of Kehoe’s “sister” B&B establishments. We were assured that despite the connection, we’d agree it was among the best restaurants we’d ever tried – and it was. The shrimp and grits were sumptuous, as was the beef carpaccio – beef so thin you could read a paper through it. Like many Southern restaurants, game is a menu feature, and we had duck two ways with roasted beets and Yukon golds, and the Cervena venison chop, with wild mushroom jugel and lingonberry glace. You’ll be tempted to lick your plate.

Savannah, with its deep roots in Southern history, touts plenty of year-round activities for families or couples looking for a romantic setting. The Kehoe is in the midst of the historic district, where you’ll want to spend most of your time if you go. There are carriage rides and bus tours of the city, but be sure to check with your concierge before you select a tour company, as a few aren’t that reliable. The tour guides on ours were lively and well-versed in city lore, and we took the 90-minute tour straight through before repeating it again and getting off at various stops to look around; a bus comes by every 15 minutes to pick people up. The buses wend their way through the nearly two dozen “squares,” in the heart of the city, most of them adorned with fountains or the city’s famous sons and founders. Flowers were in bloom everywhere, even in January. You’ll also cruise by the Lady and Sons restaurant, owned by Paula Deen. (We ate there when we were there last time, but be aware you’ll probably have to wait in line.) The oldest part of the city is on the waterfront, with its narrow, cobbled streets and all sorts of eclectic little shops – touristy but fun. The buses also take you there, too, and from there you can take a ferry across the channel, if you like.

Savannah has a number of “house museums” – old homes and businesses restored to exacting standards – but we didn’t visit any this time. Instead, because my husband is a “transportation” aficionado, we took in the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum (http://shipsofthe sea.org), and the Roundhouse Railroad Museum (http://chs georgia.org/home.cfm/page/RoundhouseRailroad.htm). Both are intriguing ways to spend a couple of hours. The maritime museum features a number of replicas of famed ships that passed through Savannah’s port. As for the roundhouse museum, it’s the remnant of what was once one of the South’s busiest railyards. The roundhouse is even operational, but we arrived too late to see it. Both museums are reasonably priced, and discount packages are available.

There are cities you’ll visit just once, and others you may return to again and again. Savannah’s enchanting ambiance and its rich history will bring us back again, and we’ll be staying at the Kehoe – and in the right time of year, Hilton Head is a perfect diversion. I also heard a renowned chef say as far as cuisine, he’d rather visit Savannah than anywhere else. Yeah, we’re up for that!

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