By Heather Bryce
In what’s known as the South’s “Hostess City,” the Mansion on Forsyth Park, with its all-smiles welcoming staff, offers the utmost in Savannahian hospitality–even for pets, many of the canine variety of which can be seen strutting their stuff, through the marble and onyx lobby. So much more than friendly, the hotel is also chic in an Old South meets new style way, which can immediately be observed from the lobby’s Solomonic columns to its Versace sofas.
Anchored by what was once one of the city’s most grand residences, the original 1886 Romanesque mansion has been painstakingly renovated to house a top notch restaurant, happening bar and cooking school. A 125-room hotel, which mimics the original house right down to its bricks and turrets, was built next door and both are connected through a lounge. (The bricks were sourced locally to match flawlessly.)
What most defines Savannah’s only four-star hotel is its emphasis on art. Operated by the Kessler Group, a high-end hotel consortium with outposts in other Southern cities, the hallways and public areas are as packed with an eclectic array of contemporary works as a small museum. Richard Kessler, the head of the group, is an art collector and loves to share his wide-ranging and diverse–from quirky to majestic–pieces with his guests. During our stay, the vibrant, quick-stroke, almost cartoony works of German Expressionist, Peter Kyle, abounded. Most works are for sale and range from $2,000 to $20,000.
The foodie-focused hotel offers world-class fare in its dining rooms. Breakfast is a symphony of Southern decadence, dripping with generous lashings of butter. Do not miss the sigh-inducing shrimp and grits. For cocktails, make your way up to Casimir’s Dining Lounge, on the second floor of 700 Drayton. You know you’re in for a swank time from the leopard-patterned stairway to the jazzy tunes emanating from the ivories of a piano. Our bartender, Wendy Williby, who calls herself an “intoxicologist” rather than a “mixologist,” made us a dandy reimagined version of Chatham Artillery Punch, Savannah’s native cocktail (a mix of brandy, rum, whiskey, champagne, lemon and sugar). For her “Chatham Artillery Sparkler,” she poured Champagne, cognac, lemon juice and added a Luxardo maraschino cherry with its syrup. If you don’t finish your drink, ask for a to-go cup. A party town, Savannah encourages on-street carousing.
Dinner was memorable. Our locally sourced corn soup, with a nose of pickled lemon coupled with blue crab, was punctuated by an aromatic shiso leaf. The kale salad was given a bit of Dixie flair with the addition of candied peanuts, sharpened by verjus-plumped golden raisins. We had to remind ourselves we weren’t in Provence while devouring the braised lamb loin moistened with basil pistou and a confit of sweet tomatoes. My partner refused to share the “Kit Kat Bar,” a blow-your-mind chocolate mousse-praline confection—a true endorsement. All dishes were paired brilliantly with wine, the dessert with a buttery, gingery Madeira from the Rare Wine Company’s “Historic Savannah” series.
Savannah is known for its colorful history and the many periods of architecture that reflect it. Mansion on Forsyth is seated in the city’s Victorian District, an enclave of grand wedding-cake residences that borders the town center and is in walking distance of just about everything. A hop on one of the many trolleys or a short amble will take you along avenues of moss-draped oak trees and homes bordered by a filigree of iron railings. On nearby Bull Street, for fans of John Berendt’s tome, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the Mercer-Williams House in which many of the book’s events–both festive and grisly–took place, is open to the public. And Paula Deen, who may have disappeared from the airwaves, still oversees a downtown restaurant, The Lady & Sons, which serves her high-calorie concoctions. Think: creamed potatoes and “gooey” butter cakes.
Keep going north through the city’s many squares and over its herringbone brick streets till you’ll arrive at a 46-foot bluff above the Savannah River, a maritime thoroughfare that still dominates the city’s livelihood. Atop the bluff is the Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront, the other Kessler Savannah property, and a younger and livelier sibling. The five-year-old industrial-modern edifice resembles one of the old cotton warehouses that once lined the riverside when cotton was still the area’s agricultural king.
To enter street-side from the bluff, you actually find yourself on the fourth floor. You’ll need to take the elevator down to the restaurant on river level. Unlike the sophisticated and staid ambience of Mansion, this smaller hotel (75 rooms) is a rollicking nightlife destination. Rocks on the Roof is a happening bar where revelers happily imbibe sweet tea (the ubiquitous beverage of the South) cocktails while overlooking the river.
Despite its youthful exuberance, the hotel’s restaurant, Rocks on the River, delivers an unforgettable culinary punch. Our North Carolina grouper with a fava-scallion puree exhibited the chef’s polish. The grilled quail put a modern spin on old world flavors, and the bird’s legs were crossed like those of a proper belle. Again, all wines were astutely paired, and again, the dessert wine was outstanding, this time a luscious Vin de Constance, from Klein Constantia, a South African winery that has been producing world-renowned vintages since 1685.
Back at the Mansion, we needed to detox in the crisply white Poseidon Spa. Receiving a nurturing and muscle-melting massage replete with a laying-on of hot towels and a light brushing to stimulate detoxification of the lymphatic system was heaven. It started with the stroking of an antioxidant-infused “repair” oil onto our face, then proceeded with a muscle therapy lotion and agave oil down to toes.
As amateur chefs, we thought we knew all about food prep, but at a class led by Chef Peter Russo, a transplanted New Yorker who runs 700 Kitchen Cooking School, he was able to impart quite a bit of new info. For one thing, he gave his permission to use the vacuum-packed peeled garlic found in supermarkets—a trick that’s changed our lives. He had the whole class laughing and learning as we followed his instructions to chop, slice and stir our way through a menu of Southern specialties. Afterward, we all sat down family style in a private dining room, a former stable, to indulge in a scrumptious Low Country crab stew, herbed succotash, angel biscuits, Chicken Country Captain (a spicy traditional Savannah dish) and a green tomato cobbler. Our favorite was the ultra creamy grits, which the chef personalized with the inspired addition of smoked Gouda.
As we left Savannah, we toasted to the Kessler experience and are pleased to note that Mr. Kessler has yet another hotel–and then some–in mind for the city. His latest project is Savannah Plant Riverside, a $200 million renovation transforming the original 100-year-old Georgia Riverside Power Plant into a four-acre hospitality and entertainment district, set to open in Spring 2017. Boasting two new luxury hotels with different themes, the complex will also include a retail space, café and bakery, wine blending/tasting area and rooftop bar—the better to overlook the still dynamic port city.