Thursday, June 20, 2013


 Map of our Southern Charm tour courtesy of Collette Vacations

We left Jekyll Island and headed south, bypassing Jacksonville, to spend a few hours in America’s oldest town, St. Augustine, Florida. We arrived around 10am and it was already hot. The weather had been perfect up to this point, but our luck ran out, weather wise. We milled around for about an hour waiting for our turn to board a trolley hired to give us an overview of the historic district. School children and tourists swarmed the town causing the trolley rides to get behind schedule, and our driver picked us to make up for lost time! As soon as we all settled into our seats she floored the trolley's accelerator pitching us into on coming traffic, scattering wild-eyed pedestrians in every direction. Skidding around corners, we ricocheted off of each other like pin balls while we strained to hear her equally speed-ed up narration...

“St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez on your left is the Huguenot Cemetery this is where you get the saying ‘Dead Ringer’ in order to help people from being buried alive a string was tied from their finger to a bell so if they were alive they could be ‘Saved by the bell’ HA HA HA on your right is Castillo de San Marcos the construction on this fort began in 1672 by the Spanish and took nearly 23 years to complete making it the oldest masonry structure in the United States EXCUSE ME LADY THIS IS A PRIVATE CHARTER TAKE THE NEXT ONE directly in front you’ll see The Flagler College named after Henry Flagler partner of John D. Rockefeller he wanted to make St. Augustine a playground for the rich and famous and is responsible for the unique terracotta decorations and red brick accents seen on many of our buildings HEY MISTER YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO PARK THERE PLEASE MOVE YOUR CAR…!”

  At least I got a good picture of the back of someone's head!

After that unexpected adrenaline rush, Courtney, Leeza and I headed down St. George Street in high spirits discussing what we wanted to see. Our frenetic trolley tour did give us a sense of some of St. Augustine’s landmarks and we remembered a collection of preserved historic homes built between 1790 and 1840 that looked interesting. We decided to hoof the few blocks to see them rather than risk another "Mister Toad's Wild Ride" on the trolley. But unfortunately for me and my feet, we picked the wrong landmark to see. To one who loves historic grand mansions, these were just a sad little group of decrepit frame houses that had seen better days. One even looked like it was about to topple over!

I liked this one best of all. It reminded me of a crazy house in a carnival.

I really wanted to see the fort, Castillo de San Marcos but it was literally crawling with bus loads of school kids. Besides that, I had stupidly worn the wrong shoes and I could feel blisters blossoming on my feet the size of silver dollars. It was also good and hot by that time, so we slowly walked back up St. George Street going in and out of air conditioned boutiques enjoying an ice cream along the way. It was actually not a bad way to spend the rest of our afternoon; nothing wrong with a little shopping and eating. Next time, though, I'll put the fort and the Lightner Museum at the top of my list of things to see.

The Lightner Museum, former grand hotel at the turn of the last century. 
Great example of the terracotta and red brick accents on many of the buildings
in St. Augustine.

 The oldest wooden school house in the United States.

 The original gates into the fortified town of St. Augustine. The pillars were
the supports for the drawbridge over the moat. St. George Street is behind.

 Scenes along St. George Street in the historic district.

 Along St. George Street.

 The fort, Castillo de San Marcos

Back on the bus, we traveled north to Jacksonville where we would spend the night and fly home the next day. The tour ended with dinner by the St. Johns River. The night air was warm and the walk back to our hotel by the river was a lovely ending to a very satisfying tour.

 The view on our way back to the hotel after dinner along the St. Johns River in Jacksonville.

Our Tour Manager, Curtis Evans. Thanks, Curtis for "herding" your flock so well!

**Double click on any picture for a full screen slide show.

Friday, June 14, 2013


Map of the Southern Charm Tour courtesy of Collette Vacations

I have to be honest. Savannah stole my heart. I could have easily sent for my belongings and moved into one of those mansions with the floor to ceiling windows overlooking Monterey Square and been happy as a clam for the rest of my life. But, there was more to the south than Savannah so the next morning we set off down the coast and headed for Jekyll Island.

Things began to decidedly look up when I heard that we were going to spend a day living just like the upper crust did a century ago. Our itinerary read, “The Jekyll Island Club Hotel was originally built in 1886 as a hunting retreat for America’s wealthy elite including J.P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, Joseph Pulitzer, as well as the Vanderbilts, Goulds, Cranes and Astors. Restored to its original splendor in 1986, it is now a National Historic Landmark.” Well now. Things were looking up!

The Queen Anne style Jekyll Island Club was built in 1886.

The 53 founding members of the “Club”, everyone a card carrying tycoon, bought Jekyll Island to have a place to bring their families to get away from the harsh northern winters and, more importantly, smoke cigars and hobnob with each other. It was a members only club and not just any old body with money could join either, just those with social standing and connections. One of the first buildings erected on the site was the Victorian Queen Anne style club house where after days spent enjoying lawn parties and hunting trips, the millionaires dressed in tuxedos and gowns and gathered for three hour dinner parties. And we were going to stay in that very same club house!

As soon as our bags were unloaded at the Club, we climbed aboard a tram for a guided tour of the nearby “cottages” that the rich and famous built for themselves. While not as grand as the summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island, the “cottages” were still impressive. They may have been a little more laid back, but they housed the wealthy, don’t forget, which just probably meant that servants were kept to a minimum. As we rode around I could see why the founders chose to purchase the entire island. Cooled by soft ocean breezes and cut off from the rest of the world, its serenity and beauty would relax anyone.

The Crane Cottage
This little modest beauty was built by Richard Crane Jr. in 1917. Mr. Crane is
the reason we all have indoor bathrooms in matching porcelain! 

The Cherokee
Built in 1904 by Dr. George Shrady, a renowned surgeon. He named it after Georgia's
state flower, the Cherokee Rose. 

Faith Chapel is guarded by gargoyles and has two of the most stunningly beautiful
stain glass windows I have ever seen. One is by Tiffany, the other, and I think even more
beautiful, is the one behind the alter by Maitland Armstrong. No pictures were allowed, darn it!

San Souci (without care) is the nation's first townhouses. J.P. Morgan lived in one.

Moss Cottage built in 1896.
 Some of the earlier cottages actually managed to look like cottages.

duBignon Cottage built in 1884. duBignon was one of the
founding members of the "Club".

Some of the miles of biking trails around and through the Island; the best way to see it.

St. Simon and Driftwood Beach

 The Lighthouse on St. Simon Island

Next day, some of us opted to spend a few hours visiting nearby St. Simon Island. It was a perfect day and I enjoyed seeing the quaint lighthouse and browsing the boutique stores lining the sleepy main street. When it came time for lunch though, I had no clue where to stop because there were so many cute places that looked like they served tasty food. Then I saw the “4th of May Café” and my choice was made since that’s my birthday! I sat outside and ordered a barbecue chicken sandwich and as I  smeared it all over my face, I asked the waitress how the café got its name. She said, "The owner and her two partners all have the same birthday—May 4th. And on every May 4th, they invite the entire town for birthday cake to celebrate".  I would just love to join them. (It was also one of the best meals I had on the trip!)

 The 4th of May Cafe

Later that day, Courtney arranged for hotel transportation to take some of us to see Driftwood Beach a few miles away from the Jekyll Island Club. It was an eerie and yet beautiful site of uprooted and bleached oak trees, victims of erosion. It is a wonderful place to take photographs, especially at sunset.

 Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island. St. Simon Island is in the background.

Sunset as seen from the Island.

 Leeza and Courtney in front of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel at sunset.

Phoebe and the wealthy ghosts of Jekyll Island Club

After sprucing up and “dining at the Club”, Courtney, Leeza and I walked down to the pier and enjoyed the spectacular sunset then wandered around looking for a little bar that we were told was tucked away someplace in the hotel. Walking up and down several sets of stairs, through a dark passage way and under a dim light we finally found a small sign that read, “Vincent’s Pub”.  Entering in a door that looked as unremarkable as someone’s laundry room, we found a cozy little bar tended by Cindi, a tiny barista with a big smile who turned out to be the one of the best parts of our stay on Jekyll Island.

Cindi could spot lovers of ghost stories a mile away. It must have been written on our foreheads. In between wiping down the bar, ringing up drinks and answering the phone, she spun story after story of the resident ghosts who had never left the Jekyll Island Club. We hung on her every word:

“See that picture on the wall by the door? A Budweiser mirror used to hang there. We had to take it down a few years ago after losing a bartender. Story goes it was late at night and the bartender was here all by himself cleaning up when he heard three knocks on the bar behind him. He had already locked up and couldn’t imagine who could have gotten in. He glanced up at the mirror and saw a well dressed man in a dark suit behind him. He turned around to ask him what he wanted but there was nobody there. Well, the bartender he left everything, his tips, the cash drawer, everything, and he never came back. It scared him that bad.

Then there’s Phoebe. She’s the ghost down at the Bookstore. We know her name because once she actually talked to somebody. A lady came in the store one day with her little boy. She shopped for a little while then looked up to see where her son was and saw him standing and looking up like he was listening to somebody. When she asked him what was he was looking at, he told her, ‘Phoebe. She’s real nice.’ See, they already knew all about her at the bookstore because she often throws toys off of a bench by the front door, but they never knew her name until she told the little boy. Come to find out, Phoebe used to be a nanny for one of the families on the Island.

My favorite one though is about the gentleman ghost that lives in a certain room on the second story of the Annex. Lots of people over the years have said they’ve heard him move around or open and close doors and stuff, but the best story about him is this one: A fella staying there once said that he left his newspaper and a cup of coffee out on the balcony for just a minute and when he goes back out there, the newspaper was folded and the cup was empty like somebody drank it. He swears there was no one else in the room.”

If you ever get to the Jekyll Island Club and Vincent’s Pub, say hello to Cindi for me.

 Cindi, barista in Vincent's Pub. Jekyll Island Club's best kept secret.

 Next time: St. Augustine, Florida

**Double click on any picture for a full screen slide show.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Map of the Southern Charm tour courtesy of Collette Vacations

She Saw Mercer House, May She Rest In Peace!

Before the bus even rolled to a stop at the Savannah Visitor Center, I was ready to bolt out of the door and head straight for Mercer House. Seeing this home that was the setting for the book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” had been on the top of my ‘must see’ list ever since I read it. John Berendt’s true story of a deadly lover’s quarrel set in one of the most impressive of all Savannah homes captured my imagination in a way that very few books ever have. His description of the sublime beauty of Savannah’s magnificently restored homes and the 22 lovely park-like squares they are built around, each with its own design and personality made Savannah the star character in the book. I wanted to understand and feel that same seductive pull on Berendt from Savannah that made him extend what had been only a visit to a stay of eight years.

I had talked Mercer House up so much with my other tour mates that several of them wanted to come with me to catch the last tour of the day. We didn’t have much time, so as soon as the bus parked we headed straight for Monterrey Square and its iconic house. The map of historic downtown Savannah showed Mercer House several blocks away from the Visitor Center and I was prepared to sprint if I had to, however Savannah’s blocks are surprisingly small and we arrived in no time. Mercer House, its garden and a large two story carriage house in the back, took up an entire Savannah block. We bought our tickets and milled around in the former carriage house turned ticket office and gift shop while we waited our turn. I honestly felt like a bride awaiting my walk to the alter as I stood there shifting my weight from one foot to the other until the door opened and I could be escorted into the pages of Berendt’s mesmerizing book. Finally, a distinguished southern gentleman guide opened the door and took me, Alice, into wonderland. 

 Mercer House sits to the right of Monterey Square.

First though, I should give you a little background about the house and the man who made it famous, Jim Williams. Mr. Williams was a wealthy antiques dealer, but more importantly, he played an important role in saving historic downtown Savannah from decline. He, along with a committee of concerned Savannah families starting mid-century, bought dozens of decaying elegant old homes slated to be torn down and replaced by parking lots and shopping centers and implemented their restoration. He lovingly restored many of them himself, one of which was Mercer House. The great-grandfather of Johnny Mercer, the lyricist, began construction of the home in 1860 but died before its completion. As it turned out, no Mercer ever lived there but the home would always bear the Mercer name. But to me, it will always be the Williams House.

 Armstrong House, one of the 50 homes Williams bought and restored.

 This extraordinary home (now law offices) is just around the corner from Mercer House
and breathtaking Forsyth Park.

In the early 80’s, Mr. Williams employed a handsome and unstable handyman by the name of Danny Hansford with whom he had an affair. After a violent confrontation in the study of his home in Mercer House, Mr. Williams shot and killed the young man. Over the next ten years, he was tried four times and finally acquitted of the charge of murder. He died six months later of pneumonia and heart failure just a few feet away from where Danny bled to death.

Our gracious host guided us through the garden area that Mr. Williams had added to the property. Like everything about the mansion, it was tastefully designed consisting of a sunken brick patio area, now moss covered, with a quiet burbling fountain at its head. As I entered into the home, I expected to see Mr. Williams at every turn. All of his expensive belongings were in their places just as he left them almost 25 years ago. Even though I hated that we weren’t able to take any pictures of the interior, I could see the wisdom. The home is occupied and owned by Mr. Williams’ sister and still contains millions of dollars of his priceless art and furnishings. It was exquisite. 

 Mercer House is one block away from picturesque Forsyth Park.

The mansion is not large; the rooms feel cozy and intimate, due in great part by the considerable design skills of its restorer. The large floor to ceiling windows, all with tree shaded views made me feel like a bird in an elegant aerie. I could have stayed there forever.

Then I walked into the study. It was so much smaller than I imagined. The shooting scene in the book describes Danny entering the room and brandishing a pistol as Mr. Williams sits behind his desk. According to Mr. Williams’ testimony, Danny fires at him and misses and in his defense, Mr. Williams takes a pistol out of his desk and fires back at Danny killing him. As I read the scene in the book, I pictured a large study with Danny standing several feet away from the desk, but because the room was so small, he would have had no other option than to stand right in front of it, aiming his gun point blank at Williams’ chest.

I can only say that I felt the same sort of awe when I stood in the Forum in Rome where Julius Caesar was stabbed, and again when I stood on the streets of Pompeii, looking like the day before Mt. Vesuvius covered it in hundreds of feet of ash, and again when I stood on the spot where pregnant Mary Queen of Scots witnessed her personal secretary Rizzio being stabbed to death in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. To me, history as immediate as an arm’s length away is what travel is all about.

The Rest of Savannah

The next morning we had more time to enjoy the rest of historic Savannah during a very enjoyable walking tour. First, our guide took us into St. John the Baptist Church, built in 1873. It is a beautiful church and its interior reflected the town's wealth and self esteem.

The magnificent organ in St. John's

We strolled along the narrow streets, leisurely enjoying the exteriors of Savannah's finest homes and landmarks.

 Dome of City Hall

The Andrew Low Home faces Lafayette Square, just one of Savannah's 22 breathtaking squares.

We ended by touring the Andrew Low Home and Gardens, former residence of Juliette Low founder of the Girl Scouts. It was very similar to the Mercer House in size and layout, except without the glamor, but it was still worth seeing. Again, we were not allowed to take pictures, just this shot of the fountain in the garden.

Next time: Jekyll Island Club and St. Augustine, Florida

**Click on any picture for a full screen slide show.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Map of our Southern Charm tour courtesy of Collette Vacations

Leaving Charleston reluctantly behind, our lumbering bus takes us south to the island town of Beaufort. If you want charm, Beaufort is dripping with it. It is the quintessential genteel southern town: beautifully preserved antebellum homes framed by live oaks trailing Spanish moss like old man’s beards and magnolias the size of dinner plates. I was in heaven. Nothing appeals to me more than gorgeous old homes that whisper of old money and gracious manners. My family may have had a plantation once upon a time, but the last century and a half was spent living like pioneers on the dusty west Texas plains, making Beaufort a place of my dreams.

Before the Civil War, rice and cotton made Beaufort one of the wealthiest towns in America and large summer villas were built up and down gracious tree lined streets reflecting that wealth. I recommend experiencing this lovely town atop a buggy pulled by the slowest horse in South Carolina, one that must stop frequently to let nature do its thing. Clip clopping languidly through the shaded lanes of Beaufort directed to look here and there by an personable guide was wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable. Afterwards, I had plenty of time before lunch to retrace the route on foot by myself and leisurely take all the pictures I wanted.

 This home was constructed using "tabby", a concrete made of lime,
sand and oyster shells.

One of the most beautiful on the island, this home was said to have been rented by
 Sally Field during the filming of "Forrest Gump".
Former home of Senator Rhett. The wealth of Beaufort was based on the value
 and labor of its slaves. In 1850, the Sea Islands
had 1,111 white people and 8,361 slaves occupying 151 plantations.
  A leading defender of slavery, Senator Rhett became the "Father of Succession"
leading South Carolina into the Civil War.

Our guide told us that if the roof of the porches were painted black that meant that someone had died there. It made some of us scratch our heads and wonder why anyone would want to advertise that. He didn't seem to know why then some of the porches were painted green or blue, however. Green for organic proponents, maybe? Blue for clean air advocates?
I loved how several of the steps around town were encrusted with vegetation.

The grandest summer villa of them all overlooking the bay.
And outside its driveway, the hanging tree!
 Another lovely Beaufort home with its requisite cool verandas. Mint Julep anyone?

Moss and magnolias

Next time: Fabulous Savannah and Mercer House: mystery and murder!

**Click on any picture for a full screen image of all the pictures.