In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Nor do I know much about Paula Deen, other than that she kind of scares me. I’m more of a World War II than Civil War buff. And, I had to Google “Johnny Mercer” to find out who he was. What do these things have to do with each other? They are among the many random trivia particles that had somehow accrued in my brain regarding Savannah before I’d ever been there. In much the same way that New Orleans is unfairly yet commonly typecast, so is Savannah. And what I came away from there with after a recent visit was that I’d barely scratched the surface of what this beautiful town has to offer, and also how much it reminded me of home. I’ll be going back soon.

Having heard about the natural beauty of the low country, my wife and I based our short vacation outside of town to split our time between Savannah and its surrounding environs. The monolithic high-rise golf and beach complexes along the coast didn’t appeal to us; we wanted a place that complemented the environment rather than dominated it. This search led us to the Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, S.C., an upscale yet understated resort 25 minutes from downtown Savannah along the banks of the May River. It was a bit of a splurge, but off-season rates combined with a special package deal lessened the sting.

The splurge was worth it: our private cabin overlooked a wide lagoon bordered by live oaks hung with Spanish moss, reminding us of Audubon Park. A mammoth bed, luxury linens and a bath with a separate soaking tub, steam room and enormous, walk-in shower with approximately 9,000 independent nozzles made it clear why this resort received top marks from Condé Nast Traveler. The gas fireplace, plasma TV and screened-in porch was just another layer of frosting on the cake.

Originally, our plan had been to enjoy the on-grounds outdoorsy opportunities, such as kayaking, while not exploring Savannah. But a particularly icy blast of winter weather snuffed out our outdoor recreation plans; one attempt to bike the local wildlife trails swiftly resulted in a pair of ice cream headaches. A grilled pimento cheese sandwich remedied this, and then it was off to Savannah.

Live oaks cloaked in Spanish moss. Wide neutral grounds flanked by rows of residences filigreed in wrought iron. Victorian mansions denoted with historical plaques. Cemeteries with graceful statuary weathered by time and storms. These are some of the obvious similarities between Savannah and New Orleans. Savannah’s historic downtown is eminently walk-able. In an inspired bit of urban planning, it’s organized around a grid of public squares, each essentially a pocket park. Since each of these squares are spaced a couple of blocks apart, this ensures that a significant proportion of downtown real estate fronts a leafy green quad. Each square has its own little personality, and walking through the town, New Orleanians will undoubtedly be architecturally reminded of home.

Since it was too cold to kayak, my wife Megan suggested a fallback position of shopping. Savannah is a good town for that; the downtown area is peppered with independent boutiques, many of them receiving an infusion of creative energy from students and graduates from SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design. ShopSCAD on Bull Street is a case in point; here we found artwork including original paintings, unique house wares and books with an emphasis on cool graphic design, all produced by students, alumni and faculty of SCAD.

Serendipity played a role in our wanderings when we visited Satchel., a neat handbags and leather goods store owned and operated by Elizabeth Seeger, a native of Covington and graduate of SCAD. She opened her shop in 2006 and now carries about 20 lines of handbags and other leather good and is experiencing a growing demand for custom work as well.

“People I have never met before are starting to come to me for custom work, which means the word is spreading,” she told us after we all figured out we were all Louisiana natives. “That’s the best I can ask for!” Her approach to design is typically to find a material she loves and to work backward from that. “I let the materials dictate what I make out of them. Certain leathers lend themselves to a certain styles and shapes.” This seemed to strike a chord with Megan – she left Satchel. happily with a brand new purse and clutch, both handmade in-house by Seeger.

Dinner was at Elizabeth on 37th, a restaurant housed in a striking old home fronting an oak-lined neutral ground. Through the doors, the imposing exterior yields to an inside more akin to a bed and breakfast than a mansion. A super-friendly staff and a James Beard Award on the walls didn’t change the overall impression that this place was a bit frayed around the edges. High price points ($16 for a soup-of-the-day appetizer) reinforced this.

Still, an appetizer of Shrimp and Grits spiked with ham and red-eyed gravy softened the blow, and filet of seabass over a nice cauliflower flan was pretty creative. Another entrée of Savannah Red Rice with shrimp, sausage, oysters, mussels and grouper reminded us of a shared culinary heritage. We saved room for dessert back at Palmetto Bluff, where nightly s’mores were served al fresco around large fire pits.

The next morning it was back to Savannah for a little history and culture. At the Telfair Museum of Art, $15 buys triple admission to the Telfair Academy, the Owens-Thomas House and the Jepson Center for the Arts (the cost is even less with a student, military or senior status). The Academy is housed in a beautiful old home, showcasing a couple of rooms furnished in period style as a sideshow to the main event: an art collection featuring a permanent collection of 19th and 20th century paintings, primarily by American artists. Of special note is the “Bird Girl” sculpture, which graced the cover of the bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Be sure to check out the Kitchen Gallery just off the Sculpture Gallery, which presents a neat look at an early 19th century kitchen complete with the building’s original hearth. The upper level is devoted to travelling exhibitions.

The academy’s doppelganger is the nearby Jepson Center for the Arts, a striking, contemporary structure of bold, curved lines and lots of glass and natural light. The focus here is modern 20th and 21st century art, including interactive mixed media exhibits, an auditorium for lectures and performances, and a sculpture terrace which provides great views of downtown Savannah. Fully equipped studios on site are used by children participating in the museum’s educational programs, and their results are displayed in the adjacent Morrison Community Gallery. Kids will enjoy this museum, with its approachable and interactive exhibits.

The Owens-Thomas House is on Oglethorpe Square a few blocks away and offers a glimpse into how the Brahmin class lived in 19th-century Savannah. The English Regency style house is noteworthy for, among other reasons, being the first house in Savannah with gravity-pressurized indoor plumbing and flushing toilets. Granted, the toilets flushed out into the street, but hey – it was a start. The house is viewable by guided tour only, but tours run every half hour.

For lunch we hit Lady and Sons: the flagship of Paula Deen’s Southern Fried Empire. I went somewhat unwillingly, as this place had all the hallmarks of a tourist trap: a tour bus outside and a gift shop that doubled as a waiting area. But after being hoisted to the third floor in an elevator and seated amidst a throng of Deen aficionados, I opted for the buffet and you know what? It was pretty good food – especially the fried chicken. It was also one of the trip’s better deals at $13.99 for all-you-can-eat. Along with the bird came black-eyed peas, mac and cheese casserole, collard greens, topped off with syrup-drenched hoecakes and buttermilk biscuits that would hold their own against Popeyes on Mardi Gras morning.

After multiple servings of fried chicken, a very long stroll was in order. While taking in the homes and architecture, we found The Honey House, the brick and mortar storefront for the Savannah Bee Company. Founder and apiarist Ted Dennard found his calling with bee keeping early on, eventually selling his jars of Tupelo Honey at the local antique store One Fish Two Fish (also well worth a visit). They caught the eye of Williams-Sonoma and Dean and Delucca, and the rest is history. The Honey House is a neat combination of retail and educational space, complete with a honey tasting bar and a beehive-inspired playroom for the kids. I left with a tall jar of Black Sage Honey and another of crystallized Winter White, delicious on pancakes, scones and just about everything else.

Outside of town, we paid our respects to Bonaventure Cemetery, a sprawling expanse of aged marble tombs spaced widely amidst the live oaks along a riverbank. Unlike New Orleans, residents of Savannah can bury their dead below ground but the striking statuary and masonry are no less beautiful than what we find at home. In fact, given the gently rolling landscape and the lush, almost wild landscaping, it seemed more like a park than a cemetery. This impression was augmented by the occasional sights of guys kicking back and fishing along the riverbank.

The best meal we had was the last one of the trip at Local 1110, a restaurant housed in a former bank featuring a contemporary menu that takes full advantage of regional ingredients along with worldwide influences and techniques. The founding chef, who has since taken on more of a management role, hailed from Blackberry Farm in Tennessee: a good pedigree. We started with creamy foie gras mousse, topped with caramelized pear and walnuts, served in a jelly jar and a real bargain at $13. I kept it regional with an appetizer of local shrimp in a black barbeque sauce served with a green apple slaw. For a main course, a nice dish of seared Carolina scallops came arranged on a smoky plank of Allan Benton Bacon. Neat sides include caramelized Brussels sprouts spiked with Italian sausage, broccolini, and (of course) Mac-n-Local-Cheese. Dessert was a tasty pear, poached and cored and filled with tupelo honey pudding and flanked by a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream.

Along the way, our server was super-friendly, helping walk us through the menu. He decrypted the “Crab Tortilla Fleurettes with Black Beans, Avocado, White Cheddar, Salsa Fresco and Candied Limes” by simply stating that it was “Basically, fancy nachos, and a favorite of the family meal” (e.g. the meal put out for staff by the kitchen).

The last morning we sat down for coffee and pastries at Back in the Day Bakery, located south of Forsyth Park on Bull Street in a commercial, blue-collar neighborhood. They supplied the bread for Local 1100 the night before, a nice whole grain loaf with bits of coarse pepper embedded in the crust, and we wanted to sample their other offerings. They serve a limited lunch menu, along with nice cupcakes, lemon squares and mini-specialty pizzas. I had the place figured as more of a local refueling spot than a tourist destination until a bus with the moniker “Foodie Tours” stenciled on the side pulled up, disgorging a flock of food lovers who lined up for free samples of mini-cupcakes. I think I was just jealous that we didn’t get in on the deal.

We left Savannah with more questions than answers, and can’t wait for the next chance to learn more about our sister city in the South. After checking out of Palmetto Bluff, on the way out of the grounds we passed over a wooden bridge spanning a wide, slow-moving river of grass and water, captured rays of the mid-morning sweet light. It was just a reminder that we had a whole lot more to learn about and enjoy in this beautiful part of the country.