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Savannah and Charleston: Historic houses are a must-see

A couple walk underneath trees laden with Spanish

A couple walk underneath trees laden with Spanish moss toward the fountain in Forsyth Park in the historic district of Savannah, Ga. Photo Credit: SIME / eStock

As I sliced into fried green tomatoes and my husband dipped into she-crab soup, Mrs. Habersham stared down from her portrait above the fireplace.

Were she alive, she certainly would have been thinking, "Why are these Yankees dining in my master bedroom?"

We were dining, by candlelight and on white tablecloths, in the Olde Pink House Restaurant & Planters Tavern, the Habershams' mansion in Savannah, Georgia. James Habersham Jr. lived here from 1771 to 1800 and hosted secret meetings to plot the independence of the 13 colonies. Later, the mansion was home to Georgia's first bank, and during the Civil War, Union brass set up headquarters here after General William T. Sherman arrived in Savannah.

Dining in a Southern mansion is just one way to experience the ambience of the Revolutionary and Civil War eras in Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina, two hours to the north. My husband and I combined visits to both on a recent trip focused on touring antebellum homes. But there's plenty more to do besides house-hop, including shopping, relaxing on Folly Beach or Tybee Island or taking ghost-and-voodoo cemetery tours.

SAVANNAH

Savannah is laid out around 22 (originally 24) parklike squares boasting statues, benches and majestic trees draped with Spanish moss. Its period architecture has been preserved by devoted city residents who have helped restore properties to their former glory.

We parked our car at the Savannah Visitors Center -- a helpful first stop -- and hopscotched through the city aboard the green-and-orange Old Town Trolley

(trolleytours.com/savannah), which makes 16 stops in the historic district so riders can disembark and reboard as they wish.

We chose to see the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, the Owens-Thomas House and the Mercer-Williams House, the latter made infamous by the murder detailed in John Berendt's 1994 bestseller "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

A sample of information visitors glean on house tours: The Owens-Thomas House was built around 1819, an English Regency-style home designed by 24-year-old architect William Jay. Originally owned by a cotton broker, it was later purchased by George Owens, whose granddaughter, Margaret Thomas, lived there until 1951. (Homes in Savannah are named for the two most prominent families that have owned them.) The Marquis de Lafayette stayed here, and the building is noteworthy because it was one of the first to have multilevel indoor plumbing and because it has a bridge inside.

We also strolled Savannah's Riverfront shops and restaurants, where candy makers hawk fresh pralines, and enjoyed a buffet lunch at Paula Deen's The Lady & Sons restaurant in City Market, filling up on Southern fried chicken and hoe cakes as our waiter bragged, "You ain't getting that in New York. I don't care how good they say Sylvia's is."

CHARLESTON

Charleston is like a Disney World version of the Old South -- pastel homes with gaslights out front, a waterfront promenade and horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping through pristine streets.

Charleston's trolley system runs for free through the historic area, so we left our car at the Visitors Center garage and hopped a trolley to City Market for a narrated tour.

Our Carolina Polo and Carriage Co. (cpcc.com) guide taught us about Charleston porches -- they run along the sides of a house and are called piazzas -- and about traditional joggling boards -- long benches made of flexible wood where lovers courted, starting at opposite ends until they eventually bounced side-by-side in the center.

For Museum House Tours, we chose a combined ticket to the Nathaniel Russell House and the Aiken-Rhett House.

The former was completed in 1808 and has been restored with period pieces from 1770 to 1820. Architectural highlights include a "flying" spiral staircase that isn't attached to the walls and a circular drawing room with floor-to-ceiling windows and curved wooden doors.

The Aiken-Rhett House has been preserved rather than restored -- left in disrepair and as it was in the early 1800s. The self-guided audio tour covers the home and separate slave quarters, explaining such relics as a disintegrating and rusty pie safe -- a metal cabinet with screened doors where house slaves placed pies to cool without being beset by flies.

We also walked the French Quarter, visited the Old Slave Mart Museum and window-shopped on King Street, which our carriage guide had called "The Rodeo Drive of Charleston." Charleston is nicknamed The Holy City due to its many churches, so we took in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States.

We made it as far as the pineapple fountain in Waterfront Park, but didn't make it onto a boat to Fort Sumter National Monument, where the Civil War began in 1861. It's always nice to have a reason for a return trip.

GETTING THERE

JetBlue flies nonstop to Savannah and Charleston; each flight is a little more than two hours. 800-JETBLUE; jetblue.com. Round-trip tickets can be found for less than $200. Other major airlines also serve the cities. Driving time between them is about two hours.

SAVANNAH

WHERE TO STAY

The modern Hyatt Regency Savannah caused a stir when it was built on the historic Riverfront, right next to City Hall. Rates start at $139 a night. 2 W. Bay St., 912-238-1234, hyatt.com.

WHERE TO EAT

* The Olde Pink House, 23 Abercorn St., 912-232-4286, plantersinnsavannah.com.

* The Lady & Sons, Paula Deen's restaurant, 102 W. Congress St., 912-233-2600, ladyandsons.com.

WHAT TO DO

* Savannah Visitors Center, 301 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 912-944-0455, visitsavannah.com

* Owens-Thomas House, 124 Abercorn St., 912-233-9743, telfair.org

* Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, 10 E. Oglethorpe Ave., 912-233-4501, juliettegordonlowbirthplace.org

* Mercer Williams House Museum, 429 Bull St., 912-236-6352, mercerhouse.com

CHARLESTON

WHERE TO STAY

The quaint Andrew Pinckney Inn in Charleston is a stroll from City Market at 40 Pinckney St., 843-937-8800, andrewpinckneyinn.com. Rates start at $229.

WHAT TO DO

* Charleston Visitor Center, 375 Meeting St., 843-724-7174, charlestoncvb.com

* Nathaniel Russell House, 51 Meeting St., 843-724-8481, historiccharleston.org

* Aiken-Rhett House, 48 Elizabeth St., 843-723-1159, historiccharleston.org

* Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, 3550 Ashley River Rd., 843-571-1266, magnoliaplantation.com. The plantation is outside the historic district.

WHERE TO EAT

* Hyman's Seafood, 215 Meeting St., 843-723-6000, hymanseafood.com

* Peninsula Grill, 112 N. Market St., a Relais & Châteaux restaurant, 843-723-0700, peninsulagrill.com

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