Destination: Georgia : SOUTHERN BESTSELLER : Exploring gracious Savannah's flower-drenched squares and gardens . . . 'of good and evil'

"I see you have 'The Book,' " people said in Savannah when they spotted "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" under my arm. It was, I noted, an observation made each time in a curiously uninflected tone and without elaboration.

Yes, I had "The Book," and what's more, I had read it too. So had a friend, which was one reason why we were poking around Savannah for a couple of days--an endeavor in which we were not alone.

Since New York editor John Berendt's book about Savannah was published last year, tourism in the southern Georgia town has gone up 46%, a welcome boost to the local economy. On the other hand, I could imagine that some of the natives might have greeted Berendt's gossip fest with less than open arms. The central event in his bestseller is, after all, the murder of a wild young street hustler by a gay antiques dealer, and other characters in "Midnight" include a drag queen named the Lady Chablis, a man who walks flies and a voodoo priestess.

Their goings-on are not exactly in keeping with the preferred image of a place that calls itself the "Hostess City of the South," a quaint moniker that evokes a picture of ladies (none dare call them women) in gloves and brimmed hats serving mint juleps in a garden where the smell of gardenias drifts on the warm breath of a breeze. Too much Margaret Mitchell on my part, perhaps.

But after my visit to the "Hostess City," I could believe that such a carpetbagger fantasy is (pardon my language, Savannah) made flesh there. And it was certainly easier to picture than murder or the reportedly Mardi Gras-like excesses of the city's St. Patrick's Day festivities, when fountains run green and revelers party in the street.

All that I would have to alter in my all-purpose Southern fantasy to make it a better fit for Savannah is the quaff of choice. Judging from the Junior League cookbook, Savannahans apparently skip the mint juleps and serve Chatham Artillery Punch instead, a local concoction that mixes gin, whiskey, green tea, brandy, rum, wine and, oh, pineapple chunks, among other things. It is said to pack more wallop than two brass cannons. The league ladies' recipe serves 200 of their nearest and dearest.

Not that I got a taste of it. When you're a Yankee tourist who hasn't been properly introduced, the possibility of being among the 200 being drilled by artillery punch at a Savannah party is remote. In fact, the only hostesses I and my pal, Aldra, met during our visit were the ones who saved us a table for two at 7:30. And all we saw of Savannah's secret gardens--their soaring walls would deny even someone with the hang time of a Michael Jordan so much as a glimpse of an interior--was what we could espy through the few gates that were barred instead of board.

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Not that I'm complaining. Equipped with maps, guidebooks and "The Book," we entertained ourselves quite nicely in Savannah, though, if I may be so bold to suggest, the "Hostess City" tag didn't really apply. "Savannah, fair and square" would sum up our visit better.

When I arrived in the city in early February, I was wearing a wool coat, scarf and gloves. A major snowstorm was supposed to make most of the East Coast miserable the next day, but in Savannah, Johnny-jump-ups and camellias and the odd daffodil bloomed. Of course, the "fair" part of my motto would be referring to more than climatic clemency. Savannah's downtown historic district--at 2.2 square miles the nation's largest urban historic landmark district--is stunning.

You don't have to know the difference between Greek Revival and Classical Revival, Romanesque, Regency and Italianate to be bowled over by block after block of stately mansions. I can just about manage to tell a Federalist home (fanlights) from a Victorian one (towers), but that didn't keep me from being delighted by the sweeping staircases, the frosted glass doors, the fancy wrought-iron grillwork, the gas lanterns, the oriels (crossword puzzles are not a waste of time), the guardian lions and dolphin-shaped drainpipes that we came across as we walked the historic district.

"Oooo, I like that one," one of us would say at about 90-second intervals, or sometimes, not to get repetitive, "Oooo, I want that one."

Aldra had pronounced the first variation on this theme when we were ogling a number with upstairs porches and tidy white trim.

"Thank you," said a man, who crossed the street behind us and went up the walk with keys out.

That these wonderful restorations exist in such profusion comes thanks to two pivotal events in Savannah history, the first of which occurred way back during the "War of Northern Aggression."

After a promising start, things had not been going well for the Confederacy, and the barbarians, in the person of William Tecumseh Sherman, were at the gate. Before they could knock it down, though, the city's eminently sensible mayor offered to surrender the city without a shot if Sherman would only keep his matches in his pocket.

The Union general agreed, and on Dec. 22, 1864, sent a triumphant cable to Lincoln:

"I beg to present to you, as a Christmas gift, the City of Savannah . . . with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton."

Thus Savannah was spared the fate of other Southern cities that were in the path of Sherman's march to the sea. That meant that nearly a century later, the city had a lot of buildings worth saving when a group of eminent ladies realized that decay and the developers were destroying their hometown.

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Before the bulldozers could flatten any more of their heritage, these ladies formed the Historic Savannah Foundation in the mid-'50s and began identifying buildings of architectural and historic significance. About 1,100 made their list. Through partnerships with private citizens, about 900 have been saved since then, and the reclamation work continues.

Colorful trolleys, buses and horse-drawn carriages now carry tourists through the streets of the once down-at-the-heels downtown neighborhoods, but Sherman has nothing on me when it comes to long marches, and we did all our sightseeing on foot. "Next time, I'm wearing a pedometer," Aldra vowed, when we finally stopped to read inscriptions on aged gravestones embedded in a wall at the Colonial Cemetery.

On the second night, we ate at the Olde Pink House, which we liked despite that "e" on "olde." The Georgian mansion, built in 1771, is Dubble Bubble pink on the outside and elegant on the inside. In our dining room, cameo-green walls were hung with portraits of solemn Colonial personages, snowy tablecloths glowed in the soft light of a crystal chandelier and an always-perfect gas fire flamed in the grate. Two thumbs up on food, service and ambience.

The Olde Pink House dominates one side of Reynolds Square, which brings me back to my motto, "Savannah, fair and square," although perhaps, given that Savannah has 20 or 21 squares downtown, depending on whom you ask, it should be modified to "Savannah, fair and squares."

The striking geometry of the city descends from James Oglethorpe, who founded Savannah in 1733. Oglethorpe was a man of definite ideas--he didn't cotton to slavery, for one thing, which came later with the plantation economy--and he wanted his capital for the Georgia colony to be a place of spaciousness, order and beauty. So when he located his city on a bluff about 15 miles from the mouth of the Savannah River, he went with the Roman plan and designed it on a grid with squares at regular intervals. Of course, Oglethorpe never heard of gridlock, which a score of squares must occasion at times in this era of the automobile.

Some of the squares are shaded by massive live oaks hung with trailing Spanish moss, and many have flower beds that must be an eyeful in spring. A liberal sprinkling of benches invites extended stays in what Savannah calls its outdoor living rooms. All the squares we visited, and we visited most, were dedicated to local heroes, and came adorned with a selection of memorial statues.

Chippewa Square, on what's called "one of the most historic streets in America," is a popular stop on the guided tour circuit lately, not because of the big bronze statue of Oglethorpe at its center, but because tourists like to gaze upon the spot where Tom Hanks sat on a bus bench and unfolded his "life is like a box of chocolates" philosophy in "Forrest Gump."

Hanks was far from the first Hollywood celebrity to come to town, though. Savannah's photogenic looks have landed it a part in a score of movies, often period pieces such as "Glory." While we were there, five films were supposedly on location in the city, and the buzz was that Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid were somewhere about.

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At Lafayette Square, we saw that the Hamilton-Turner House was in full makeup for a scene in something called "The Kings of Carolina." This Victorian gem, with a mansard roof, balconies, ironwork trim and a picket fence, was sporting streamers and had a carousel horse on its porch roof. Fat cables snaked across the street from a parked semi that rumbled with the sound of a generator.

I don't know what part the Hamilton-Turner House will be playing in that particular film, but I assume it will play itself when the filming gets under way on "The Book." We heard that Brad Pitt will be playing the young hustler, who is described as "a walking streak of sex."

As I looked at the activity buzzing around the Hamilton-Turner House, I wondered if it was still home to the charming, party-loving deadbeat who alights there in Berendt's book. To the chagrin of his conservative neighbors, this character raises money by running illegal tours through the mansion. Ironically, a sign on the front fence now proclaims that the house is legitimately open to the public--still for a price, though.

Our "Midnight" pilgrimage also took us to the Hard-Hearted Hannah bar, named after the song by Savannah favorite son Johnny Mercer. It was the only place we saw blacks and whites sharing the same space on equal terms, another sensitive subject touched upon in "The Book."

I also insisted on driving out to Bonaventure Cemetery to see Conrad Aiken's grave. In an evocative scene early in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," the author--who comes to town with an introduction, I note--and his hostess sip martinis while seated on a bench overlooking a channel.

She tells Berendt that the poet chose a bench to be his gravestone because he wanted people to come and sit and watch the ships pass, as he had loved to do--the final act of a host who was generous even by Savannah standards.

I was half-awake, gulping coffee preparatory to rushing off to the airport for an early flight back to winter, when I heard the now familiar sentence uttered: "I see you have the book."

I turned to look at a gentleman, who was ensconced on a settee in the parlor of the bed and breakfast where we had stayed.

"Yup," I said.

He explained that he was not a guest but a neighbor who came in daily for his coffee.

"Have you read it?" I finally asked, since I realized he was not going to pursue this subject on his own.

"No," he said, the one word making it clear that he had no intention of doing so.

"Some of my friends started it," he went on after a pause, his tone telling me they found it not worth finishing.

"That book," he then said, having warmed to the subject, "has nothing to do with Savannah. It was written by someone who was from somewhere else, about people from somewhere else."

Being from somewhere else myself, I was in no position to dispute his position. And in the end, Berendt, like many a carpetbagger before him, returned north too, proclaiming Savannah to be "gracious to strangers" but "immune to their charms."

Given the legacy he left behind, I have to wonder, though, whether, if he returns, he will be receiving any invitations to sip Chatham Artillery Punch.

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GUIDEBOOK: Reviewing Savannah

Getting there: There are no nonstop flights to Savannah from the Los Angeles area, but Delta, USAir and Continental offer service with a change of planes. Lowest restricted round-trip fare is $398.

Where to stay: Downtown Savannah is loaded with lovely old inns. Contact the visitors bureau (see below) for a list.

We stayed at the Eliza Thompson House, 5 W. Jones St.; 1847 historic home has a variety of rates; a room with private bath and two double beds, continental breakfast, and wine and cheese reception, about $110; telephone (912) 236-3620 or (800) 348-9378.

Gastonian, 220 E. Gaston St.; rates $125 to $285, including full breakfast and tea; tel. (800) 322-6603 or (912) 232-2869.

Hyatt Regency, 2 W. Bay St.; rates $135 to $160; (800) 233-1234 or (912) 238-1234.

Mulberry Inn, 601 E. Bay St.; rates $80 to $105, including afternoon tea; tel. (912) 238-1200.

Where to eat: Elizabeth on 37th, 105 E. 37th St.; regional cooking based on old Southern recipes and socko desserts. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine, a shared dessert and tip, about $80; tel. (912) 236-5547.

The Olde Pink House, 23 Abercorn St.; wide choice of seafoods. (Its Planters' Tavern in the basement is a cozy spot with dual fireplaces.) Dinner for two, including a glass of wine, coffee and tip, about $60; tel. (912) 232-4286.

Mrs. Wilkes Diningroom, 107 W. Jones St.; a Savannah institution that serves a boarding-house-style breakfast and lunch in the basement of an 1870 brick house. Look for the line outside because the sign outside is small. It serves traditional Southern dishes, all-you-can-eat, $5 for breakfast, $8 for lunch; tel. (912) 232-5997.

The Pirates' House, 20 E. Broad St., is a 1734 inn that was used by Robert Louis Stevenson as a setting for a scene in the book "Treasure Island." It features 15 dining rooms and a moderate menu that is heavy on seafood; tel. (912) 233-5757.

Special events: Savannah has one of the largest St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the country. A three-hour parade through the historic district will feature floats and marching bands. Here's an opportunity to eat green grits, although you'd better hurry--many of the inns and hotels, despite requiring a three-night stay for the holiday, are already full.

Savannah holds its 60th annual House and Garden Tour, featuring 35 to 40 homes, March 23-26. Among associated activities will be a jazz lunch, a special dinner at Mrs. Wilkes and sunset dinner cruises; tel. (912) 234-8054.

May 12 and 13 are the dates for this year's North of Gaston Street tour of 12 to 14 gardens, a rare chance to see behind those pry-proof walls; tel. (912) 238-0248.

For more information: Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 222 W. Oglethorpe Ave., (P.O. Box 1628), Savannah, Ga. 31402-1628; tel. (800) 444-2427 or (912) 944-0456.

--M.J.M.

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