Savannah Riverside District: Seduction in the South

Not too many years ago, I was in Serbia’s capital of Belgrade, where the city’s neglected waterfront was undergoing a revitalization. Hip restaurants and trendy hotels were beginning to pop up, though the waterfront retained a gritty, seductive aura that was attracting film crews—like the cast of Game of Thrones celebrating a film wrap at an oversized table adjacent to where I dined.

Fast Forward to 2023

Svannah Riverfront District
JW Marriott Power Plant Riverside District Anne Kazel-Wilcox | Travel Squire

When heading for my first visit toSavannah—said to be one of the most charming cities in the South—I discovered that its entire riverfront had recently undergone a major revitalization. In this case, it was spearheaded by JW Marriott, which converted a former power plant and adjacent sites into a mini waterfront city. I was intrigued. Something about the working waterfronts of old casting their hypnotic spells. In Savannah, on the waterfront, I was not to be disappointed.

The Savannah Riverside District

JW Marriott at the Savannah Riverside District
JW Marriott Lobby Courtesy of JW Marriott

The JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District sits along the Savannah River in the heart of the city’s historic downtown. At its core is the former power plant, transformed into a luxurious, contemporary hotel (the “Power Plant”) with two adjacent buildings continuing the JW Marriott hotel complex, each with its own unique identity: the Three Muses hotel section weaves in classic European elegance and Greek mythology, and the Atlantic has a maritime theme. Intermingled throughout are 14 restaurants, countless chic boutiques, the requisite Starbucks, an outdoor biergarten, rooftop cocktail lounges, and more. But oh, the waterfront.

As the sun begins to sink over the Savannah River, the riverfront promenade begins to pulsate with energy. A saxophone blares soulful sounds. Water fountains rise and fall like ocean waves. The Power Plant glows iridescently. Onlookers gawk at sky-high container ships headed into port. Ice cream cones drip; wine glasses click. It’s the place to be in Savannah.

Squaring Off Amid Stunning Oak Canopies

Savannah Square
Savannah Square Anne Kazel-Wilcox | Travel Squire

Following my starlight introduction to Savannah, in the morning I hop on an Old Town Trolley tour to get a lay of the land in Savannah. It’s the perfect introduction to the history and geography of the rather compact city. The city, I find, centers around its 22 squares, each a small grassy park with monuments or fountains shaded by canopies of oaks, the parks surrounded on each side by historic mansions, inns, or museums. The city owns all of these squares, but residents embrace them and beautify them further—or dress them up for holidays. There’s Liberty, and Madison, and Orleans Squares, and so on.

Traversing near to several squares is Jones Street—considered Savannah’s prettiest street—where Spanish moss drips exotically from draping oak branches that reach out across the street divide to meet in leafy embrace. Such magnificent oaks are found throughout Savannah, with visitors drawn from afar to the gorgeous urban canopies they create. Savannah, in fact, is the first city in the nation to have a “department of trees.” There are also plenty in Forsyth Park, the city’s central park, with 30 acres of emerald fields, walking trails, a pretty café—and an iconic fountain that is a photographic backdrop for most any visit to Savannah.

Sobering Up at Prohibition Museum

American Prohibition Museum
American Prohibition Museum Anne Kazel-Wilcox | Travel Squire

I divert to the old Colonial Park Cemetery to hear the echoes of Savannah’s days past, including American Revolutionary War heroes buried in the cemetery, which was used for about a century until 1850. It’s a sobering place, so a drink might then be in order. Instead, I head to the American Prohibition Museum for a fun journey into America’s forced era of sobriety. Alcohol was considered the root of moral decay in the 1920s and Prohibition was the answer. “Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.” So proclaimed a staunch abstinence advocate. The museum is incredibly interesting—including covering the surge in moonshine, rum-running gangsters, and “Whiskey doctors” who became popular for their legal “prescriptions.” (It was not illegal to drink at home, just illegal to buy or produce, so given a year’s warning before Prohibition, much of America stocked up.) Savannah’s labyrinth of rugged jetties, finger creeks, and secret coves along the river made it a bootleg spigot that supplied much of the South and Midwest.

Riverfront Romanticism

View of the Savannah Riverside District
View from Rocks on the Roof Anne Kazel-Wilcox

Ignoring moral decay, I head to the highest rooftop cocktail lounge in Savannah, Rocks on the Roof, atop the Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront, which is a boutique hotel (Marriott Autograph Collection) down the riverfront from the Plant Riverside District. I breathe in the gorgeous views that span across the river to South Carolina on the opposite shore while dining from a creatively scrumptious tapas-style menu. At street level, visitors meander in an out of shops along River Street, which extends in the opposite direction of the Plant Riverside District, toward the eastern edge of the city’s historic area. Southern comfort foods abound among the establishments, with few visitors passing up chances for free praline candy samples from Savannah’s Candy Kitchen or scotch oatmeal cookies from Byrd’s.

At street’s end along the shore stands the Waving Girl Statue. The statue represents a young woman who, in times of old, waved her apron in greeting to ships entering Savannah, hoping one might carry her long-lost lover. Romanticism is tucked into every turn of Savannah.

Relaxing in a Poolside Suite

Power Plant Loft Suite JW Marriott
Power Plant Loft Suite Courtesy of J

Back at the JW Marriott, it’s time to relax in my poolside suite atop the Power Plant, which on one end of the suite has a balcony with sweeping views of Savannah, on the other the front door opens to the pool deck a few yards away, where roomy cabanas call out my name. Six floors below, I know, the waterfront is at work. The hustle and bustle will go on, energized by a new era of the power plant—and the scores of visitors drawn to this incredibly charming city. It’s definitely a seductive Savannah on the waterfront.

JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District
400 W River St, Savannah, GA 31401