Belle Epoque
Luxury meets history in Savannah, Georgia

Legend has it that Gen. William T. Sherman was so moved by Savannah’s beauty that he couldn’t bear to burn it to the ground. Instead, he presented the city as a Christmas gift to President Lincoln.

But when cotton prices tanked near the turn of the century, the once prosperous place fell into genteel semi-poverty and its array of magnificent buildings suffered from neglect.

In 1955, just hours before the Isaiah Davenport House was scheduled for the wrecking ball, Mrs. Anna C. Hunter and six other Savannah ladies swooped in to save the home that had been so splendid once upon a time.

The foundation they formed went on to identify more than 1,000 stately structures hidden in the shabbiness of the city’s 2.5-square-mile historic area and set about preserving them.

Today, visitors explore the elegant architecture and ornate ironworks of lovingly rescued 18th and 19th century buildings; wander through riverside shops on cobblestone streets; dine under canopies of live oaks and Spanish moss; and see the city by river cruise, horse-drawn carriage ride and open-air trolley tour.

At night, many check into one of Savannah’s traditional inns or bed-and-breakfasts. But as of last year, guests had a decadent new choice: The Mansion on Forsyth Park.

Created by Savannah-born Richard Kessler, who’s known for bringing fine music, art and food to the grand hotels he owns, this boutique property is at once funky and opulent, with an eclectic ambience that is its charm.

Kessler started by restoring and expanding a 117-year-old Victorian-Romanesque building, originally known as the Kayton-Granger-Hunger House, which was noted for its turrets and arches.

Then he covered it with a crazy quilt of classical and contemporary elements. Glance up to be dazzled by crystal chandeliers, silk drapes and 400 pieces of original artwork. Look around to find a trio of rare Bosendorfer pianos, bronze sculptures, even a collection of ladies’ hats.

The edgy décor punctuates the fact that Kessler is selling the good life on a scale that he says the colonial city has never seen. The hotel feels like a five-star resort plunked in the middle of an old district that’s just coming into its own.

Thirsty? Grab a stool at any of the three chic bars, including one that overlooks Forsyth Park, made famous in John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

Hungry? Book a table at the sleek 700 Drayton, which serves nouvelle American cuisine with a Low Country accent. Or, sign up for classes at the cooking school, where executive chef David Hackett wields his magic knife.

Need rejuvenation? Indulge in a massage and facial at the full-service spa, work out at the fitness center or plunge into the heated, outdoor pool.

Even with all this luxury at your fingertips, sultry Savannah still beckons.

The city’s shops, museums, galleries, restaurants, public squares and celebrated buildings are within walking distance of the hotel, and the beach is a 20-minute drive.

When it’s time to turn in, stroll to your guest room via a hallway lined with in-your-face modern-art portraits, oversized antique mirrors and Italian marble pieces.

With the turn of a Lalique doorknob, you can enter your room and collapse in a proper Southern swoon onto a red-velvet chaise, because this isn’t Vienna, Milan or New York.

This really is Savannah.