A slow pace of life marks out the US state and its Caucasian namesake, but reverence for spirits and a sleepy decadence makes it unique in America, writes Mark Gardner
Georgia USA, as everyone knows, was named after an English king and - etymologically - has nothing at all to do with Georgia, the former Soviet republic. Both Georgias, however, are southern and slow. The US Olympic city of Atlanta may be trying hard to break the mould, but Savannah, at the mouth of the Savannah river, is quite a different world.

Born out of tolerance, a haven for the poor and persecuted of Europe, a debtors' colony free from slavery, lawyers and liquor, it was created by James Oglethorpe, a visionary and idealist who built it from a plan formed in his mind while he was still at sea. His city lies in what is known as the Low Country: the coastal area of Georgia where the land dissolves into a myriad waterways and islands.

Approaching from the air, crossing salt marshes and dense forests, Savannah lies like a lost city, hidden from sight. Of all journeys you can make, journeys of discovery are the most rewarding and Savannah delivers itself up to you slowly, in bits and pieces. Arranged around 21 squares, the city has the atmosphere of a collection of secluded, individual hideaways. Inhabitants identify as much with Johnson or Wright square as with the city itself. This helps foster the air of secrecy and eccentricity that seems to hang in every corner of Savannah. It makes this city introverted and self-obsessed. It also makes it unique. I have never visited a more endearing place.

Savannah is beguiling. Even the word is enchanting: Savannah. A name that begins softly and ends in a sigh. Pronounced by Savannahians in a rich drawl, the word itself tells you to take it slow. You may, as I did, rush down Bull Street with a city dweller's charge for the centre of town, but after reaching Union Square, you're ambling; peering down lanes of "tabby", a mixture of concrete and crushed shells, trying to catch the lilt of jazz piano that's drifting your way and watching the old man with the gold cane walking his dog. Trees arch over the streets to all but obscure the sun and even at midday small side roads lurk in virtual darkness. The effect of the city's design can't be overestimated. As opposed to most other American towns which are ruled by the car, and most European ones which are ruined by it, Savannah's system of squares, restricting vehicles to a snail's pace has effectively made the centre pedestrianised. This city has evolved at walking pace, and that's the way to see it.

Savannah may be an insular town but it possesses a hedonistic spirit. When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in Treasure Island that the notorious Captain Flint died of rum in Savannah it probably wasn't a coincidence. It's a local saying that the first question you're asked in Atlanta is "What's your church?", in Charleston, "What's your family?" and in Savannah, "What's your drink?". In a deeply religious state where the only liquid likely to come with ice is tea, Savannah proves a curious exception. During prohibition the gin ran from the gas pumps and Madeira was secretly shipped in from Europe. Savannahians, in the southern tradition, take hospitality seriously; an attitude epitomised at Mrs Wilkes' boarding house, where Low Country food is served in barely digestible portions while you rub elbows with strangers and eat what you're given. Mrs Wilkes is a Savannah institution: queue early.

In the syrupy humidity of summer, when the heat comes in waves hot enough to melt tarmac, the air in Savannah still has a fragrance to it. Azaleas blaze in the city's squares and blooms as big as your head hang heavy from their trees. Live Oaks drip Spanish moss and people sit in the shade behind wrought-iron balconies, sipping iced tea. Savannah can seem like one huge, lush, green garden. So beautiful that, after the Civil War, General Sherman spared her from destruction and gave her to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present. In Forsyth Park, lying under an oak as the shadows lengthen, you fall soporifically under her spell.

Savannahians like to think of themselves as isolated. Surrounded by marshland and forest, the city is at the end of the line. Roads only meander slowly in and out of town. Nowhere is "via" Savannah. Atlanta is barely 200 miles to the northwest, but to hear people speak you could believe it to be as far away as Washington. To all intents and purposes Savannah has, until recently, been forgotten. If the truth be told, forgotten even to Savannahians.

After being spared by the Union forces at the end of the Civil War, the city fell into the same, long economic decline as the rest of the south. Beyond the docks the city slipped into ruin. The wealthy, in keeping with the rest of America, moved out to the suburbs, leaving the centre to crime, sleaze and decay. The great houses and squares fell into ruin, some of the grandest were demolished to make way for car parks and office blocks. In 1946 Lady Astor, while passing through, described Savannah as a "beautified lady with a dirty face". The decline continued until a group of women started buying up houses, renovating them and encouraging the city's rich elite to move back into the centre. The success of the scheme has been phenomenal, with the city elevated back to its old elegance as both architectural and cultural rival to its neighbour Charleston.

Heading upstate towards Atlanta, the atmosphere alters rapidly. Savannah may be physically a part of Georgia, but they have little in common. Rich, eccentric and urban, Savannahians have little interest in their rural state. Only in their shared resistance to change do they unite. From its inception, Georgia was a buffer. The largest state east of the Mississippi created as a last line of defence, protecting British territories from Spanish forces to the south. More recently, Georgia's rural flatlands have become simply a way through: a peaches and peanuts corridor on the way to the golden sands of Florida. But for those with a little time and curiosity, there lingers here a part of America holding back on the 21st- century, where lives shift slowly, if at all.

The small towns that dot the state all the way from the coast to the Piedmont and Blue Ridge mountains maintain a tough, agrarian way of life. Jimmy Carter began the road to President from just such a town, called Plains. Its name couldn't be more apt for Georgia. Not because the state is dull, nor because it is flat; but because the title comes from the "Plains of Dura", the place of Nebuchadnezzar's golden idol of the Old Testament. Georgia is possessed of the same puritanical streak that runs through the rest of the Deep South. It has the "atmosphere of the Bible" as one person told me. A place where, as Georgians say, it is "easier to find a mule egg than an atheist". But the South is a mass of contradictions. Where there is Christianity, there lingers paganism. Superstition and spirituality run deep here. It is no surprise that graveyards feature prominently among Savannah's top attractions, nor that black magic, while being publicly sneered at, is taken seriously by many. Notice among Savannah's grand houses, how many of them are washed indigo blue: part of an age- old custom designed to keep the spirits away.

This is not modern America. Despite the golf courses of Augusta and the metropolitan frenzy of Atlanta, Georgia leaves you with the impression that reality is just over the border in Florida. This is a place where things stay the same; for better or worse. Georgians are as happy to see you leave as arrive. People here nod to you as they pass, acknowledging your presence. But there is a reluctance to go deeper. There is politeness, even charm, but no attempt to infringe on your privacy. It's impossible to walk around admiring the buildings without wondering what goes on behind the closed doors.

This corner of Georgia believes in one thing above all others. Preservation. Preservation of ideals, values and customs. In its buildings, its spaces and its people. In short, preservation of its world. Atlanta was still the frontier town of Gone with the Wind when Savannah was the most stylish city of the south. And if today Atlanta has transformed itself into a metropolis to rival New York, Savannah is quite happy not to have changed at all. There is a reassurance in this stubborness. As you leave, you know that here, at least, is one place where everything will remain just the same as you left it.

Getting there

Spring and Autumn are the best times of year to visit the South: Summer can be oppressively hot. There are no direct flights to Savannah. The cheapest way to get there is via New York with Virgin and Continental. In September, a flight will cost about pounds 350, including taxes. Trains from Washington to Florida and New Orleans call at Savannah. The airport is about 15 miles west of town and the train station about 3 miles. The usual car hire firms congregate at the airport, but better deals can be found in Atlanta. Overall it's cheaper to book car hire from the UK with a company such as Holiday Autos. Don't attempt to drive into the centre of Savannah. This is no place for cars.

Getting around

The Information centre in the old railway station, is the place to leave your car. There is an interesting history museum, maps, guides and a hotel reservation service. Moonlit tours of the city by horse-drawn carriage leave from here as do more conventional trips during the day.

Where to stay

Romantics visiting Savannah should try the small, family-run B and B's which are all fairly central and give you the chance to experience traditional southern hospitality life in exquisite surroundings. One of the finest of them all is The Gastonian, on east Gaston Street, where a double room will cost over $100. The Bed and Breakfast Inn on west Gordon Street is more affordable. All hotels should be booked in advance, but the visitors centre will help with last minute reservations.

Further information

Contact the Georgia state tourist office at: PO Box 1776, Atlanta. GA30301, USA