Candida Lloyd travelled through Georgia, from the gracious mansions of Savannah to the surprisingly welcoming jungle swamps (provided you sleep in the trees)
When you're standing in one of Savannah's 22 squares surrounded by trees dripping with Spanish moss and beautifully restored colonial houses, the United States can seem a surprisingly refined and civilised place. At the heart of the city is the two square-mile historic district. This was the master plan of General James Oglethorpe, who sailed with 114 men, women and children from England - many of them debtors - to set up Savannah in 1733 as a protective buffer between Spanish Florida and the northern English colonies. The series of public squares was designed to provide areas of fortification as well as meeting places. As the port boomed on the back of the cotton industry and the slave trade, grand houses emerged.

They survived the Civil War, but as the cotton industry collapsed, the city and its 18th- and 19th-century homes became dilapidated and unloved. That was until the 1960s, when the good ladies of Savannah took over and set up a project to restore the buildings.

Today, the district has a European feel, with cool squares and intricate iron balconies surrounded by curtains of tree moss. A relative of the pineapple family, the moss is reportedly edible, although after munching a mouthful, I think it's on a par with that other great Southern delicacy - grits.

Several of the restored homes are open to the public. The Davenport House was the first home to be reclaimed. Its owner, a master builder named Isaiah Davenport, was considered only moderately well off, yet his list of possessions pinned on the wall includes "nine negro slaves". Much more upmarket is Owens Thomas House, built between 1816 and 1819 and designed by William Jay. It has an internal bridge joining the two sides of the house, fake Greek pillars, a domed ceiling that is an optical illusion (it's actually flat and square) and several false doors.

But the best thing to do in Savannah is wander the streets, stopping occasionally for iced tea. Outside the historic district are several run- down, predominately black, neighbourhoods, although some are being restored. Savannah was the port of entry for many of Georgia's slaves, and its black history is retold in several museums and tours.

For a glimpse of the darker side of city, any would-be visitor should read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt's brilliant bestselling novel, which gives details of murder, jazz, cross-dressing and class war.

In July, the city will be packed with sailing types who have come to watch the Olympic yachting events. As the city fills up, the cost of accommodation will soar, so and you may want to escape.

For a very different experience, head for the magical Hostel in the Forest. Here guests sleep 20ft up among the trees. There is a choice of about six tree-top houses - each with insect-proof wire meshes on three sides. The decor is basic - an electric fan and light, double mattress, and side table. A late-night visit to the loo involves a precarious climb down a wonky ladder and a woodland walk. But going to sleep to the sounds of the forest and waking as the sun streams through the leaf tops is amazing.

There are also a small number of bunk rooms, showers, wood-chip toilets (the contents of which are recycled in a disturbingly fertile vegetable patch) a kitchen and several common rooms. But best of all is the glass room. The 25ft octagonal wooden structure has sliding glass walls and two swinging rope chairs handing from the rafters. On one side is a natural pond with an island, while the forest sweeps around the other sides. Built into the wooden deck outside is a jacuzzi.

If this is not native enough, an hour away is the Okefenokee Swamp, home to 20,000 alligators. The owners run boat trips from a visitors centre, where a large lady with a pith helmet gives talks about snakes. During an hour tour of the narrow waterways cut out of the mangrove swamps I spotted three beasts from the deep. Our guide assured us that no person has ever been attacked by an alligator. However, there have been several incidents in which dogs have been left tied to a tree only for their owners to return to find the ragged remains of a lead. So don't take your pets to the swamp.

Savannah can be reached from the UK with a single change of plane at one of several US gateways. Major Travel (0171-485 7017) has a July fare of pounds 476 on British Airways/USAir from Gatwick via Charlotte, but availability is limited. You could instead get a charter to Orlando and rent a car for the 350-mile drive to Savannah - see opposite. For accommodation in Savannah try Bed and Breakfast Inn, 117 W Gordon St (001 912 238 0518) - it has a range of great rooms, including a converted stable, from about pounds 25 to pounds 60 a night. The Hostel in the Forest is nine miles west of Brunswick on US-82 (264 9738); $10 a night.