Savannah left with plenty of hotel rooms for early St. Patrick's parade

SAVANNAH - On what's typically Savannah's busiest tourist weekend of the year, hotel executive Mark Dana is offering St. Patrick's Day visitors a deal he never dreamed of: walk-ins are welcome, at discount rates.

All three of the downtown hotels Dana helps manage still had 20 to 45 rooms available apiece Thursday, when normally they would be booked solid for this historic Southern city's 184-year-old Irish celebration. Savannah boasts the nation's second-largest St. Patrick's parade, behind only New York, and typically draws up to 400,000 revelers each year.

'I've been here for 10 years and have always sold out for St. Patrick's Day, regardless of what day of the week it is,' Dana said. 'Obviously, changing the date had something to do with it.'

What sort of shenanigan is that? Since 1824, Savannah has almost always celebrated St. Patrick's Day on its traditional date, March 17. This year, however, the parade and beer-swilling revelry will be held on Friday the 14th - a change that could cost some local businesses a pile of green.

The date was changed because of a quirk in the 2008 calendar that places Monday the 17th during Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter observed by Catholics and other Christian denominations. It happens only about once a century.

Bishop J. Kevin Boland of the Catholic Diocese of Savannah announced in December 2006 that the church would hold this year's St. Patrick's Mass on March 14. Local parade organizers, mostly Catholics of Irish descent, agreed to move up the parade as well. Traditionally, they attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist before kicking off the parade.

'In Savannah, it's first and foremost a religious feast day, not all the revelry and things,' said John Forbes, chairman of Savannah's parade committee. 'The only way we were going to start the parade was with Mass. In my little brain, it was a no-brainer.'

Hotels and the local Convention and Visitors Bureau have tried to get word of the new date out, but that's a tough order when you're trying to notify hundreds of thousands of party guests.

Hotel reservation clerks made sure to tell guests booking rooms on March 17 that St. Patrick's would be celebrated early.