One of my favorite things about traveling to a new destination is uncovering its history. Some places date back hundreds if not thousands of years and offer mere glimpses into a past life through museums and architecture. A few, however, bring history to life by actually recreating it with living history museums. Colonial Williamsburg is one such place, albeit it one that is an entire town! Here, visitors can walk through a time when America was just beginning its revolution against the British to eventually become the United States.
Located in what Virginia refers to as America’s Historic Triangle, Colonial Williamsburg is a 301-acre living-history museum recreating 18thcentury life in the former capital of the Colony of Virginia. The largest living-history museum in the nation, the original town isn’t without modern conveniences. Surrounding Colonial Williamsburg is modern Williamsburg and its charming shops and restaurants. However, the two are entwined so although one block may have a gaggle of girls in costumed colonial clothing, they fit right in on the next block with those dressed in 21st-century attire.
But who wants to see the modern-day life play out when we can leave the concrete sidewalks for the dirt road with names like Duke of Gloucester and Prince George Streets?
You can imagine—or even meet George Washington and Patrick Henry, as well as ordinary townspeople putting the foundation of our country together.
THE PIPES ARE CALLING
Throughout a stay in Colonial Williamsburg, you’ll likely hear the sound of fife and drums. Every day the Fife and Drum Corps parades up Duke of Gloucester Street streaming music into the air old-fashioned style with rousing drums and high-pitched wooden flutes—and you’re welcome to follow the march.
As you stroll (or march), you’ll find homes and businesses welcoming you to step inside and get a closer look at daily life, from the blacksmithing at Anderson Blacksmith Shop to cabinetry at the Cabinetmaker & Harpsichord Maker and barrel making at the local Cooper to metal working at the Foundry. As this was the age of fancy wigs, be sure to pop into the Wigmaker to see the women hard at work creating the height-of-fashion looks adorned by esteemed men of the era. Visitors are welcome to come and go as they please; visit each website for a list of business hours.
Of course, not all work was indoors and there are fields to be plowed and gardens to be tended to. You’ll find those in the Prentis Field working with the same tools and livery as the Colonials once used a variety of vegetable, herbs and flowers in the historic gardens will be served up at the local restaurants. But not all preservation is a recreation. Archaeology sites, including that of the location of the First Baptist Church, are undergoing digs to uncover relics of our nation’s past. Although you cannot get too close, you can literally watch archaeologists working to preserve our history.
Perhaps the most fun to be had is witnessing battle and courtroom reenactments. Visit the Courthouse, for example, and you’ll hear the cry of “Order in the Court” as trials from the era are recreated for spectators. Those found guilty of crimes, along with supporters of the British, spies, traitors, runaway slaves and even pirates, were locked away in the Public Gaol, which is another stop along the history tour. On the main lawn, muskets and canyons are fired during scheduled events, and those wanting a chance to learn to fire a flintlock firearm can do so. During the Independence Day holiday, find special events like fireworks and a reading of the Declaration of Independence.
When the sun goes down, join an experienced guide who tells tales of the historic area’s haunted past and supernatural experiences. Two programs are available, with the earlier show geared toward families with children of all ages and the latter show restricted to adults only, due to unsavory content. It, along with other after-hour events, requires an additional ticket and can sell out quickly, so anyone planning a trip should book as much as they can before arrival to ensure they get the most out of a vacation.
PATRIOTS FROM THE PAST
Making up the additional points of the triangle are Historic Jamestowne, the site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, and Yorktown, which its battlefield was the last significant battle of the American Revolution. In Jamestowne, visits begin with a film providing the background of the settlement, established in 1607, 13 years before the pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. Archeological digs continue in this area found along the James River, and any findings are displayed at the Archaearium, the site’s small museum, including wine bottles, brass candlesticks, clay pipes, tailors’ shears and stirrups detailing aspects of the colonists’ daily lives. A favorite item is J.R., the skeletal cast of a 19- to a 22-year-old man that still has a musket shot embedded in its leg. Life wasn’t easy in Jamestown.
Yorktown’s battlefield is part of the Colonial National Historic Park and at the Yorktown Victory Center, you can meet Continental Army re-enactors in a re-created 1780’s farm setting where the Continental Army was encamped during their battle. What you see depends on what the costumed guides demonstrate during your visit. Inside the museum’s galleries, browse the exhibits on the Declaration of Independence and listen to the tales of soldiers, a Mohawk Chief and a farmwife.
I’ll be the first to admit that both additions to the triangle are not as exciting as Williamsburg. Admittedly, it feels like taking a school trip and my own teenage children lacked much interest, but they are still pitstops to include while in the area and unfold the full story on Virginia’s place in the creation of the United States. Plus, you can always make it up to the kids with a day dedicated to the very modern Busch Gardens amusement park located minutes down the street; a day on these rollercoasters will turn their mood upside down and get them going down the right track.
REST FOR THE WEARY
When it comes to dining, Colonial Williamsburg continues to throw back with historic pubs offering Colonial-inspired décor, entertainment and fare. George
Washington was a fan of Christiana Campbell’s Tavern and its seafood-filled menu is still available, or you can try 18th-century recipes updated for 21st-century tastes at The King’s Arms Tavern. My favorite is Chowning’s Tavern, where a hearty bowl of Shepherd’s Pye is served with local craft beers to enjoy along with live music and pub games.
Still, modern restaurants are a feature of Merchants Square, located mere steps from the historic district. You’ll find plenty of outdoor patios and upscale interiors, as well as palate pleasers for young ones not so interested in sampling dishes from the Old World. But just as with all else that takes place after dark, you’ll need reservations to secure a table or be prepared for extremely long waits.
When it’s time to retire at night, select a Colonial Williamsburg Resort to continue your historic stay. The grand dame property is the Williamsburg Inn, located one block from Duke of Gloucester Street. The property, while original and historic, is not from Colonial Days, however. John D. Rockefeller, a supporter of Colonial Williamsburg’s renovations, built the inn in 1937 to support others who wanted to visit the area. Celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, the property is the epitome of Southern hospitality and has welcomed esteemed guests that even included Queen Elizabeth II. (She forgave the colonists for leaving the Crown.)
If it’s an even older space you seek, try the Colonial Houses. These properties accommodate various sizes within historic structures of Colonial Williamsburg. For example, you can enjoy a queen room on the upper floor of the tavern. Its furnishings are both reproductions and authentic so each room is unique. But don’t worry, you’ll still have a television, coffeemaker and even room service from the Williamsburg Inn to enjoy. Multi-story homes are also available for larger groups, such as the Orlando Jones House with fireplaces and canopy beds. In the modern Williamsburg area are plenty more hotels and price points, and many tout shuttle service to get you to and from the Colonial era (which is needed as parking is extremely limited). From April through December, the historic Yorktown Trolley circles Williamsburg, making stops at the Yorktown Victory Center and the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center.
Still, a stay at a Colonial Williamsburg Resorts is like a stay at a Disney property in Orlando: Packages include admission into Colonial Williamsburg, and guests receive special access to guest-only events, shuttle service, and discounts on food, beverage and shopping.
Colonial Williamsburg is one of those American destinations that everyone should see once in their life. It’s certainly a “load up the car and drive” type of summer road trip vacation that would have Clark W. Griswold beaming about to his relatives. It’s nine hours from Atlanta but this is a road trip that could also include more historic stops in small towns in North and South Carolina, allowing families to cram in a number of smaller destinations that don’t require more than a day to visit but add up to a week jam-packed with educational fun. Others combine Williamsburg, Busch Gardens and Virginia Beach to mix history with amusement along the Atlantic. And, even if you make Colonial Williamsburg your sole destination, it won’t leave you disappointed.
VISITING COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG
You don’t have to drive. The closest airport is the regional Williamsburg Jamestown Airport, which is less than four miles from Colonial Williamsburg. Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport is about 20 minutes from Williamsburg, and international airports in Norfolk and Richmond are within an hour or so of Colonial Williamsburg, depending on traffic. Delta makes its way to all.
Tickets for Colonial Williamsburg are $46.99 for an adult single-day ticket or $56.99 for a multi-day ticket that must be used for three consecutive days. Children ages 6 through 12 are $25.99 and $30.99, respectively. To visit all three attractions of America’s Historic Triangle, children ages 6 through 15 are $48.45 and adults 16 and older are $109.90. Purchase at colonialwilliamsburg.org.
Additional tickets are required for carriage rides, haunted tours and musket firing