If you’re looking to cure cabin fever, consider a trip to the Colonial Virginia towns of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. We live in the middle of that historic triangle. My kids, Alyssa, 11, and Ashton, 15, love to roam these living history museums, learning cool new facts about the settlers’ lives and eating authentic 17th century foods such as Brunswick stew and, ahem, foot-long hotdogs. If you’re visiting from out of town, the best plan is to spend one day on each point of the triangle. Two big anniversaries were marked here recently – the 400th of the arrival of the first settlers at Jamestown and the 225th of the Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown. In celebration, all three areas have been extensively renovated, with new exhibits added. We took several days on a recent school break to step back into the past (and to see what’s new).
We Land At Jamestown
Day one: The most direct and scenic route around the triangle is the 23-mile Colonial Parkway. We start at its northern end, in Jamestown, the spot where colonists established the New World’s first permanent English speaking settlement in 1607. Here, two areas trace its history: Historic Jamestowne, the original site on the bank of the James River, and Jamestown Settlement, where historians have recreated the village. We start at Historic Jamestowne where a new introductory film begins with a funeral service, a solemn reminder us that only 60 of the 500 original colonists survived that first brutal winter. As the film ends, we’re told to “walk the ground where they walked. Listen for the echoes of the voices of Jamestown.” We stroll among the foundations of the original homes and visit the Archearium, which opened in 2006, where artifacts recovered here are on display. Alyssa marvels that a 17th century green drinking vase has survived nearly 400 years – compared to drinking glasses in our house that last, oh, maybe six months.
After grabbing lunch at the Jamestown Pie Co. (homemade 21st century pizza less than three miles away), a we drive for the second part of the Jamestown experience, Jamestown Settlement, on Route 31 adjacent to Historic Jamestowne (but you do need to drive), where we explore recreated Native American and Colonial villages, and replicas of the three ships. Alyssa and her friend Givie enjoy scraping hair off animal hides and pounding corn at the Native America village. On the ship Susan Constant, we see the tight quarters and, for the first time, we really understand “cabin fever.” For evening dining, some of our favorite places in town include Nawab Indian Cuisine (204 Monticello Ave., 757.565.3200) where you can specify how hot you want your food all the way from ‘American mild’ to ‘Indian hot,’ and Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que (447 East Rochambeau Drive near Great Wolf Lodge 757-565-2955).
We Colonize Williamsburg
Day Two: Our next point on the parkway is Colonial Williamsburg. Special children’s programming is offered every day here. We arrive just in time for Theater For The Young, which takes place in the Raleigh Tavern during the spring and outside near the Capitol in the summer. The performance recreates a real event, in which Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore commandeered the powder magazine’s supply of gunpowder to prevent the colonists from using it against the British. Along with lots of other kids, Alyssa and Ashton are invited to play roles — Ashton as a rider from Fredericksburg coming to warn Williamsburg that the militia is on its way, and Alyssa as an innkeeper. After their moment in the spotlight, we tour the Powder Magazine, built in 1715, and thanks to their participation in the play, it’s very alive for all of us. Ashton, a war buff, is fascinated at the guns lining the wall.
We take a break in the historic area at Chowning’s Snack Bar for Brunswick stew, where the dark interior and wooden picnic-style tables give us a taste of 17th century atmosphere hotdogs, hamburgers and barbecue. Then we stop by a 17th century style auction where I’m tempted by a pair of wooden spoons that the auctioneer says are “For either cooking or switching, depending on the speed of the child.” We also hit the shoemakers’ shop, where we watch 17th century style shoes being made, and the public jail (or “gaol “), always a good place to snap photos of your kids playing the part of punished prisoners locked up in the stocks. Before heading home, we catch the Fifes and Drums performance—a can’t miss, in our opinion—and nibble our favorite Colonial treat, ginger cakes, washed down with Raleigh Tavern ginger ale made with real ginger.
We Invade Yorktown
Day three: We start the day with a lovely drive to Yorktown, at the southern end of the Colonial Parkway, lined with the flowering dogwood trees in the spring. As at Jamestown, the historic attractions here are spread across two sites. We start at Yorktown Battlefield, where the allied French and American armies defeated the British in the battle that led to the end of the Revolutionary War. We learn that small details—in this case, the size of the wheels—can make a big difference in war. The British guns had large wheels and were fired from the top of the earthworks. But the American and French guns were mounted on small wheels and could be easily hidden and then fired through small holes in the earthworks. Next we make the short drive to Yorktown Victory Center, where Alyssa and I laugh as the film opens with soldiers sitting around a campfire reminiscing about a townsman named Goggins who showed his backside to ships in a New England harbor. In the gallery, we learn about colonists toppling a statue of King George III to use to make lead cartridges for their guns. One family’s three children kept track of how many cartridges each child made. Mary Ann, 15, made 10,790; Laura, 11, made 8,378; and the not so productive Frederic, 9, made just 936. Alyssa tells her brother that girls rock.
We also appreciate the toasts made in the taverns after the Declaration of Independence was read: One we like: “Perpetual Itching without benefit of scratching to the enemies of America.” We top the day off with a meal at the Duke of York Motel’s Island Café, where my crab cake sandwich wins rave reviews from all who demand a taste of it. The best way to while away the rest of the afternoon at Yorktown? Walking along Riverwalk Landing, sitting in a chair on the beach while the kids splash in the water, and reflecting on the brave souls who made it all possible by putting down roots here hundreds of years ago.
For lunch or dinner, we also recommend the Carrot Tree in the Cole Digges House (and be sure to save room for dessert.)
Where to stay: We spent the nights in our own beds, of course— but here’s where we’d stay if we were visiting.
Great Wolf Lodge: At this resort near Williamsburg, the attraction is the indoor water park. There’s also mini golf, an outdoor water park area open seasonally, a spa for kids and adults, a Harry Potter-style quest to work on inside, a fitness club and more. It’s a bit pricey, but would be a great place to unwind after a day touring. Room rates start at $179 for a family suite.
Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel and Suites: This less expensive lodging option is an easy walk or an easier shuttle ride from Williamsburg’s historic area. Standard rooms include two double beds and a single fold-out bed. The family suite includes a king-sized bed in a separate room with a door, a queen-sized sleeper sofa and two sinks. Recreation on-site includes a mini golf course, outdoor pool, an outdoor ping-pong table and a fitness room. Room rates start at $129 and include breakfast.
Historic Triangle Resources
Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center: 888-593-4682; www.historyisfun.org
Colonial Williamsburg: 800-HISTORY; dining reservations 757-229-2141; www.ColonialWilliamsburg.com
Yorktown National Battlefield: 757-898-2410; www.nps.gov/york/
Jamestown Pie Co.: 757-229-7775
Island Café and River Room: 757-898-5270
Carrot Tree in the Cole Digges House: 757-246-9559
Riverwalk Landing: www.riverwalklanding.com
Great Wolf Lodge: 800-551-WOLF; www.greatwolf.com
Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel and Suites: 800-HISTORY
By Karen Haywood Queen