THE HISTORIC TRIANGLE AND MORE
Virginia's Williamsburg, Yorktown, Jamestown, plus Plantation Road
When many Virginia visitors think of the Old Dominion, they think of plantations and the "Historic Triangle" of Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown. These historic havens have become synonymous with the history that Virginia visitors crave.
However, it's not history out of some boring textbook. It's living history in many ways and it's all easy to explore in one long trip or several shorter trips.
In a state blessed with so much history, Colonial Williamsburg can provide many days' worth of historical exploration. More than a million annual visitors can't be wrong.
Williamsburg was once the capital of a colony that extended all the way to present-day Minnesota. It was a seat of pre-Revolutionary War political rebellion. Today's restored Colonial Williamsburg portrays 18th-century Williamsburg as it appeared on the eve of and during the Revolution. It covers 301 acres of the town laid out in 1699 by Royal Governor Francis Nicholson.
Bisected by mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street, the Revolutionary City is enhanced by a 3,000-acre greenbelt. There are more than 85 original structures, hundreds of major reconstructions, and more than 40 exhibition buildings containing more than 225 rooms, with furnishings from a 100,000-item (and counting) collection.
There are also 90 acres of gardens and greens, 15 exhibition sites, 10 shops, more than 30 trade presentations, several museums, historic interpreters, and many special and on-going programs. There's obviously much to see.
Any visit should start with a stop at the informative Visitor Center. Opened in 1957, the Visitor Center provides parking (including for RVs), information, tickets, bus service, and reservations. Orientation begins with a 35-minute film "Williamsburg--The Story of a Patriot."
Highlights within the historic area include the Capitol; the reconstructed Governor's Palace, completed in 1720, but destroyed in 1781; and the wide variety of shops where costumed milliners, wigmakers, postal workers, and many others are plying their trades.
Along with other dining options, operating taverns include Chowning's, Christiana Campbell's, Shields, and King's Arms. For shoppers, Merchants Square is an ideal place for that perfect gift or weekend memory. Eating and shopping are definitely a part of the Colonial Williamsburg experience.
There is a wide variety of ticket options for adults and children, as well as many package possibilities that include accommodations and dining. Colonial Williamsburg also provides a perfect base for exploring Yorktown and Jamestown, the other two points of the renowned "Historic Triangle." Be prepared, however, to spend more than just a day or two exploring the historic riches of the area.
Yorktown was the site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War and the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to General George Washington in 1781. The National Park Service Visitor Center features "The Siege of Yorktown," a 16-minute film, a museum with artifacts related to the 1781 siege, including tents used by General Washington, ranger-led programs, and information for self-guided tours. Visitors can drive the battlefield and encampment tour roads, visit the Moore House where surrender negotiations took place (open seasonally), see the site of the British surrender, and view exhibits about Yorktown's Civil War history at the National Cemetery Lodge. The Monument to Victory and Alliance, the Nelson House, home to Thomas Nelson, Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence, and other historic sites are located within the town.
The Yorktown Victory Center, a museum of the American Revolution, chronicles America's quest for nationhood. Thematic gallery exhibits and the film, "A Time of Revolution" highlight the experiences of ordinary men and women who lived during the Revolution, trace the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, and examine how people from many different cultures shaped a new society. Outdoors, historical interpreters engage visitors in everyday life during the Revolutionary era. Visitors can learn about a soldier's life in a re-created Continental Army encampment and, on a re-created 1780s farm, help with chores such as weeding the garden and processing flax. The museum continues to welcome visitors daily as it transforms into the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, to open in late 2016.
Since 2005, Riverwalk Landing has linked the Yorktown Victory Center and Yorktown Battlefield in a one-mile pedestrian walkway on the York River. A beautiful waterfront venue, designed in the spirit of colonial architecture reflected in Yorktown's historic buildings, offers a variety of shops and riverfront dining. Visitors can arrange to rent a bike, take guided Segway adventure tours of the village, or sail on the schooners Alliance or Serenity. A free trolley runs daily from spring through fall, offering many stops throughout town.
The historic Jamestown (or "Jamestowne") area offers a wealth of activities for exploring the first permanent English settlement in North America and more. The Visitor Center at Historic Jamestowne features exhibits with hundreds of Jamestown artifacts and an introductory theater presentation. At the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, visitors learn about the excavation of James Fort and view more than 1,000 artifacts.
Visitors can witness archaeology-in-action at the 1607 James Fort excavation; tour the original 17th-century church tower and reconstructed Jamestown Memorial Church; take a walking tour with a ranger or living-history interpreter through the historic townsite and view representations of many of the buildings that once stood in the town; watch costumed glassblowers at the Glasshouse; and drive the scenic Island Drive.
Jamestown Settlement, a museum of 17th-century Virginia, evokes the world of America's first permanent English colony through the film "1607: A Nation Takes Root," gallery exhibits and outdoor living history. Expansive exhibition galleries featuring more than 500 period artifacts provide an overview of Jamestown's beginnings and the first century of the Virginia colony and describe the cultures of the Powhatan Indians, Europeans and Africans who converged in 1600s Virginia.
Outdoors, visitors can board the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, replicas of the three ships that sailed from England to Virginia in 1607. Plus, they can explore life-size re-creations of the colonists' fort and a Powhatan village. Costumed historical interpreters describe and demonstrate daily life in the early 17th century.
Williamsburg and Richmond are connected by much more than a beautiful country road. Williamsburg was the original state capital, before the Old Dominion's headquarters was moved to Richmond. Today, nearby I-64 makes the trip a blur, but nearby Route 5 allows visitors to linger in the present and enjoy leisurely glimpses into the past.
In a drive of less than 60 miles, the road between Williamsburg and Richmond winds through more than three hundred years of Virginia (and U.S.) history on the home front. The drive is like a trip to visit several wealthy friends at their large and varied country estates.
Once you leave the outskirts of Williamsburg on Route 5, the history lessons begin quickly. Most drivers are drawn to the large number of Virginia historic markers. Cars are constantly pulling over for roadside history lessons, culled from the distinctive signs all along Virginia's historic roads. Route 5 explorers will also notice the attractive Virginia Byway signs (including a cardinal, the state bird) denoting the historic and scenic importance of this road.
The first plantation after leaving Williamsburg is Sherwood Forest Plantation, which is open to visitors (for a small fee) for self-guided ground tours, as well as house tours by appointment and during special events. Sherwood Forest was the home of President John Tyler and is considered the longest frame house in America, at 300 feet. It has been a working plantation for more than 240 years and is still occupied by members of the Tyler family. There's even the family's Pet Grave Yard nearby.
Try to time your driving for a stop at Charles City Tavern, about 12 miles west of Sherwood Forest, for lunch or brunch. It's housed in an 1889 farmhouse that sits on a 2,000-acre working farm. Their creative fare includes don't miss "Virginia Poutine"--French fries topped with pimento cheese and Surry bacon gravy.
Back on Route 5, look for the turn to Westover Church on the left. The original church was built nearby in 1613 and this site and "new" building were adopted in 1730. If you're enjoying Route 5 on a Sunday, try to time a visit for morning services at this true country church.
Just down the road on the left are two plantations for the price of one drive down a country road. Called "Virginia's Most Historic Plantation" for good reason, Berkeley Plantation is one of the most popular stops on Route 5. Plus, the the grounds of Westover Plantation are also well worth a visit.
The half-mile dirt road to Berkeley was designed for carriages and built in 1725. A sign asks drivers to drive "leisurely." This historic mansion was built in 1726 (the initials of Benjamin Harrison IV and his wife Anne are on a datestone over a side door) and has since played host to George Washington, many more succeeding U.S. presidents, and thousands of tourists.
The Colonial-clad tour guides will point out many unique features. Some great tidbits you'll learn during the tour include "Taps" was composed at Berkeley in 1862 while Civil War Union forces were encamped at the plantation; William Henry Harrison, Governor Benjamin Harrison's third son, was born at Berkeley and went on to become the famous Indian fighter "Tippecanoe," the ninth president of the U.S., and grandfather of the 23rd president of the U.S.
If you're visiting in early-November, be sure to call in advance about the Virginia First Thanksgiving Festival, an annual celebration on the first Sunday in November. In 1619, Captain John Woodlief came safely ashore here (two years before the colonists arrived in Massachusetts) and they have since celebrated the event annually. This popular event includes historical reenactments, crafts, Indian dancers and exhibits, music, and some great Virginia food.
By taking the other fork in the road, plantation lovers in the know head to Westover Plantation to tour the grounds, gardens, and outbuildings (small donation requested) or visit the interior's downstairs rooms during special events. This home, built about 1730 by William Byrd II, only opens its grounds (you can't go inside) for touring.
Situated directly on the James River, the best view of the buildings and grounds is found by walking across the lawn instead of following the path. Check out the small structure by the ice house, which contains passageways leading to the river in case of attack by Indians.
On the other side of the house, look for the iron fence with supporting columns topped by unusual stone finials cut to resemble an acorn for perseverance (from little acorns great oaks grow); a pineapple for hospitality; a Greek Key to the World for knowledge; a cornucopia or horn of plenty; a beehive for industry; and an urn of flowers for beauty.
The last of the Route 5's plantations is situated less than 20 miles outside of Richmond. Like many stately mansions, the ride up to Shirley Plantation is along a tree-lined road. Shirley was founded in 1613, just six years after the settlers arrived in Jamestown to establish the first permanent English Colony in the New World.
The brick structure is one of the nation's prime examples of Queen Anne architecture. It has been the home of the Carter family since 1723 and the 800-acre working plantation is still owned and operated by the ninth and tenth generations of the original family. It was the home of Anne Hill Carter, mother of Robert E. Lee.
As they do today, many prominent Virginians enjoyed the hospitality of Shirley Plantation, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Look for the plethora of pineapples, a Colonial symbol of hospitality, in the hand-carved woodwork of the house and the 3 1/2-foot pineapple pinial on the peak of the rooftop. The history- and anecdote-packed tour is excellent and a tour of the grounds along the James is invigorating.
Next, Civil War buffs flock to Fort Harrison, one of many large battlefields that are part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. There is a small museum and visitors center, where you can get background on Fort Harrison's role in the War Between the States and a useful map.
Fort Harrison was bloodily captured by the Union forces of General Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 with more than 15,000 Yankee troops. The battle served as the beginning of the downfall of Richmond, the Capital of the Confederacy, six months later. There's a pretty and (now) peaceful walking tour and drive through the park before heading back to Route 5.
As you enter Richmond along the James River, the modern skyline looms ahead, but the memories of a unique past are just a few miles behind you.