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Historic Triangle, Virginia

July 9, 2012

Not quite in time for Independence Day, but here is the third and final post from our recent trip to Virginia nonetheless!

I think I’ve mentioned before that my husband is a bit of a history buff? One of his personality quirks is that around patriotic holidays like the 4th, he gets a little sentimental. Since our trip last month, we’ve watched at least a dozen episodes of John Adams and The Revolution on DVD. If you ever popped in on us unexpectedly, there is about an 80% chance that if the TV is on, either sports or history programming is the show of choice. That’s my sweet Southern gentleman!

The Historic Triangle is made up of Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, and the site of the Jamestown settlement. All three are connected by the peaceful, scenic, tree-lined Colonial Parkway, and lie within about a 20-30 minute drive of each other. All three have volunteers and actors walking around wearing period dress, and we found those at Jamestown and Yorktown eager to converse with us and share interesting information for as long as we wanted to interact with them.

     

Here’s where the Historic Triangle gets a little confusing. You should definitely know before you go that both Yorktown and Jamestown have TWO separate sights to see, so there are really four sights in addition to Colonial Williamsburg. I did not think this was made clear at the sites themselves. The newer, fancier museums at each are run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Yorktown’s visitor center and actual battlefield,  as well as the real ruins of the settlement and smaller Jamestown museums, seem to be managed by the National Park Service and an archaeology organization. You can buy a ticket to the two Foundation sights for $20, but honestly we thought it was worth it to get the Four-Site Value Ticket for $30 per person. I’ll let you do your own math depending on your affinity for history, what you are interested in, and how much time you have, but personally I thought the battlefield itself and real Jamestown ruins were memorable parts of our experience, and I would have been sorry to find out after the fact that we’d missed them due to a lack of clear information.

Yorktown, a port city, was the site of the final major battle of the Revolution. The American and French victory here in October of 1781 effectively ended the war. Today, the tiny coastal town is home to about 200 residents. We started at the visitor center, which is a small museum with a gift shop, educational film, and cool partial replica of a boat that you can walk through. Behind the center is a nice walkable timeline outlining the events leading up to the Revolution, and a second museum chronicling the war from various perspectives. I appreciated that this museum clearly tried not to tell the same war story that any history buff would already know, but fleshed out the basic facts with behind-the-scenes angles and personal experiences.

We walked from the visitor center about a mile and a half to the Victory Center, which is a bigger space with fancier indoor museum exhibitions and a recreated Army encampment and 1780s farm outdoors. Men at the encampment showed us how soldiers cooked food in outdoor “kitchens” built into ditches and how weapons were fired.

The walk between the two Yorktown centers takes you through quiet streets past monuments, historic homes, a small beach, and a few restaurants and shops in the town.

We noticed The Hornsby House Inn, a bed and breakfast, not far from the visitor center amongst the houses, and the Duke of York motel right across the street from the little beach where families were playing in the sand and water. (If you don’t want to walk the mile and a half between the two main attractions, there is a shuttle circling the Yorktown sites, or you can drive yourself between them.)

Our favorite part of Yorktown was driving through the battlefield itself. It was huge, serene, quiet, and shaded by acres and acres of forests. We saw several people bicycling there, which made us wish we had our wheels with us. Bikers share the road with cars, but when we went in the early evening there were very few vehicles, and most people drive slowly so they can read the signs describing significant points along the way. There are two different driving or bicycling routes to learn about different parts of the battlefield; one is 7 miles long and the other is 9 miles long. Both are clearly marked by color-coded signs.

     

Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in the New World, and essentially the birthplace of the United States. At the Jamestown Settlement, there is an impressive indoor museum as well as outdoor sights to explore. These include recreations of a Powhatan Indian village and the Jamestown fort in the very early 1600s. My favorite part was walking through the life-size replicas of the three ships that sailed from England to Virginia in 1607.

Compared to what you see in movies and books, they seemed unbelievably small to me! I could not imagine them being tossed among storms and waves in the Atlantic. It is also amazing to think of 50+ people living for months in what amounted to just a crawl space in the hold on top of cargo and below the ceiling. Interestingly, these ships can sail. We saw one coming back  on the river from a historical event of some sort in another city.

From here you can drive down to the actual site of Historic Jamestown or New Towne. This is a large outdoor area on the James River where you can see archaeologists working to unearth artifacts from the settlement, as well as the real ruins of businesses and houses, and a brick church that has stood for centuries.

There is also a museum displaying some of the real artifacts found in the archaeological digs. Here is an excellent piece of travel advice: don’t wear your cutest shoes on the day you visit New Towne. There is evidence of huge numbers of geese all over the grass and dirt paths. :)

Colonial Williamsburg has been preserved and restored to give you an idea of what the capital city of Virginia in the 1700s would have been like. It is the one sight we did not buy a ticket to experience. They have tons of presentations and re-enactments of all kinds listed on the event calendar on their website, everything from an audience with a Founding Father to a live courtroom session to a wool-spinning lesson. But, $40 for one day seemed a little steep to us for the few events we were most excited about, and we did not have the vacation days or in-depth interest to make a 7-day ticket worthwhile.

Furthermore, the Colonial Williamsburg pass does not include the “Ghosts Among Us” and “Pirates Among Us” walking tours, which were two of the things I was most intrigued by. We tried to buy tickets for those ($15 per person per tour), but they were completely sold out for both nights we were there. If you are interested in those nighttime events, reserve your spaces as early as they let you! We noticed that a private company in Williamsburg also does ghost tours, but did not investigate further.

Even without a pass, you are free to walk through the city blocks and look at the restored buildings, carriages, and people in costumes. I think we enjoyed it most in the evening, after many of the exhibitions had closed, and it was quiet and mainly just folks strolling the streets enjoying the ambiance or walking their dogs.

You can also explore modern downtown Williamsburg, a cute little polished town between the colonial city and the picture-perfect, well-preserved College of William and Mary campus.

There are restaurants, small unique shops, a couple of bookstores, ice cream parlors, candy stores, etc. We really enjoyed strolling around here, though it is pretty small and won’t take you too long.

     

Our favorite stop was The Cheese Shop, in which we ignored the cheese and instead were enchanted with shelf after shelf of gourmet food items, many that I had never come across before. Both they and the Wythe Candy and Gourmet Shop nearby had an impressive collection of dark chocolate bars, if you are looking for a relatively “healthy” treat.

We stayed at the Legacy of Williamsburg Bed and Breakfast, which is an easy-to-walk mile or so from both Colonial Williamsburg and downtown on a main thoroughfare. I loved that our room, the Peyton Randolph Suite, had both a sizable bedroom and sitting room. It was nice to have a bit more space to relax and spread out than a typical hotel!

The owner, Joan, was upbeat, attentive, friendly, and quick to turn down the air conditioning when she realized we were warm. Though we requested healthy, whole grain breakfasts, we ended up with homemade white English muffin bread, homemade coffee cake, sweetened yogurt, and lovely fresh fruit. Better than bacon, eggs, and biscuits, I suppose! And obviously all made with great care. There was ice and tea readily available for guests all day, and homemade sweets set out at 4pm daily too. It was a thoughtful place where all details related to guest comfort had clearly been considered, and we enjoyed our stay.

     

I should mention as a sidenote before I end the post and to preface this next picture taken downtown: if you have ever wanted to own one of those triangular colonial-style hats, you will have no trouble finding one to buy in Williamsburg. You will be in good company wearing one too. (Thankfully, the hubs resisted the temptation.)

     

Lastly, restaurants. We were really excited about the menus we saw online for The Baker’s Crust and its sister eatery near campus, The Crust. Both were vegetarian-friendly, but both were better on paper than in person; the food was really pretty average. However, if you want a decent salad, The Baker’s Crust would be a good choice. There was a Trader Joe’s near it too, if you need any snacks or grocery items.

We loved our experience at the French-style Blue Talon Bistro downtown. What a casual, comfortable, yet sophisticated and warm atmosphere. The menu was not particularly plant-based, but the servers seemed more than happy to leave the bacon off my grilled asparagus salad, and said they would also have been glad to omit the pancetta from the carrot and leek soup if I had asked. (I assumed it was part of the dish itself, but really it was just a topping.) The soup was delicious, very vegetable-centered, and I enjoyed the salad as well. They did have a vegetarian plate on the menu that looked very nice, with barley pilaf, white beans, winter vegetables, eggplant puree, and harvest bread. Unfortunately we’d had a late lunch that day and I just wasn’t hungry enough to order it!

     

Overall, the Williamsburg area was interesting, educational, picturesque, and even romantic. (Something about the old-fashioned charm and quiet streets to amble through in the evening, maybe?) If you like American history, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

I tried to condense a lot of information into this one post, so if I can answer more detailed questions about our stay, please don’t hesitate to email me or comment below!

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