This year’s summer vacation took the Palmer family to Williamsburg, Virginia. It was sort of a random vacation destination. We didn’t know anyone who lives in this part of the country, and we had not talked to anyone who had been there. That gave the trip a little mystique. I figured it was either going to be a big flop or a big success. Turns out it was higher up on the success side of things.
Anyone who has taken American history in school (should be just about everyone) knows that Williamsburg is drenched in history. Here is a quick refresher to get you up to speed.
Williamsburg was founded as the capital of the Virginia Colony in 1699. The original capital, Jamestown, was the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the “New World” founded in 1607. Colonial leaders relocated the capital from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, five miles inland between the James and York rivers and renamed it Williamsburg in honor of England’s reigning monarch, King William III. The capital was later moved to Richmond, where it remains today.
Moving the capital has been credited with saving much of the history of Williamsburg, as the city reverted to a small college town instead of a booming metropolis. In 1926, a parish priest at a church in town realized the historic significance of Williamsburg and voiced his opinion that it be preserved. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. heard his cry and funded the restoration and preservation of the city. Williamsburg is known internationally as the center for preservation and interpretation of American Colonial history (although I didn’t really know that until I went there).
A couple other tidbits about the city: Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler all went to college in town (College of William and Mary) and the first mental illness hospital in America was opened here way back when. Also, there was a big battle in Williamsburg during the Civil War, in 1862, so there is Civil War history in the area as well.
Back to our trip…
The city of Williamsburg is sort of like a museum. Much of the community is owned by an organization that runs Colonial Williamsburg. You can walk through town and check out historical buildings for free. Or you can pay extra and really get into it. They have people dressed in attire from the Colonial days and speaking in character at several locations throughout the city.
During our day there, we watched a blacksmith in action, I visited an old newspaper print shop (naturally), we took part in a simulated court case in the courthouse (we were in the jury), my boys were part of an archeological dig, we learned about the guns used in the Revolutionary War, the boys played yard games they used to play back then, we ate lunch at an authentic home-based restaurant, we toured some homes where several parts of the Constitution were discussed and written up, we were in a ballroom where George and Martha Washington loved to dance, and we browsed through some shops that were straight out of the Colonial times. At the end of the day, the Colonial Williamsburg band (mostly high-school age kids) marched and played tunes from the Colonial times. My wife is a big fan of marching bands, so this was one of her favorites.
We spent a full day in Colonial Williamsburg, but we could have easily spent another full day there. Jamestown and Yorktown are located nearby and have some similar offerings in those areas. Many people spend three or more days looking at all the historical sites. History buffs could probably spend a couple of weeks out there.
History is a big reason why people go to that part of Virginia, but it isn’t the only attraction out there (I sound like I work for Virginia Tourism). Virginia Beach is located just an hour or so away (huge beach), and Busch Gardens is just a short drive from Williamsburg. The area kinda had that “something for everyone” feel to it.
Like all vacations, ours had its share of quirky things. As years go by, these will probably be the things we remember.
• Williamsburg is packed with pancake houses. There were more places to eat breakfast than there were places to eat any other meal of the day. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day and in Williamsburg they take that phrase to heart.
At one of the pancake houses, the side choices with your pancakes were bacon, sausage or scrapple. Since I’m an adventurous guy, I went with scrapple. I had never heard of scrapple, but figured it must be a meat of some sort so I could hardy go wrong. Turns out, I should have went with the sausage. Scrapple, as the waitress apologetically explained to me, is a mush of scraps and trimmings that are basically deemed unusable for any other dish. They mix it with cornmeal and flour until it turns into a semi-solid congealed loaf. Then they pan fry it. I’m not a picky guy. I can probably count the number of foods I don’t like on one hand. Scrapple is now on that list.
• It’s hot there in the summer. It was 95+ degrees every day we were there and muggy. It only got down in the 80s at night. Our hotel pool was packed the entire time we were there. We even went to a movie in the middle of one of the days just to get out of the heat. We have never done that on a vacation before.
• We went on a dolphin tour when we visited Virginia Beach, and we saw several of them. Chesapeake Bay is located on the edge of Virginia Beach and has had a surging population of bottleneck dolphins in recent years. There are so many dolphins that the dolphin tour companies guarantee you will see one or you get your money back.
• One night, we went on a walking ghost tour of Williamsburg with two of our boys (one wasn’t feeling well so stayed back). Because of the historical nature of the city, there were plenty of tales to tell. Who knows if any of them were real, but they sounded good. It was good, clean entertainment, and the boys loved it. Ghost tours, like pancake houses, were plentiful. There must have been eight or nine of them going on when we went on ours (all different companies).
• When the preservation of Williamsburg started in the 1920s, many homes were purchased from their owners, but not all of them were. Those who owned homes in the 1920s and opted to keep their home for the last 90+ years can still live in Williamsburg. So we were strolling through town and looking at places, and you can see regular homes mixed in. It is kind of odd to walk by all the historical stuff and then see a guy watching a movie on his big screen TV in the next house. The guy giving our ghost tour said that just about everyone living here gets in the habit of locking their front door after a group of tourists accidently strolls into their living room. Historical buildings are marked with a flag, but I could see how accidental visits would happen.
I don’t write about my vacations very often. I don’t want people who read my column to have the same feeling as someone who is invited to a friend’s house and all they do is show vacation pictures for hours. But I mention this one because it is different than the typical vacation. Like I mentioned, I didn’t know anyone who had taken this trip, and it is really a good one for multiple ages. And if you are a history buff, this is a must do trip. Just maybe visit when the temperatures aren’t around 100 degrees.