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We recently visited Colonial Williamsburg, the nation’s largest and most sophisticated living history center near Newport News, Virginia. Dedicated to bringing alive the period of the American Revolution, you could be forgiven for wondering why you should consider taking your family there on a vacation. There are actually some good reasons:
*You don’t remember much from school about the fight of the 13 colonies for independence from Britain (and wonder whether they tried the non-violent approach that worked for India).
*You haven’t had time to read any of the bestselling biographies of the early leaders, such as Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and Harlow Unger’s The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness.
*Friends or family members need to prepare to become U.S. citizens—a visit would be the best way to make the events and ideas of the Revolution memorable.
*Your kids find studying U.S. history to be boring and irrelevant to today’s issues and their own challenges.
*You want to better understand your customers, who are passionate about early American history.
Colonial Williamsburg is the restored 301 acres of what was Virginia’s capital during the turbulent period from 1699 to 1780 (when it was moved to Richmond). It is close to Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement, and Yorktown, where the Americans finally defeated the British. All three can be seen in four days and the big surprise is that they’re all exciting places to learn for the whole family.
As experienced travelers know, half the success of a trip comes from good preparation. Read The Official Guide to America’s Historic Triangle and go through The American Revolution for Kids by Janis Herbert together. Also, watch the early episodes of the outstanding documentary America: The Story of Us (from Netflix and elsewhere).
At www.colonialwilliamsburg.org you can look at the schedule of special events for the time you want to visit.
We asked about the best bed-and-breakfast in the area and everyone referred us to Cedars of Williamsburg www.cedarsofwilliamsburg.com, the oldest in the area, famous for its hospitality and located in a quiet area a short walk from the historic district.
Take the shuttle once you arrive to the Visitors Center and start with the overview film. Also, browse the terrific bookstore, where you can read the dust jackets of books about American history to get an idea of what you may have been missing (better than trying to search online).
The Center is where your kids—and perhaps you—can start playing RevQuest, a clever three-hour game that takes participants across the historic district as spies for the Revolution (in case you haven’t heard, AMC’s hot new TV series Turn is about George Washington’s spy ring).
There are lots of opportunities to travel back in time along the Duke of Gloucester Street, where dozens of buildings are open to learn how the mentally ill were treated, how food was prepared without modern conveniences, or how the courts tried to deliver justice.
History comes even more alive from 2:30 to 5 each day, as actors put on mini-plays in the street and interact with visitors, recruiting for the revolutionary army, reading out and debating the news, or discuss their hardships, making the challenges resonate for today.
Elsewhere, you might have a chance to talk with Native Americans about the colonists, talk with Patrick Henry about the real meaning of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, or ask Thomas Jefferson why he kept slaves after writing that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence.
In the evening, there is everything from candlelight tours of haunted houses to lessons in colonial dancing.
Colonial Williamsburg’s motto is “that the future may learn from the past.” Visitors come away with a new appreciation for the achievements of the first modern republic, even though it was and is imperfect. The Founders, warts and all, were willing to sacrifice everything for a vision that was noble and their principles remain inspiring. The central message: citizens need to be informed and active and we can’t afford to take our freedoms for granted.
Jamestown and Yorktown
Less than a half hour away from Williamsburg at opposite ends of Colonial Parkway are Jamestown and Yorktown. Inexplicably, the free shuttle between the three sites was recently canceled, so you’ll need a car and the closest and cheapest is B&W Rental 800-899-2271 (on weekends it closes at noon, while most places to visit are open until 5, so plan accordingly).
We drove one afternoon to the two Jamestowns and you need at least two hours at each. First, we went through the outstanding museum at Jamestown Settlement www.historyisfun.org, where a nonprofit that has recreated the fort that was built after the community was founded in 1607. This allows visitors who really see and understand it (including the role of Pocahontas in saving the life of its leader, Captain John Smith, and providing food to the settlers when they were starving).
The original site of the fort is run by the U.S. Park Service, Historic Jamestowne www.historicjamestowne.org. See the introductory film, the archaeological dig, and the amazing museum (which documents the cannibalism that some turned to).
There are also two Yorktowns. You can drive around the Colonial National Historic Park Battlefield’s key points before the Visitors Centerwww.visityorktown.org opens at 9 a.m. Plan to spend an hour inside: the film gives a good overview of what happened when American and French troops cornered British forces and determined world history. After following the history from Jamestown and Williamsburg, one has to be astounded by the Revolutionaries’ belief they could defeat the greatest empire in history.
The movie at the Yorktown Victory Center (same web site as Jamestown Settlement) takes a dramatized approached to what life was like for the ordinary American soldier. You will need a couple of hours to go through the excellent museum, which looks at the archaeology done on British ships that were sunk before the battle, while outside there is a Continental Army encampment and period farm.
One of the things that became clear from our visit is a factor in why Indian Americans have been so successful in business. The cultural DNA that has turned India’s sidewalks from places for beggars a couple of decades ago to markets for entrepreneurs today fits well with opportunities in the U.S. The people who sailed to the New World were willing to take very high risks: the desperately poor of England who wanted their own farms, criminals who wanted a second chance, and those persecuted for their religious beliefs who needed freedom.
“America’s Historic Triangle” is the best package deal for seven days at all five places: $88.50 for adults, $38.75 ages 6-15 (available on the web sites and there are other attractions in the area to fill out a vacation).