As you may have noticed by now, I am totally into historical parks and the like. I could go the rest of my life and never look at an art museum…but history? I’m on it. When I was little-ish and my family lived in Connecticut we went to this awesome place called Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. It was so cool…a recreated colonial village complete with costumed, in-character workers. I loved it and was hoping that Colonial Williamsburg would be the same…and it did not disappoint.
As I mentioned in my last post, my friends Karen and Paul were exceedingly generous in donating a night’s stay in one of the official Colonial Williamsburg hotels, the Woodlands’ Hotel and Suites. I’m sure that I would’ve been far too cheap to select this hotel but I cannot recommend it enough. Everyone was nice and the CW grounds were walkable. Plus, guests of the official hotels get discounts on the passes, meals in CW restaurants and other various amenities. I think if I were doing it again I would spend the extra money to stay on the grounds again as it was so convenient and the regular rate wasn’t too outrageous…around $150 per night. So now that I’m done playing travel agent…
I got an early start at Colonial Williamsburg on Monday as I had a lot to pack into one day. The plan was to spend most of the day at CW and a couple of hours at the Jamestown site and then drive until I dropped towards Charleston, SC. There is a mildly informative orientation walk where I learned the following things:
- Colonial Williamsburg came about courtesy of John D. Rockefeller and a fellow College of William and Mary alumni Dr. W.A.R Goodwin as a means to preserve and restore the decaying historical city of Williamsburg. Rumor has it that this guy Rockefeller had a bit of cash and thus he subsequently committed $60 million (in 1926 dollars!) to the project. As any savvy business man would, Rockefeller used an alias in all real estate transactions to keep the prices from going up once it was known that he was the buyer. Very clever of him.
- During the restoration process, nearly 600 nonperiod buildings were razed or removed from the Historic Area; 88 original 18th-century buildings were restored or repaired; and almost 500 structures (including outbuildings) were reconstructed according to the specifications of colonial-period documents and archaeological evidence. Perhaps more interesting is that many of the buildings in CW are currently occupied by the families of full-time employees of CW.
- Opened in 1934, Colonial Williamsburg was the first theme park to use American history for amusement.
I have long had an inner conflict about the difference between “preserved” and “restored” buildings. I’m never quite sure if I’d like to see the ruins the way they currently exist or the pretty, restored versions that exist in places such as CW. Maybe a little of both? I’m not entirely decided on this issue but one thing I do know is that the restored buildings have this new-fangled, always-colonial invention…air conditioning. Believe me, if there’s one thing I can do without its authenticity, it’s Virginia heat in August.
Perhaps my favorite mini-tour in CW was that of Wetherburn’s Tavern which was less of drinking establishment and more of a bed and breakfast. This building was one of the originals and it was fascinating to see the public vs. private accommodations. Though they were right next to each other, they were a world apart. In the private rooms you got your own bed but had to share the room with several other people. In the public rooms they packed 3-4 into a bed and at busy times could fit up to 30 people in a room on floor pallets in a rather tiny room. On a disgusting note, they apparently only washed the sheets once a month…but they did shake out the linens every couple of days. Eww.
After spending about 5 hours of nerdy fun on the CW grounds I headed out towards Jamestown which is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. Jamestown, for the historically impaired, is the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America in 1607. Those clued into their high school history will recall that the Roanoke settlement was earlier (late 16th century) but since those people vanished they are not counted as a permanent settlement. There are two sites here…one is the original historic Jamestown site with the ruins that is run by the National Park Service. The other is the Jamestown Settlement which is some sort of living museum which I was unable to visit due to time constraints. As it turns out, crudely built buildings from 400 years ago do not preserve well so there isn’t much to see building-wise except for the foundations. For a long time the archaeologists even believed that the fort built on this site was located where the river currently is but about 10 years ago they began excavation and found evidence of the original fort.
A recreated version of the fort now exists which you see in the picture below. Perhaps more interesting than the fort is all of the artifacts they discovered in the excavation that are now contained in the very well-done Archaearium.
After the Archaerium I was completely fried and done with the historical touring so it was off to North Carolina which, unfortunately, I had to cruise through to get closer to Charleston. This is too bad because NC is a very cool state and I’ve always endeavored to check out Cape Fear and the rest of the Outer Banks. Another trip I guess. My assessment of the Williamsburg/Virginia Beach area is that there’s a lot here to keep people busy for a while…historical stuff, beautiful beaches and of course the obligatory tourist traps including a water park and the oddly named Busch Garden Europe(?). It was nothing at all like Niagara Falls. I repeat, not at all like Niagara Falls.