If you are looking for the perfect place to celebrate the Holidays, look no further than Colonial Williamsburg. It is the only place I can imagine spending Thanksgiving or Christmas alone; and I know several childless couples who, after searching the country for that perfect place, return to CW year after year.
I made my almost-annual visit to Colonial Williamsburg earlier this month. Most of my friends have been once, and they wonder why I keep going back. Those for whom CW was only a detour on the way to Washington don’t get it. They walked Duke of Gloucester Street for a few hours, where they checked out some of the historic shops and trades and toured the Capitol and Governor’s Palace. They thought it was slightly hokey, though educational for the children. But when you come for several days and stay in the historic district, you have a far different experience.
In addition, Colonial Williamsburg today is a very different place from the colonial town of 20 years ago. It is a much more adult place now, where ideas are valued as much as colonial architecture and antiques. DoG Street is livelier, with more interaction between interpreters and visitors. The resort facilities, including lodging and restaurants, are continually upgraded.
I love walking DoG Street early in the morning and at dusk, after the day trippers have left, when the costumed shopkeepers and tradesmen are coming and going. In the dim light on the cobblestone street, I am transported to the 18th century. I hear the firing of the cannon, the music of the fife and drum corps and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves from my bedroom. Sometimes I eat by candlelight in an historic tavern, but I feel completely safe when I walk to dinner at one of the excellent restaurants at nearby Market Square.
Colonial Williamsburg may be America’s most significant living history museum, but it is also a world-class resort, with a grand hotel, championship golf courses, tennis, spa and fitness center. While I love coming by myself, Williamsburg is also the perfect girl trip, as well as the perfect place to bring the children and grandchildren.
Planning Your Trip: Visit the website to familiarize yourself with Colonial Williamsburg before your arrival. Check the calendar and make reservations for special tours, a carriage ride and dinner reservations.
When to Go: Spring and fall are beautiful, but December is perhaps the most famous period, with all the buildings decorated for the Holidays, special programming and the Grand Illumination, scheduled this year on Dec. 4. Friend groups might enjoy special programs such as Antiques Forum Feb. 24-28, Garden Symposium Apr. 29-30, or the various donor society meetings. These are annual trips for many women, where lasting friendships are formed.
Getting There: I fly to Richmond and make the easy 50-mile drive on I-64 to Williamsburg, but Norfolk and Newport News are also close by, and Washington Reagan is doable. If it is a short trip and I don’t plan to venture out of the historic area and Market Square, I arrange for Marrow Transit to meet my plane. CW provides continuous shuttle bus service that circles the district, with stops at the Visitors Center, hotels, taverns and Market Square.
Where to Dine: Most of my meals are in the informal Terrace Room at the Inn, simply because of convenience and atmosphere. I eat breakfast and one special dinner in the formal Regency Room of the hotel. Both restaurants have splendid views of the golf courses. I like to have at least one meal in an historic tavern, and King’s Arms is my favorite. I have not tried casual Chowning’s since its overhaul, but it is the only tavern open all day.
The Lodge has opened a lobby lounge restaurant, Sweet Tea and Barley, with Southern comfort food, which I find a terrific addition to the dining scene. Fat Canary, in Market Square, is arguably the best restaurant in Williamsburg, reservations generally needed far in advance.
For lunch I often walk to Blue Talon, an excellent French bistro. I haven’t checked out Berret’s Seafood yet, but I am told that its fried oysters are the best. If you have a car, Le Yaca, a French restaurant, rivals Fat Canary. A friend took me to Couchon, a short drive from the historic district, for lunch on my recent visit. It is an attractive, locally owned new restaurant; and I want to go for dinner on my next trip.
Where to Stay: Williamsburg Inn is one of my favorite hotels in the country. While it has relaxed a lot since my first stay in 1997—they used silver fingerbowls in the dining room then—it is still a formal, traditional hotel with a formal dining room. The Queen of England has stayed here twice. If this is too stuffy, Williamsburg Lodge is a block away, with amenities suited for convention and family markets. Unlike the Inn, it has rooms with two queen-size beds, which will fit the needs of women traveling together and extended families. Historic housing is simpler and not so spiffy, but this is the most authentic historical experience, with lodging in the heart of the historic district.
How Long to Stay: If this is your first trip, I recommend getting a car and staying a minimum of three days, four nights. Spend several hours each day wandering the streets of the colonial city, rather than trying to absorb it all in one day. If you have time on the day you arrive, take a carriage ride through the historic district.
For an historical perspective of the area, from the arrival of the first settlers in Jamestown in 1608 through the Revolution, start at the beginning on DAY 1, at the National Park site on Jamestown island.
Moving chronologically, spend DAY 2 at CW. Start at the Visitors’ Center (best accessed by shuttle bus), watch the film and check out the excellent bookstore. I seldom leave without a stack of books. Then head for DoG Street and the Revolutionary City, where you will experience life in Williamsburg between 1776 and 1781. Your visitor’s badge will admit you to notable buildings like the Governor’s Palace and other historic homes, but the historic shops and many of the trades—as well as the street theater—are open to the public. If you are lucky, you will encounter Thomas Jefferson or George Washington…or even Washington’s dog.
On DAY 3 head to Yorktown on the Colonial Parkway, maintained by the National Park Service. Here you can tour the battleground where Washington defeated Cornwallis to win the War for Independence. As in Jamestown, the National Park Visitors’ Center has an excellent small museum that tells the story.
Unlike Jamestown, Yorktown is still a community, beautifully situated where the York River flows into Chesapeake Bay. The waterfront has cute shops and a few nice restaurants, and I like to spend several hours in Yorktown on every trip. As I survey the river, I try to imagine it filled with the entire British fleet, with the French Navy out in the bay, completely blocking Cornwallis’ withdrawal. In Yorktown, like no place else, I begin to grasp the enormity of what that victory meant and the price the Founders paid to achieve that victory.
If you linger another day, you can enjoy the resort facilities, as well as the shopping and dining at Market Square. If you continue your walk, you will reach the historic “front door” to The College of William and Mary, well worth a visit.
In the Area: Richmond is a city full of Civil War reminders, with a fabulous historic hotel, The Jefferson. Highway 5, The John Tyler Memorial Highway along the James from Williamsburg to Richmond, is lined with early plantations, including those of Presidents Harrison and Tyler.
Photos, from top to bottom: Interpreters on Duke of Gloucester Street, gingersnaps baking at the Bake Shop behind Raleigh’s Tavern, Fat Canary at Market Square, ham paté in the Terrace Room in the Inn, pulled pork barbecue at Sweet Tea and Barley in the Lodge, my bedroom in one of the historic houses, a carriage ride of DoG Street, George Washington’s dog.