Traveling Back in Time to Colonial America: An Escape from Hurricane Dorian

By Charleen - September 08, 2019

Colonial Williamsburg
Virginia USA.

Twelve years ago, our 11 and 6 year old children declared that the historic Williamsburg area was their favorite place to visit, choosing it over Disney, Rome and California. Last week, we had the opportunity to rediscover Colonial Williamsburg as adults. The perspectives of the gentry, tradesmen, free and enslaved African Americans, shopkeepers, religious minorities, military leaders and even lawbreakers in 18th century America truly came to life through conversations, tours, re-enactments and an Escape Room adventure set right in the original Public Gaol building of 1722!   
The Fife and Drum corps
We were stretching our legs on Labor Day, after driving 15 of the 18 hours or so to the Outer Banks from a midwestern family gathering. Our friends, the same family with whom we had explored Williamsburg 12 years ago, were already enjoying beautiful sunsets and early morning fishing, along with our son. Then we got the text... Although Hurricane Dorian was not predicted to reach NC for another three days, the county had just issued evacuation orders. Despite the beautiful current conditions, it did not make sense for us to push on into the evening for a single ocean sunrise before a mandatory evacuation. Fortunately, we found a great deal on a two bedroom suite at the Historic Powhatan resort in Williamsburg, VA only an hour away.

The resort was beautiful, with lakes and fountains and gazebos centered around a historic building, the manor home of the architect Richard Taliaferro, who designed the Governor's Palace and Wythe House in Colonial Williamsburg. The building is open for self-guided tours and ghost hunting (for a fee) in the evenings. Interestingly, Taliaferro reserved a special fireplace design feature for use in his own family buildings, which can be seen here. We enjoyed a fabulous dinner of meatloaf in tomato gravy and shrimp 'n grits at the Food for Thought restaurant, enjoying the many quotes and other tidbits on the walls.
Taliaferro Manor House at Historic Powhatan Resort
The next day, after our friends arrived, we were very pleased that we had said "No" to the ticket discount offered by the resort, which would have cost us two hours of vacation time. It turns out, Colonial Williamsburg had a much better deal for us (see Tips below). We got annual passes for less than the price of a one day ticket. There is so much to see and experience, and a multiday pass is highly recommended. Even the programs that appear on the schedule every day, such as Order in the Court, Entertainments at the Play House and The Necessity of Order in Battle, cover different topics from day to day. 

Order of the Court
At the courthouse, visitors get a chance to render judgement or plead their case, using cue cards from actual civil or criminal cases recorded in the archives. The judge, clerk and bailiff do a great job of injecting humor based on inevitable missteps (only certain people are allowed to wear hats in the courtroom, for example). With abundant references to shopkeepers, the Williamsburg residents whose houses you have been visiting, and events current to the time, these sessions really allow for immersion into 18th century society. We also enjoyed attending two different plays, including a hilarious adaptation of "A Wooing We Will Go," in which a pair of triple-cast actors played the parts of 2 women and 4 men -- tossing hats around and leaping on and off the stage to change characters.
Learning how to put their best foot forward in the Palace Ballroom
While the tours of the Palace, Capitol, Wythe and Randolph houses allowed a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy and powerful, we enjoyed bantering with the wigmaker and the serving lady at Chowning's Tavern as they acted their parts perfectly, staying true to the period and commenting on our "foreign" dress and habits. The carrot soup, shepherd's pie and chicken marsala at the tavern were delicious, and we enjoyed the chance to try beers from as far back as 1604.
Musician and Serving Ladies at Chowning's Tavern
A flight of beers
As with Old Bedford Village in Pennsylvania, one of the key highlights in visiting Williamsburg is the opportunity to chat with the trained craftspeople to learn how literally everything was made by hand back then. Many of the wares that are crafted or baked on site are available for purchase in period shops, which do not require paid admission. In addition to one of four historic taverns, you can enjoy vanilla soft serve twisted with different fruit flavors at M. Dubois Grocer or baked goods, salads and sandwiches from behind the Raleigh Tavern.
Sparks fly as the Gunmaker hammers the future barrel
Hand wound buttons at the Tailor
We also enjoyed visiting the Geddy House and Foundry, typically one of the sites for kid-centered activities. We took the opportunity on a cloudy, windy day when there were no kids running around, to learn about similarities and differences in dress and home decor between the gentry and a wealthy merchant, such as Geddy. The merchant's home had simpler floors and walls, but seemed to have similar furniture, paintings and china displays.
Hand drilling an angled hole
There is quite a bit of military history and equipment scattered throughout Colonial Williamsburg as well as exhibits and talks in the lower level of the Art Museum. The walls of the Governor's Palace and Magazine are lined by a mixture of original historical pieces and replicas. At noon each day, a gun (canon with a one mile range) is fired in the Magazine yard. Each afternoon, there is a presentation of battle tactics, showcasing the role of the cavalry one day and firing different guns and canons on another. On a behind the scenes tour, we learned about the military signaling function of the Fife and Drum Corps. Membership in the Corps is highly competitive, involving significant weekend and after school time, and the initial application has to be submitted shortly after birth!
"Lieutenant Colonel Theodorick Bland" of the Virginia dragoons demonstrating cavalry moves
New experiences included a fabulous 45 minute skit in the Raleigh Tavern called "A Gathering of Hair." The men in the group had to be dragged in, but by the end, we all agreed it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the trip. The ladies did a great job of drawing us in to understand their friendship and concerns as two enslaved women and their free black friend prepare to attend a wedding. Along with conversations at the barbershop of Caesar Hope, these special events celebrate 40 years of research highlighting the African American experience in Colonial Williamsburg. There are also free opportunities to converse with Native American interpreters, but you have to sign up in advance as space is limited.
Evening add-ons such as the Haunted Williamsburg ghost tours and the Spies & Lies Escape Room are highly recommended. You enter candlelit houses to hear about hauntings, both traditional stories and spooky events witnessed by modern day night guards. The Escape Room is quite challenging, as you try to sort the red herrings out from the real clues. You have to pay attention to and figure out how to gain the trust of the first prisoner in the room to get important hints.
Bassett House with Abby Rockefeller's folk art. The Rockefellers played a key role in bringing this historic city back to life.
Garden behind the Taliaferro-Cole kitchen

If heirloom vegetables or livestock are of interest, you can wander through labeled gardens or tour the stables. The art museum contains a fascinating display of folk art, and each of the houses contain additional artwork. By asking about certain pieces, I learned about Abby Rockefeller's oriental images painted backwards onto the glass itself at the Bassett House. The Wythe House, which rivals the Randolph House for the most hauntings, showcases embroidery made by girls to memorialize gravesites of family members, and the Smith kids spent their rainy days etching words and pictures on the windowpanes of the Everard House.

Colonial Williamsburg is a fantastic resource for entertainment and education. There truly is something for all ages and to pique all interests! I'm glad we got a chance to re-experience 18th century America in a different way, and to share fond memories of our kids' excitement from 12 years back.

101 Visitor Center Dr, Williamsburg, VA 23185
Historic Sites: 9 am - 5 pm
Museums: 10 am - 7 pm

🐾 If you are an active educator, be sure to bring your teacher's ID or show your faculty website for a 50% discount on an annual pass. Ask at the ticket office or check this page for other discounts (military, guests over age 50).
🐾 If at least one person in your party has an annual pass, ask about discounts at Williamsburg shops or for paid add-on experiences such as ghost tours. There are also special events for annual pass holders or hotel guests that getting a free ticket from one of five ticket offices.
🐾 The free all-day parking lot near the Visitor's Center is a short walk from the palace, and there are shuttle buses that travel the perimeter of the historic area. There are also paid parking lots/garage near the shopping area, and two hour parking for the Art Museum, and the Taverns
🐾 Try the Chowning's Tavern Root Beer - it is our favorite root beer and can be purchased at the McKenzie Apothecary, the Bakery, taverns and in the Cheese Shop in the modern Merchants Square off Henry Street. The best price we found was $2.25/bottle back at the Powhatan resort General Store.
🐾 Be sure to try Food for Thought at 1647 Richmond Road, Williamsburg, VA 23185 for a great meal!  Delicious food and lots of inspirational Ben Franklin quotes on the walls. 

All photos and content © 2019. All Rights Reserved. Contact for permissions.

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Colonial Williamsburgh
Reviewed by Love2Chow on September 6, 2019

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