Southern Road Trip #5: Colonial Williamsburg

Well, Road Trip Enthusiasts, we have made it to our final (for now) December Girls’ Trip. The following details our trip to Williamsburg, VA in December of 2018. Enjoy!

    5. Colonial Williamsburg (December 2018)

After having to forego touring Colonial Williamsburg on our first trip to Virginia in 2013, we decided this state of affairs simply wouldn’t do and buckled up for a trip back across Virginia! In my post on our first trip to Virginia, I mentioned our love for Michie Tavern in Charlottesville near Monticello. Coming from Tennessee, there were two routes we could take to get to the coast, and knowing that Michie Tavern lay along the trail of one of them made that decision easy! We wheeled in there first and ate some delicious grub. It was this stop at Michie where we saw a beautiful French family with many children. (They were speaking French, so we assumed France, but they could have hailed from anywhere, of course.) We predicted they had come all of that way to tour Monticello, which was pretty cool!

But Monticello wasn’t on our agenda this time since we had already been. I made the last-minute suggestion, however, that we drop by the neighboring James Monroe’s Highland. In 2016, a huge discovery had been made at Highland. During an archaeological dig, the foundation for a much larger house was uncovered. The more modest house, which was thought for many years to be Monroe’s home, was actually just a guest house. You can find a fabulous article detailing this historic find here: https://www.history.com/news/major-discovery-at-james-monroes-historic-virginia-home.

I had been following this story fairly closely, as well as viewing pictures of their rare (and extremely cute) breed of sheep, so I thought it would be a good idea to swing by for a tour. There were good things about Highland: the staff was really laid-back and friendly, the grounds were pretty, and the story of James Monroe is not well-known but is certainly worth hearing. But there were some downsides, too: the archaeological find is amazing, but the sad fact is that the huge house Monroe had lived in isn’t there, so the tour is still limited to the guest house. There were Monroe family antiques in there, and it is a neat house in its own right, but it’s not a stimulating visual experience. In addition, Highland still gives the impression of being fairly new as a house museum. It’s not a well-oiled machine like Monticello, and, frankly, for a Presidential Home, I was a bit surprised at the lack of funds which had been allotted to it. As a personal grievance, the sheep were nowhere to be found (it was cold that day, so I assume they had retired to shelter, and this was no one’s fault). But still, I would recommend going to Highland to get a feel for the Monroe family and for the amazing discoveries being made there every day.

And then: on to Williamsburg! There is nowhere quite so cozy as Colonial Williamsburg at Christmastime. Colonial-style decorations fill every window and door. My mom actually bought a book which showed how to make the decorations, and we tried it this past Christmas with some success! We bought our tickets in advance, so we just drove to the parking lot of the visitor center, where they give you a bracelet and bus you into the park. It’s so cool, getting out and stepping right onto the grounds of the Governor’s Palace.

We toured the Palace first. I pointed at the rippled windows and said, “Those are really old.” The first thing the docent said when she began our tour was, “I’m sorry to tell you that the Governor’s Palace is entirely new construction.” And that’s the wonder of Colonial Williamsburg. They do good work. Everything there is built with 18th Century tools in 18th Century style (quite possibly while wearing 18th Century stockings). So it was a bit of a bummer to find out that the Palace had been reconstructed, but it is an excellent reconstruction. I particularly remember the ballroom and the stage the docent set for a Colonial ball while we were there. You can really imagine the hosting that would have taken place in the Royal Governor’s home.

Then we walked around the shops within the “park.” My sister bought an 18th Century-style straw hat, which is just as wearable on the beach as it would be for a costume. You get to see how all sorts of Colonial trades worked (blacksmithing, weaving, etc.). We visited the courthouse, which is an original building that has been used in several films.

The Capitol building was really fabulous (again, I’ve spotted it in several historical films). We got to watch the docent manufacture and carry through a trial with actors plucked from our tour group. The tour groups are huge, but this one was great because you got to fill up the parliamentary room. And of course, since most things are reconstructed, they are not persnickety about letting you sit on or touch things that look like historical gems. Except at the George Wythe House.

George Wythe was a philosopher and professor during the Colonial and Young Republic periods, and his original house stands within the “park” of Colonial Williamsburg. DO NOT EVEN TRY to chew gum in the George Wythe House. My mom got busted, to the amusement of her daughters. It was a bit like whip-lash to go from the “prop your feet up” mentality of all of the reconstructed buildings to the strict reverence for this historical house, but as long as you are forewarned, you will be alright.

There is a calendar of events for each day in the “park.” You can get a handheld copy at the visitor center, but I highly recommend downloading the app, which gives daily updates and neat tidbits you would otherwise miss. We saw on the app that there was a Fife and Drum assembly and presented ourselves at the proper time. And lo! Down the street come scores of irritated middle schoolers dressed in Colonial garb and marching to the beat of drums. They lined up and took off to the music of the flutes and drums they were playing, and it was neat to watch that visual history. I think there is another group you can see that consists of adults, but honestly, the kids were very talented.

One really great thing about Colonial Williamsburg is the food. The King’s Arms Tavern serves up Colonial fare and is quite tasty. There was a fantastic restaurant on Merchant’s Square, the street that kind of marks the end of the “park” area and the beginning of the regular town. (Don’t worry, everything is still very Colonial in Merchant’s Square. There was even ice skating.)

Speaking of Merchant’s Square, some of the shops were truly amazing. We finally got to go in Scotland House, and I bought a great necklace with the Colquhoun (pronounced Cuh-hoon or Calhoun, or, by my family wing, Cowan) crest. I also now have a scarf in the Colquhoun tartan, which my sister bought me there on a recent trip, so you can find great stuff if you have some Scottish or Scots-Irish family history and know your clan! We also bought some Christmas ornaments at some of the other shops. The quality is fantastic.

The one thing I will say is that Christmas seems to be a bit of a tricky time for Colonial Williamsburg. Summer is obviously their big season, but they expect (and have) many tourists at Christmas. However, I believe they are also preparing to go into maintenance mode in January. Therefore, some of the shops weren’t open, and not everything was quite fully staffed. For instance, we had been planning to go to a musical recital at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church (a fabulous building which is three centuries old and which hosted many historical figures), but we, and the others lining up, were told that they would only have the performance if they could get at least two volunteer interpreters to come into work. Why put it on the schedule if it’s not going to happen, we wondered?

I should also mention something that first-time visitors might not know: Not everything Williamsburg does is covered in your admission ticket. There are some things, such as dinner with Thomas Jefferson, certain theatricals, etc. which sound really great but that you have to book (and pay for) separately. And book in advance if you want to do them. All of the extras were entirely booked by the time we got there. Still, there is a lot to do under a general admission ticket.

One thing that was super convenient was that the bus picks you up at various stops throughout Colonial Williamsburg, so you don’t have to kill yourself to walk back to your original stop. Just keep up with your map to locate all of the stops, and you’ll be set.

Outside of the park, we took a drive out to Newport News, since we had never seen it. It totally wasn’t worth it because of a torrential downpour. We came back and decided to go to the movies because of said torrential downpour and ended up at Movie Tavern (everything is a “tavern” in Williamsburg!), where they bring you a menu, and you order your supper during the movie. Our movie happened to be Mary Poppins Returns. We really enjoyed that.

It’s also worth driving by the (quite expensive) Williamsburg Inn to see the gentleman in full Colonial garb waiting to assist the lodgers as they drive up.

Also, we drove out to Yorktown, which is just a gorgeous little town – so picturesque!  That ended up being one of our favorite parts of the trip.

On the way home, we decided to take the second of the two routes for a change of scenery. This involved going quite near to Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, a Civil War stop on a decidedly Colonial trip. We decided we would drive in, even though we knew the Park was closed due to the government shut down during that time. That sounds like a bummer, doesn’t it, not to be able to actually go in and see the buildings? And it was. But there was a silver lining: we got to see the cite of Lee’s surrender to Grant totally devoid of tourists from high on a field nearby. We could see the entire little town with houses and the courthouse, and there was just something special about the peace and tranquility of the scene that we wouldn’t have gotten if the Park had been open. (By the way, if you want the same experience, the Park is currently closed again due to the quarantine.)

As a side-note, we also passed quite near Jefferson’s second home, Poplar Forest. I was game but decided not to harass my fellow-travelers, who bear with my historical enthusiasm admirably, and who were at this point exhausted.

And then…the really long drive home!

I hope you have enjoyed this Southern Road Trips series! I’m sure there will be more in the future, but that winds up our series of 5 December girls’ trips. Thanks for following us on the ride!

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Tara Cowan Author

Tara Cowan is the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain and Northern Fire. A huge lover of all things history, she loves to travel to historic sites, watch British dramas, read good fiction, and spend time with her family. An attorney, Tara lives in Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel. To connect with Tara, find her on Facebook or follow her on Instagram @teaandrebellion_

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