History comes alive in Virginia's "Historic Triangle," making for an educational (but fun!) long weekend.
Forget everything you learned from The New World and Pocahontas. The real story of the Jamestown colony is more intriguing than the movies. Pocahontas, probably about 10 years old when the colonists arrived, never had any romantic entanglement with Captain John Smith but did eventually marry an English-man named John...John Rolfe, that is. Smith was a notorious braggart who arrived here in chains after being arrested during the voyage. By his account, he saved the colony every other week (and it needed a lot of saving; in the winter of 1609-1610, for instance, more than 70 percent of the population starved to death).
Now is a great time to experience this story firsthand, minus the starving. The first permanent English colony in America--Smith and the others landed here in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock--celebrates its 400th anniversary with special events all year long, including a visit this past May by Queen Elizabeth II.
Jamestown is divided into two parts. Historic Jamestowne is the site of the original colony, and from April to late September or early October, visitors watch archaeologists working where the fort once stood, and rangers and volunteers discuss the progress of the digs, which have turned up about a million artifacts. Last summer, the crew found a 17th-century luggage tag: It's marked YAMES TOWNE but arrived in the right place anyway (a nice little lesson in efficiency for today's airlines). In a visitors center that debuted in January, a short film explains that the colony, a commercial venture, was meant to find gold or at least a passage to the Orient.
The Archaearium, which opened last year, shows off artifacts found at the site. One exhibit presents information on colonial-era medical practices (including brain surgery) and tools. Other objects tell a lot about daily life: A small silver implement shaped like a dolphin, for example, has a spoon at the tail that was used for removing earwax. The museum is above the ruins of a 17th-century statehouse; you can see the remains through glass floor panels.
Historic Jamestowne shows the bones; Jamestown Settlement, built for the 1957 anniversary (which Queen Elizabeth also attended), puts flesh on them. There are replicas of the three ships that brought the colonists, as well as full-size re-creations of their fort and a Native American village. Guides in period dress show how colonists raised crops, treated hides, built canoes, and more. It'd be corny if the guides weren't so knowledgeable. A recently completed visitors center houses a 30,000-square-foot museum that traces the history of the area from the arrival of the first Native American settlers, around 15,000 years ago, up to the 18th century.
Included with entry to Historic Jamestowne is Yorktown Battlefield, to the northeast. It's at the other end of the 23-mile-long Colonial Parkway (America's narrowest national park) and the other end of the colonial era. The site of the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War, it's where British forces surrendered to George Washington in 1781.
Like Jamestown Settlement, Colonial Williamsburg is an open-air museum--and again the folks in period dress raise concerns, but there's much to learn, and the experience is a lot of fun. The town does seem to have covered all the bases on trinket sales (need a tiny tricorn hat for your Pekingese?). It's easy to walk the area, and maybe more enjoyable to rent a bike from Bikesmith.
When it's time for a bite to eat, Josiah Chowning's Tavern is a friendly spot: Tables are shared, the period music is live, and the waiters teach colonial-era dice games. The Sampler Platter, with ribs, coleslaw, tangy cheese dip with slivers of toast, and more, easily feeds two.
The Quality Inn Lord Paget, a few minutes drive from the colonial area, is an old motor inn; some rooms have four-poster beds, and the included self-serve breakfast (cereal, yogurt, bagels, fruit, even biscuits and gravy) is nice, though the breakfast room can get full to overflowing. Some genius at Berret's Seafood has topped a crab cake sandwich with more crab--the result is untraditional, but delicious.
- Bikesmith 515 York St., 757/229-9858, bike $14.50 per day
- Quality Inn Lord Paget 901 Capitol Landing Rd.,800/537-2438, choicehotels.com from $54
- Josiah Chowning's Tavern 109 E. Duke of Gloucester St., 757/229-2141, Sampler $24
- Berret's Seafood 199 S. Boundary St., 757/253-1847, crab cake sandwich $12
Note: Multisite passes are available
- Historic Jamestowne 757/229-0412, historicjamestowne.org,$10, kids 15 and under free
- Jamestown Settlement 888/593-4682, historyisfun.org, $13.50, $6.25 kids 6-12
- Yorktown Battlefield 757/898-2410, nps.gov/york
- Colonial Williamsburg 800/447-8679, history.org, $36, $18 kids 6-17