A Tourist Guide to Williamsburg and Hamtpon Roads

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Colonial Williamsburg, 101 Visitor Center Drive, Williamsburg, Virginia

ColonialWilliamsburg, Virginia’s top tourist attraction and the state’s second capital after Jamestown, is like entering a time portal to the colonial era.  Founded in 1699, it had been conceived as a prestigious, sophisticated gathering place because of its chosen location next to the College of William and Mary. 

As in any town, its citizens had pursued daily mercantile activities, providing functions, goods, and services in exchange for the salaries they themselves had needed to purchase those goods and services.  Craftsmen had practiced their trades: blacksmiths, coopers, shoemakers, printers, gunsmith, cabinetmakers, and wigmakers had all made vital contributions to the community’s continued existence, while the remainder of the people had engaged in military and governmental pursuits. 

Transportation had been provided by horse-drawn wagons and carriages, as evidenced even today by ubiquitous clompings on the dirt streets. 

Several buildings had been nucleic to life.  The Peyton-Randolph House and kitchen, for example, had once been the home of one of Virginia’s leading politicians and the scene of numerous social and political gatherings.  Civil and criminal cases had been tried at the Courthouse.  The circular, brick Magazine had served as Williamsburg’s arsenal and had stored arms and gunpowder on its upper level.  The Printing Office and Bookbinding shop had been instrumental in pre-Revolution information distribution.  The James Anderson Blacksmith shop had repaired arms for American forces.  In 1776, the patriots of Virginia had voted for independence in the Capitol and a new state constitution had been drafted there.  The government had conducted war over a five-year period from this location and legislation had created the Republican party within its walls. 

The Governor’s Palace, the city’s most opulent structure, had been the residence of several royal governors and the first two elected governors of the new sovereign state of Virginia, and today retains the appearance of the home of Lord Dunmore, the last British governor to have lived there on the eve of the Revolution. 

As in the current day, men often met in taverns to drink and discuss business. 

The town, associated with such names as Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and George Washington, had offered little manufacturing, but instead had acted as the political and economic center of Virginia for 80 years, having been England’s largest and wealthiest colony–the location of enacted laws and administered justice, and the site where the seeds of democracy and political independence had been planted in an ultimate attempt to separate itself from its source. 

Williamsburg had thrived until Virginia’s capital had been relocated to Richmond in 1780, whereafter it had declined to a backwater town. 

The town’s slow rebirth began in 1926 when the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation had been established to excavate buried foundations and reconstruct the crumbling buildings which had still stood, ultimately transforming it into the world’s largest, 18th-century living history museum comprised of 88 restored structures and some 500 other reconstructed ones spread over 301 acres. 

Colonial Williamsburg is once again alive: the buildings can be visited; the pounding of the glowing anvil can be heard in the blacksmith shop; cases can be heard in the courthouse; costumed interpreters reenact scenes from earlier life; soldiers march down Duke of Gloucester Street; meals can be eaten in four historic taverns; 18th-century goods are made and sold in the numerous shops; and horse-drawn carriages still clomp down the unpaved streets. 

An extensive Visitor’s Center, replete with gift shops, bookstores, and theaters where the introductory film, “Williamsburg: Story of a Patriot,” is shown, provides the threshold to this colonial era, and is the departure point of the shuttle buses which periodically take visitors to the city’s two entry points.  At least two full days are needed to visit Williamsburg’s significant buildings, observe its costumed “citizens” at work, witness their numerous reenactments, peruse the museums, shop for period items, eat in the taverns, and partake of the evening entertainment programs.  A hefty entrance fee provides access to most of these sights and events, although “add-ons” are required for certain buildings and programs, and prices vary according to the number of days the passes cover. 

Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown, Virginia 

Thirteen years before the Pilgrims had even set foot in Plymouth, Massachusetts, 104 English men and boys, representing the Virginia Company of London, had made the four-and-a-half month ocean voyage in three ships designated the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed from London, and landed on the banks of the James River in current-day Virginia, establishing the first permanent English settlement in North America.  The date, May 13, 1607, can be considered “one small step for European-kind,” but had ultimately served as the threshold to the United States of America.               

In 1994, archaeologists had begun a search for the settlement’s original location and two years later they had uncovered sufficient evidence to determine that the James Fort had been built on a small island on the banks of the James River originally separated from the mainland by a narrow isthmus.  The site, designated Historic Jamestowne and administered by the National Park Service, can be visited.               

Subdivided into Old Towne and New Towne sections, the former contains the site of the original, 1607, triangular-shaped fort whose foundation is roughly outlined by brick, and a 17th-century church and tower, while the latter, located past the Tercentenary Monument, sports brick replicas to mark excavation foundations of the expanded settlement.   

Jamestown Settlement, Route 31, Off Colonial Parkway 

Jamestown Settlement, located a mile from the original site, recreates several key features of it.  A huge, red brick Visitors Center, with reception, cafeteria, gift shop, interpretive galleries, and films, leads to the outdoor path which winds its way to the docks on the James River.

The first of the recreated scenes, a Powhatan Indian village based upon the archaeological findings of a site once occupied by the Paspahegh tribe, features hide-covered sleeping and storage houses, a ceremonial circle, hide-tanning frames, and planting fields.                

The triangular-shaped James Fort, located further down the path, had been the first home of the original settlers and features recreated, wattle-and-daub, thatched-roof structures, a storehouse, a church, a guard court, and three bulwarks.  Daily reenactments demonstrate carpentry, agriculture, rifle shooting, blacksmithing, and cooking.               

The Riverfront Discovery Area offers insight into how water had provided the core of commonality for different 17th-century cultures, all of which had relied upon it for fishing, transportation, boat building, and trading.               

The three ship replicas docked in the harbor represent the lifelines of the English colonists, the largest of which is the 110-foot-long, square-rigged Susan Constant.  Crew had lived and worked on its main deck, while passengers and cargo had been accommodated below. 

Jamestown Settlement complements Historic Jamestowne with visual, full-size replicas of excavations just rising from the ground at the original site.

Yorktown Battlefield, Route 238 

Jamestown had served as America’s origin.  Williamsburg had served as the pivot of governmental development, the cradle where the American Revolution’s forefathers had been nurtured.  One more location, however, would serve as the point where that Revolution had led to victory, separation, and independence. 

While the French naval fleet had sailed southward toward the Chesapeake Bay during the latter portion of 1781, General George Washington had believed that the optimum opportunity for a decisive land-and-sea battle had been at hand and, in cooperation with French General Rochenbeau, had quietly relocated both American and French troops from New York to Yorktown, Virginia. 

Intercepting British ships outside of the Virginia Cape on September 5, the French had succeeded in blockading them and causing their subsequent retreat.  Arriving in Yorktown later that month, Washington and Rochenbeau seized the town, surrounding Lord Cornwallis’ British troops. 

In early October, Washington dug trenches from which to launch an out-and-out attack, American and French detachments subsequently cornering the two British redoubts on October 14, which had rapidly exhausted their ammunition supplies.  Defeated, Cornwallis surrendered five days later, ending the six-year Revolution and effectively beginning a new nation and a new government. 

The settlers who had put the first English footprint in Jamestown had now just put the first American one in Yorktown. 

Yorktown Battlefield, the actual site of the historical event and reconstructed with the aid of 18th-century military maps and excavations, accurately depicts Washington’s siege, pinpointing British and American troop locations.  The nearby Moore House had been the location of the surrender term negotiations. 

Yorktown Victory Center, Route 238 

Life during and after the Revolution can be gleaned from the Yorktown Victory Center, which depicts a recreated Continental Army encampment and a 1780 tidewater Virginia farm.  The former encompasses commanding officer and regimental surgeon quarters and several soldiers’ tents, while the latter features dwellings, a tobacco barn, a kitchen, a herb and vegetable garden, and an agricultural field where corn, tobacco, cotton, and flax are grown. 

Yorktown, the third of the three locations after Jamestown and Williamsburg, forms an integral part of Virginia’s “Historic Triangle” which is connected by the 23-mile, James and York River-paralleling scenic byway and is part of Colonial National Historical Park.  Established in 1893 when the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities had acquired 22.5 acres on Jamestown Island, it had created the Colonial National Monument incorporating Jamestown, Yorktown, and the connecting parkway in 1930.  The National Park Service had acquired the remaining 1,500 acres of the island four years later. 

Busch Gardens, Route 60 East, Williamsburg, Virginia 

Aside from the Historic Triangle sights themselves, one of Williamsburg’s most indicative attractions, and one which is the epitome of family fun, is Busch Gardens.  Voted “most beautiful park” for the past 18 years, this bathing suit-necessary, European-themed complex, encompassing more than 100 acres, offers rides, shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues subdivided into areas representing England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Italy.  Rides include world-class roller coasters; a 36-inch-gauge steam locomotive-propelled train which makes a 1.5-mile loop; the world’s first, and floorless, dive coaster which plunges 205 feet at a 90-degree angle; and a vertically-diving log plume. 

Water Country USA, 176 Water Country Parkway

Aquatic thrills can also be experienced at Water Country USA, the mid-Atlantic’s largest water park.  Exuding a 1950’s and 1960’s surf theme, the complex offers more than 50 rides, attractions, shops, and restaurants, including the “Hubba Hubba Highway,” an interactive river adventure whose free-floating ride plunges through water-sprouting coconut trees and geysers; a high-speed, twisting and turning toboggan plunge evocatively called “Meltdown,” and the tunnel- and water curtain-penetrating “Aquazoid.” 

Ripley’s Believe It or Not, 1735 Richmond Road, Williamsburg, Virginia 

Kid curiosity can be peaked at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, whose more than 300 exhibits and artifacts, reflecting Robert Ripley’s life philosophy of collecting and displaying odd, strange, bizarre, and, at times, unbelievable, items from ancient and exotic civilizations amassed during global travels, include prehistoric dinosaur eggs, 3,000-year-old mummified falcon remains from Egypt, shrunken heads from South America, golf balls once driven on the moon, locks of George Washington’s hair, two-headed kittens, and 500-pound gorillas formed by nails.  These strange effects are only exacerbated by the museum’s 4-D theater. 

Yankee Candle, 2200 Richmond Road, Williamsburg, Virginia 

Yankee Candle, a combination shopping and sightseeing attraction, appears to both kids and kids at heart.  Aside from selling some 250,000 candles, 200 candle scents, toys, gifts, and holiday ornaments, its is a year-round winter wonderland.  Its entirely indoor Holiday Park features a 25-foot, revolving Christmas tree; a color-changing ice pond; falling snow; Santa’s workshop; a Christmas countdown clock; and an animated show, “Hickory, Dickory, Doc.” 

Haunted Dinner Theater, 5363 Richmond Road, Williamsburg, Virginia 

The Haunted Dinner Theater, another combination attraction, pairs a 71-item, all-you-can-eat dinner buffet at Captain George’s Restaurant with a comedy murder mystery which incorporates audience clues to solve the nightly “whodunit.”  The winning combination has been running since 1994. 

Air Power Park, 413 West Mercury Boulevard, Hampton, Virginia 

The outdoor Air Power Park, dedicated in recognition of the contributions made by NASA and Langley Air Force Base to aerial and space development and for their interest in community endeavors, features several unique aircraft designs, inclusive of the Lockheed T-33A T-Bird, an A-7E Corsair II, an XV-6A Kestrel V/STOL, a North American F-86L Sabre, the later-developed North American Rockwell F-100D Super Sabre, a McDonnell F-101F Voodoo, a Northrop F-89J Scorpion, and a Republic Aviation F-105D Thunderchief.  Even rarer, perhaps, is its space-related collection, including an SM-78 Jupiter surface-to-surface intermediate-range ballistic missile, a Western Electric NIM-14 Nike-Hercules two-stage missile, a Jet Propulsion Lab M-2 Corporal Ballistic Missile, a North American Aviation Mercury/Little Joe Booster, and a Mercury Test Capsule.               

Mariners’ Museum, 100 Museum Drive, Newport News, Virginia 

Changing from air to sea, the Mariners’ Museum, one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive, displays more than 50 full-size boats and ships; authentic, hand-crafted ship models; and seafaring artifacts, subdivided into eight exhibits and galleries: the Chesapeake Bay Gallery, the USS Monitor Center, the Age of Exploration, Defending the Sea, the Great Hall of Steam, the Nelson Touch, International Small Craft Center, and the Miniature Ships of August and Winnifred Crabtree.  Its award-winning gallery, the $30 million, 63,500-square-foot USS Monitor Center, houses a full-scale replica and actual remains of one of the Civil War’s most important vessels.  The experience is further heightened by walk-through, high-definition “battle theaters.”               

The conceptual design for the United States’ first full, hull and protective plating ironclad ship, powered by steam and sporting a rotating turret, had been submitted to the US Navy by Swedish-American engineer John Ericsson, and the resulting vessel, the USS Monitor, had been launched on January 30, 1862 from Greenport, Long Island.  Two months later, in March, it had been ordered to Hampton Roads, Virginia, in order to protect the federal fleet stationed there, but on the ninth day of that month, it had engaged in a four-hour battle with a Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia, although neither had sustained much damage.               

During its New Year’s Eve towing at the end of the year by the USS Rhode Island to Beaufort, North Carolina, however, it had been caught by a fierce storm off of Cape Hatteras and 16 crew members had been swept overboard and perished. 

Today, most of the ship remains submerged off of North Carolina in the US’s first marine sanctuary, which had been designated on January 30, 1975. 

Virginia Living Museum, 524 J. Clyde Morris Boulevard, Newport News, Virginia 

While the Mariners’ Museum focuses on the sea, the Virginia Living Museum showcases what lives in it, as well as on land, in settings such as a cypress swamp, a mountain cove, the Chesapeake Bay, and a limestone cave.  Living exhibits include color-changing frogs, moon jellies, eyeless fish, loggerhead turtles, spider crabs, red wolves, otters, and coyotes.  An extensive collection of native plants completes the flora and fauna experience.               

Fort Monroe/Casemate Museum, Casemate 20, Bernard Road, Fort Monroe, Hampton, Virginia 

Fort Monroe, progressively constructed between 1819 and 1834 and located on the north side of the channel between the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads, is the country’s largest stone fort and only moat-surrounded, still-operating one.  A Union stronghold during the Civil War, where both Robert E. Lee and Edgar Allan Poe had served, it had once sheltered thousands of slave refugees.  Its present Casemate Museum, location of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s cell, displays uniforms, weapons, and artifacts collectively depicting the fort’s history.               

Virginia Air and Space Center, 600 Settlers Landing Road, Hampton, Virginia 

The Virginia Air and Space Center, located in downtown Hampton on the waterfront, is a $30 million, 110,000 square foot, nine-story facility which had opened on April 5, 1992 and is characterized by its futuristic, interconnected, dual-building, gull wing roof-resembling architecture.  Its more than 30 historic air- and spacecraft, which represent more than 100 years of flight, are exhibited in the recently completed, $9 million Adventures in Flight Gallery and the Space Gallery, and include such designs as the Apollo 12 Command Module which had made the journey to the Moon, an AirTran DC-9-30, a B-24 Liberator nose section, an F.84 Thunderstreak, an F-4E Phantom II, an N2S-3 Stearman, a Lunar Orbiter, an F-104 Starfighter, an F-106 Delta Dart, a YF-16 Fighting Falcon, and a P-39Q Aircobra.  A new exhibit, “Space Quest: Exploring the Moon, Mars, and Beyond,” had recently been introduced in the Space Gallery.  Extensive, hands-on exhibits, featuring hot air balloons, noise abatement, a Boeing 717 glass cockpit fight simulator, aircraft flight surfaces, propeller efficiency comparatives, and Space Shuttle landing simulators, are complemented by the Riverside IMAX and Curtiss Jenny Century of Flight Theaters. 

The museum also serves as the Visitor Center for both the NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base.

Hampton Carousel, 602 Settlers Landing Road, Hampton, Virginia 

The Hampton Carousel, located downtown on the waterfront and housed in its own pavilion, had been built in 1920 and is one of only 170 antique wooden merry-go-rounds remaining in the US. 

Miss Hampton II Harbor Cruises, 710 Settlers Landing Road, Hampton, Virginia 

Water-surrounded Hampton Roads cannot be fully enjoyed without at least one boat cruise on it.  The Miss Hampton II, a 44-passenger, dual-deck boat with a snack bar, departs daily from the Hampton Marina, plying Hampton Roads Harbor; stopping at the 1819-built Fort Wool; and tours the Norfolk Naval Base, the world’s largest naval installation.  Adults and kids alike are often fascinated by the 1,098-foot-long, nuclear-powered Nimitz-Class aircraft carriers which weigh in excess of 100,000 tons and are manned by 6,000 crew members; the Wasp-class amphibious assault ships; the guided missile destroyers; the Los Angeles-class, fast-attack, nuclear-powered submarines; and the Ticonderoga-class missile destroyers.

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