If you were coming to Williamsburg for one week for the first time, here's what I would insist you did as my guest:
1. Colonial Williamsburg (also known as CW): Plan for more time here than you may have thought-at least 2 days. There is so much to do at the largest living history museum in the world....where to begin? I'd send you to the big three: the Capital, the Palace and the Magazine. These sites lay the groundwork for the political situation in the late 1770s: the emerging government, the English governor living in the Palace, and the uprising over the removal of arms from the Magazine. These conflicts led to the American Revolution.
On the second day, I'd make sure you saw Rev City, officially known as The Revolutionary City, a set of outdoor acting performances. These popular scenes run over two days with a variety of vignettes - from the declaration of the governor at the Capital, to a slave conversation, to the changes in polite society during the Revolution. In addition, visits to the trade shops are very enlightening…the wigmaker, the silversmith, and the milliner where clothes were made. They serve as reminders that it wasn't all society people living here - it takes a lot of work to make the ladies and gentlemen look good.
If you're ready for third day, try some of the rougher trade shops, like the coopers, the cabinet maker and the brickyard-watch people work with their hands at their trades, and maybe take off your shoes to help stomp the clay to make bricks. Often, the tradespeople are making replicas of items that you can see at the Dewitt Wallace Museum, where the antiques, maps and flags belonging to the Foundation are kept. It's also a great way to beat the heat if you are there in peak season - air conditioned, with a great café in the basement.
2. Evening Programs: You have a lot of choices for evening entertainment. I would recommend attending at least 2 evening programs put on by Colonial Williamsburg, including a colonial dance program at the Capital where you can learn some steps of the very important social grace of the day; a military program where you can see if you would have been a fine solider or a lackluster one; a trial of a woman for witchcraft, with the audience as the jury; the Grand Medley at the Kimball Theatre, with a variety of entertainment. All of these programs are well done and will add to the experience of living the colonial life. Book your tickets early though, especially in peak seasons.
Another evening option is a ghost tour, which has several versions. CW has a program called Legends, Myths and Mysteries, while another group does a Haunted Williamsburg tour. I was dragged on one with some visiting friends, and it was really fun. You get to hear stories, mainly rumors, about things that happened locally. It's actually revealing about the layered history of the area, from the Indian School at the College, to the love triangles of the Palace Ball, to the tragic tales of some of Williamsburg's most prominent citizens.
3. Jamestown: A day should do it. Certainly, the first permanent English settlement deserves respect. It hosted the Queen in 2007 along with many festivities for the 400th anniversary of the landing at Jamestowne (the original name.) In preparation, the site opened a beautiful new interpretative center, and it's worth a few hours of exploration. The outdoor exhibits are still my favorite, with replica huts and buildings of the early settlement, and the replica ships. The ships are a great reminder of how travel has changed - remember to tell your kids that their minivan is spacious compared to more than 60 people on a ship of the same size.
Don't get this Jamestown Settlement confused with national park next door…known as Historic Jamestown. That's where the original site was and where the most exciting archaelogical digs in the US continue today - they might find something while you're there!
4. Busch Gardens: a day or more. This park has been named the World's Most Beautiful Theme Park for more than a dozen years in a row (beating out Disney!) The European theme means a changing ambience in the park, from the English Tudor style buildings at the entrance to the German Festhaus complete with oompah music in the back. The park is actually a circular shape, and to beat the traffic, go to the left towards Italy rather than following the crowd. You'll beat most of the lines that way.
Highlights of the park include the Irish step show in the Killarney section, which used to be called Irish Thunder and now is called Emerald Beat. It doesn't matter what it's called, it's mesmerizing to see in person. Another favorite is the Tuscan themed part of Italy called San Marco…Italian food, music and crafts. I love the Capodimonte shop, where men from Italy create beautiful porcelain flowers by hand for visitors. The best place to eat is Trappers Smokehouse, with ribs and brisket, and the lines move quickly although they are nearly always long.
Besides the food and shows, the roller coasters are a key component of any theme park. I can never decide between Alpengeist, a floorless coaster with a smooth ride with lots of twists and turns, and Apollo's Chariot, a traditional coaster with several huge hills and a few surprises. After I ride Alpengeist, I think it's the best. Then I ride Apollo's, and then that's my favorite. They are both excellent. The Big Bad Wolf is a more low-key coaster, but still fun and a great one to ride with young teens. The Loch Ness Monster is the oldest coaster in the park, and it's more of the traditional strapped in over the shoulder cart style. It does full loops and a corkscrew. The newest coaster is the Griffon, a floorless dive coaster which goes through water to spray those too scared to go on it (which has included me on my last visit.) I'm sure coaster enthusiasts will find it awesome.
Water Country USA: 1 day. If you are visiting Williamsburg during the hot weather, Water Country is a clean, safe theme park, and more than that, it's a lot of fun. Water slides, kiddie pools and racer slides give a good variety of activities. I would recommend getting a locker to put your belongings in, although each ride has a place to put your shoes and sunglasses. Bring flip flops or similar to prevent hot feet. The pavement is hot! You'll still need towels, sunscreen, money, your ticket or season's pass, a camera, and more, so stash those in the main lockers for easy access. Then, have a ball.
Do not miss the Hubba Hubba Highway…it's by far the most relaxing and fun ride in the park. It's like a lazy river ride, but not lazy. There's a steady current to carry you and you'll enjoy the camaraderie and the kicking back in the flow. Lots of surprises there as well - watch out for the coconuts dumping water on you!
I'm not much for the food at Water Country, but if you get a dual pass, you can bounce back over to Busch Gardens for the evening. Dry off while riding the coasters.
5. Nightlife: Your vacation shouldn't end just 'cause the sun is going down. Williamsburg is full of all the chain restaurants you can go to at home: Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesdays, Uno's, etc. But you're on vacation, so do something adventurous! I recommend booking yourself a tavern meal at Colonial Williamsburg as soon as possible-it's unusual to be able to show up and walk in. Christiana Campbell's is probably the best, and I know you'll get the best service there. Enjoy a colonial style meal served by candlelight and accompanied by a balladeer. Your server will most likely be in character and give you the spiel about whose products are served there: Mr. Pepsi is a main proprietor. And you'll want to know whose credit is good there as well: I believe that Master Card, Master Visa and Master Express (he's American) are all in good standing at the Taverns.
For late evenings out, I recommend Gambols at Chowning's Tavern near the Courthouse, which is light food and dice games and music, in the style that one would have during a stay at an inn during colonial times. The seating is colonial style as well, and you'll likely make some new friends with locals or other tourists as you drink and play "Bawk" with peanuts. It's a direct reminder of life before TV, video games and movie theaters-when you had to make your own fun.
If you want to see a movie or performance, check the schedule at the Kimball Theater. If you like the college scene, go to the Greenleafe Tavern, a few blocks away from where the College meets CW. If you do happen to be looking for more familiar restaurants, head down Richmond Road which will lead you to all kinds of cuisine.
So, I hope you aren't too tired when you get home from your visit to Williamsburg, but it's one of few places to visit where you will go home enriched, feeling delighted with what you've learned and experienced, in one of the country's most unique destinations.
Written by: Natalie Miller-Moore