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Williamsburg in the 21st Century: An Insider’s Guide

Williamsburg in the 21st Century An Insiders Guide visit willliamsburg

Williamsburg in the 21st Century: An Insider’s Guide

July 2, 2014

On a recent three-day trip to Greater Williamsburg, Virginia–Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown–my husband, two kids, and I hit the ground running. Heeding the advice of discerning locals, we explored unexpected corners of this diverse region. Along the way, we found a thriving cultural scene, sophisticated restaurants, and a natural landscape that in itself is reason to visit. Here are the finds from our ramble:

Written and photographed by Justine Hand.

College of William & Mary

William and Mary Art Museum 0

Above: We started our visit at the small but wonderfully varied Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary. Rotating exhibits feature everything from American naturalism to kabuki theater woodcuts. One of my favorites was “21st Century Diplomacy,” a photography show (on view through September) devoted to capturing “the subtleties of diplomacy.”

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Above: The Millington Greenhouse at the College of William & Mary is a treat for those who appreciate exotic specimens. The college also has a notable wildflower garden.

Yorktown Schooner Ride

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Above: On the second day, we sailed out of Yorktown aboard the Schooner Alliance, a 105-foot gaff-rigged schooner. It and its sister ship, Serenity, provide unexpected and interactive ways to experience the region.

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Above: As we took in the Chesapeake Bay, we got a unique vantage of modern-day Greater Williamsburg. Our kids got to help hoist the sails, and Captain Greg Lohse and his crew regaled us with witty tales.

For more active outdoor adventures, Eco Discovery Park in Williamsburg rents kayaks for exploring the Powhatan Creek. Bike rentals for peddling the shoreline path are also available–watch for egrets, ospreys, and herons fishing along the banks, and, if you’re lucky, you may even spy a bald eagle.

Williamsburg Shopping

Colonial williamsburg nursery remodelista

Above: I discovered that Greater Williamsburg is a gardener’s mecca. The Gardens and Nursery at Colonial Williamsburg sell the ingredients for cultivating 18th-century-style flower beds (I have my eye on those pots). And at both Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown’s 1780’s farm, you can take hands-on horticultural lectures.

Prentis Shop Colonial Williamsburg 0

Above: Shopping in Greater Williamsburg is not your usual touristy fare. At Colonial Williamsburg, I was pleasantly surprised to find blown glassware, Shaker-style woven baskets, and wrought-iron hooks, all made using historic techniques but timeless looking. Aromatic bayberry and beeswax candles, shown above, are among the goods at Prentis Shop at Colonial Williamsburg. After making bayberry candles myself last fall, I was delighted to discover a less labor-intensive source.

Williamsburg Restaurants

Lunch at mad about chocolate remodelista

Above: For lunch one day we had to try James Beard award-winning chef Marcel Desaulniers’ Williamsburg cafe, Mad About Chocolate. I highly recommend the nutty chicken salad with micro greens and Billy Bread, and everything he does with chocolate.

Opus No. 9 Williamsburg

Above: The food and decor at Opus No. 9 Steakhouse are firmly rooted in the 21st century. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling wine bottles, I sipped a California Cabernet and was served one of the best steaks I’ve ever had.

We also loved our evening of revelry at the historic Chownings Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. On our list for next time: sampling a local brew and Virginia ham sandwich at The Cheese Shop, and dinner at A Chef’s Kitchen, which has a theater-style dining room–guests watch as celebrity chef John Gonzales makes a multi-course meal.

Greater Williamsburg Scenery

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Above: We spent a morning taking a refreshing walk on the Greenspring Interpretive Trail in Williamsburg. This 3.5 mile loop winds through woods, along the corn rows of the Mainland Farm, over boardwalks and wetlands, and by a beaver pond. Along the way, displays describe the local eco-system and farming practices.

Colonial Parkway Virginia 0

Above: The drive between Greater Williamsburg sites, we discovered, is often as engaging as the places themselves. Connecting Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, the Colonial Parkway is a picturesque highway, and, along the way, we frequently wanted to stop and explore. Wedged between the James and York Rivers, the natural scenery of the region ranges from verdant forests to coastal views, rivers, and rolling farms. Shown here, lovely wild alliums grow along the Colonial Parkway.

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Above: Wanting a bit of history, we drove 45 minutes from Williamsburg through woods and fields to Shirley Plantation (see below). Shown here, a contemporary farm spotted on the drive.

Historic Sites

Shirley Plantation

Above: Located on the banks of the James River, Shirley Plantation is a well-preserved Georgian estate that remains family-owned-and-operated–the 11th generation of the Carter-Hill family lives in the mansion. Unlike many plantations in the South that were looted during the Civil War, Shirley retains its original portraits and furnishings–an act of kindness towards wounded Union soldiers encamped on its Confederate lawn earned it special protection from the Union government.

Jamestown Behind the Scenes costumes

Above: Behind the scenes at Jamestown: the costume storage room houses spare attire for the historic interpreters, including shirts, shoes, doublets, bodices, and “bum rolls” (the pillow-like things on the shelf that ladies wore to make their skirts fuller).

While we were there, I signed on for a colonial dress-themed private tour. Led by museum programs assistant Lea Ann Bryant and historical clothing manager Chris Daley, From Leather to Linen took me all over the settlement and behind-the-scenes to the costume shop to experience the fashion of the colonists, the natives, and the early African settlers. We got to help prepare the soft hides for native dress and learn how the experts on staff create the historic costumes using period materials.

Bathrooms at colonial williamsburg remodelista

Above: Unbeknownst to most, you can spend the night at Colonial Williamsburg in one of 25 restored guest houses. For three days, we had our own little cottage with its own plantings, lawn, and white picket fence. Though not fancy, our accommodations were cozy and authentic. And staying on-site gave us the opportunity to experience Colonial Williamsburg at its most charming and tranquil–when the houses and gardens are bathed in the cool light of the early morning, and after supper when fireflies dance in the pastures.

Below: Greater Williamsburg is 50 minutes south of Richmond International Airport.

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