A family vacation to Colonial Williamsburg in chilly weather gives kids a better appreciation of the challenges faced by the early Virginia settlers. If we were shivering in down coats and wool gloves, how did the colonists feel?
The sparse crowds meant we had the complete attention of the costumed narrators at Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. The historic interpreters all know that kids need to be engaged at these venues, so they speak directly to the children; when Nora, 12, was one of only two or three kids on every tour, she basked in the personal attention.
Nora is the perfect age for Williamsburg; old enough that she has studied the history; young enough that she enjoys learning more. Plenty of families with both younger and older children visit, of course, but we saw teens who clearly wanted to be elsewhere.
What to Do
In Colonial Williamsburg history.org, watch blacksmiths, silversmiths, printers and cabinetmakers ply their trades. You can handle raw materials and finished products and ask questions about the process. At the ‘new’ R.Charlton Coffeehouse, built on the original foundation of a Colonial coffeehouse and recently opened, sample coffee, tea or hot chocolate. The art museum is a highly accessible (to kids) collection of folk art; we saw the excellent toy exhibition, with dollhouses, model trains and dolls, but that exhibit has closed. The Capitol has a fascinating tour, particularly for budding attorneys. Our guide engaged the kids on the tour by accusing them of different crimes, and explaining how they would defend themselves in colonial times.
One of the recurring special events, ‘Meet the Musician,’ is part performance, part chat with a musician. Nora expressed interest in the music and was allowed to play a spinet. At other special programs, requiring a free ticket, you can learn how to quilt, make folk art, ‘meet’ different historical figures, from Martha Washington to Thomas Jefferson and learn country dance steps. Demonstrations, from the fife and drums to artillery practice, appeal to many boys, but if you have very young kids who are sensitive to noise, you might want to avoid these.
In the evening, for an extra fee, try to connect with Williamsburg’s undead past in “Ghosts Amongst Us.” In a welcome touch, in winter, the ghost walk starts with a chat around a bonfire. Other evening programs include the “Cry Witch” trial and chamber music concerts.
In Jamestown (historyisfun.org), learn first-hand about life at the American’s first permanent English colony. Costumed interpreters offer tours of a fort, three ships, and a Powhatan village; you can also wander on your own. Kids can help scrape out a canoe, clean an animal skin and grind corn. A Family Gallery Guide helps focus kids’ attention in the museum; quizzes and videos also engage young minds.
The Yorktown Victory Center (historyisfun.org) has a Continental Army encampment where costumed interpreters might be cooking a meal or firing a musket. At the 1780s farm, more is cooked at an indoor kitchen, and there are crops, including tobacco and a slave garden. Kids can help with gardening chores. You can also take a seven-mile self-guided driving tour of battlefield sites.
Where to Stay
The area around Colonial Williamsburg has every chain imaginable, including Embassy Suites, with free breakfast, free evening drinks and snacks, and two-room suites. Right on site, Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel & Suites also has two-room suites, kitchenettes in every room and free breakfast. You are steps from the Visitors Center and can walk into Colonial Williamsburg, or ride the free shuttle. In warm weather, there is an outdoor pool and bike rentals.
Also part of Colonial Williamsburg, the luxury Williamsburg Inn has a spa and both indoor and outdoor pools.
Colonial Williamsburg has several restaurants, with both modern and Colonial cuisine. Just off the historic area, Merchant’s Square is filled with shops and cafes. Stop for lunch at Aroma’s coffeehouse (431 Prince George St), with made-to-order sandwiches. Or create a custom cheese plate, with artisanal bread, at The Cheese Shop (410 Duke of Gloucester St). Be sure to sample famous Virginia peanuts at The Peanut Shop of Williamsburg; it’s a great place to pick up a gift for the neighbor who brings in your mail.
For dinner, Food for Thought has a large, varied, menu, with many vegetarian and low-fat choices. They even let adults order off the kids menu; portabella mushroom with veggies and rice, or pasta with pesto, if they’re not too hungry. Kids can also get a cheeseburger, grilled chicken or meatloaf with their favorite side, for $4-5, with crayons and friendly service to boot. With a reasonably priced wine list and microbrews on tap, this place will please the whole family.
Nawab Indian Cuisine, with 3 other Virginia locations, has authentic Indian cuisine. A variety of appetizers is great for kids; try the samosas and stuffed breads. Portions are large, so order accordingly.
Why You Should Return
In spring, summer and fall, Williamsburg has easy, family-friendly flat biking trails. Busch Gardens just added an area with family rides and Sesame Street characters. In summer, an adjacent water park, Water Country USA offers wet thrills.
How to Get There
You can fly into Norfolk or Richmond, both about 50 minutes away. Newport News is only about 20 minutes away, but flights into there are usually much more expensive. Amtrak also goes right into Williamsburg.