A very special out-of-town friend and I were having a hard time deciding what to do with our lone weekend we would have together while he was in D.C. I just moved here from the Kansas City area, and he was on a short leave from his teaching job in France. Our limited knowledge of attractions within driving distance left us with an empty Saturday slate. We did, however, agree on the general theme: History.
I suggested Williamsburg; my mom had often told me about the “magical” Thanksgiving experience she had there when she was in her 20s. Jamestown piqued both our interests, although neither of us knew how much there was to do there to full up an entire day. My friend thought Yorktown and its battlefields could be interesting. Or we could head north to Gettysburg and see where President Lincoln delivered his resonating “Four score and seven years ago…” speech.
Being that I work within the National Geographic Society, I have access to many a map. I decided to do a wild thing and actually look at the placement of these cities before any “planning” went any further. Lo and behold, Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg are all within an hour’s drive of each other. No decision had to be made, which was perfect for my indecisive self and my nonchalant pal. Minus Gettysburg, we could do it all!
We started out that morning a little later than anticipated, but by 10 a.m., we were on the road. The wet, slippery road. But we weren’t going to let the torrential rain deter us. We were determined to see the shores where America was born, come rain or shine. And we did.
We pulled into Colonial Williamsburg around lunchtime, with raindrops still toppling on our hooded heads. Opting against a rather pricey all-access pass because of our limited time in the city, we instead perused old-time shops stuffed with Williamsburg-made candles, pottery, and the like, that smelled like a pleasing combination of pine and honey. Shopkeepers dressed in colonial-era wear enthusiastically told tourists the best places for lunch or a glass of wine. Between peeking our heads into the shops, we managed to stumble upon a musical procession of school-aged kids dressed – of course – in colonial costumes. We walked parallel with them up the main drag and snapped a few shots of the picturesque homes and costumed colonial characters posing in front of their shops.
Soon our stomachs began to growl with the beat of the drums. Across the street we eyed King’s Arms Tavern. We snatched a table and downed sparkling apple cider, veggie pot-pies and meringue topped with strawberries. Heaven. And we found the rain had been a bit of a blessing. While we certainly didn’t experience Williamsburg in its fullest, we enjoyed the fact that the wide streets were nearly empty – something you won’t find during tourist season. A sweet silence took over the city after the rain’s passing. The sun emerged, and we set off for Jamestown.
A 40-minute jaunt south of Williamsburg lies the second point of “America’s Historic Triangle.” Historic Jamestowne, settled in 1607, offers a vast array of historical goodies, including the archaeological site of the original settlement. Visitors can see a restored 17th-century church, as well as an impressive collections of artifacts excavated from the site now housed in a glass-enclosed museum; everything from English hairpins to skeletons of the settlers are on display. We attempted to take in the sea air before we hopped back in the car for Yorktown, but the fierce wind nearly knocked us over. No wonder their ships ended up blowing ashore here, I thought. I posed with a Pocahontas statue next to the church, and we let the wind rush us back toward the car.
We got to Yorktown only moments before the visitors center closed, which gave us just enough time to grab a driving guide map and go. Yorktown’s Revolutionary War battlefields are best viewed – especially in wind and spotty rain – from the comfort of your car. My Honda Accord meandered through forests once trampled by horse hooves and the boots of French, British, and American soldiers in the fall of 1781. The Revolutionary War ended here, with General Cornwallis’s surrender decided in a house you can drive right up to. George Washington’s headquarters are a highlight on the tour, as are French encampments and British redoubts. The entire experience was truly riveting, especially after having seen a few episodes of HBO’s John Adams. We told ourselves we should venture back to the battlefields in nicer weather and bike it.
We finished the entire drive at around 6 p.m., as the park closes at sunset. Satisfied with our history-filled Saturday afternoon, we filled up the gas tank and began the trudge back toward home. Somewhere along I-95, I got the brilliant idea of topping off the day with a colonial-themed dinner at Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria. The last reservation was at 8:30. We sped – only slightly – to make it in time. The amicable host welcomed our sloppy, rain-drenched selves into his classy and charming restaurant. We walked in during a performance by a Ben Franklin impersonator, who passed by each table personally by the night’s end and exchanged quips with happy guests.
Placards that read “George Ate Here” reminded us that we were dining in the midst of the exact historical period that we wandered through all day. All this within a three-hour drive of D.C. It didn’t quite qualify as the “staycation” that my IT comrade Catherine Pearson delighted in a few weekends back, but my friend and I reveled in our Saturday’s spontaneity and its tied-together theme, which filled both our minds and stomachs with a bygone era that shaped the country we live in today.
And when he’s in town next, it’s already decided we’re going to Gettysburg.
Photos: Taylor Hart