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My daughter, Isabelle, loves great stories -- especially the ones that are full of gloom. Her favorite movie scene is from Cinderella, when the main character's stepsisters rip apart her lovely pink dress just before the ball, followed closely by one from The Little Mermaid, when Ariel despairs after her father destroys all the knick-knacks the young mermaid collected from the forbidden human world.
Of course, a Disney vacation might seem perfect for such a 4-year-old, but I was convinced it would be too pleasant for her dramatic tastes. There's not nearly enough turmoil.
History, on the other hand, has plenty of it, which is why I was excited to take my family on a $500 getaway to what's often described as Virginia's "living museum" of historic sites surrounding Williamsburg, the former Colonial capital; especially on the eve of the nearby Jamestown colony's 400th anniversary.
The settlement's saga has enough intrigue for a lifetime of angst-filled tales. In fact, Hollywood has already pilfered the story twice in recent years, with Disney's Pocahontas and last year with Terrence Malick's The New World.
For the most part, my hunch was right: Isabelle loved the Cliffs Notes versions of the story I gave her about the young Pocahontas "saving" Capt. John Smith, the many skirmishes between the settlers and the Algonquian Indians and what little girls from either clan would do to play. As an added bonus, she and my other daughter, Cora, almost 2, got to see, taste and even touch the many accoutrements of those times.
Of course, the little ones got impatient on occasion, but many of the newer activities opening in anticipation of the commemoration extravaganza, which runs May 11-13, captured their excitement. That's the real litmus test for any family vacation, but my wife and I also were awed by the opportunity to stand at the site of the church where settlers passed some of the first legislation in the New World, or to walk around on replicas of Smith's three ships.
There's an irresistible aspect to history tourism: The chance to say you stood in a place where something really important happened, whether it be the small Virginia island that played host to America's birth, the tiny hall in Philadelphia where the colonies declared their independence from Britain, or a small fort in San Antonio where a desperate commander drew a line in the sand.
Driving to Williamsburg, I did my best to quiet the girls with Raffi songs and hilariously abridged stories about Smith and Pocahontas: the Indians were about to "make him break" (thankfully, my daughters don't know what kill means), and at the last second, the young girl intervened to save his life.
Isabelle wanted this one over and over, meaning she would soon begin to act it out in dramatic fashion, but first she needed to ask a few tough questions.
Were the Indians bad? No, I told her, they were just scared someone would take their house away. Who would take their house away? Some of Capt. Smith's friends. Why? Because they weren't very nice. Why?
When I ran out of answers for Jamestown, she went back to Ariel and Cinderella for the rest of the drive.
By the time we got to our hotel -- a two-room suite in Williamsburg, a hub for visitors to any of the area's historical attractions -- we were beat. Full of snacks we had brought from home, we took the girls for a brief swim, planned a marathon Friday and hit the sack. The next morning, to save money and make better use of a short weekend, we ate the complimentary breakfast at the hotel and then split up. Kira and Cora explored shopping in the area, and I went with Isabelle to meander around Colonial Williamsburg.
Now, I'll admit that a few things about historical "interpreters" have always bothered me. First, there's kind of a cornball aspect to the costumes, half-hearted accents and buttery greetings that always make me embarrassed, like I am watching a terrible play but can't leave because my friends are in it. Second, although I will concede that the actors know the basic facts about the Colonial era, is that really history? They seem more like walking almanacs that can't answer the most important questions about our past.
I had read that Williamsburg had slave interpreters, and I really didn't know how to prepare. Slaves comprised at least half of Virginia's population in Colonial times, but would the mock-up city -- complete with interactive trade shops, a period post office and the chance to watch revolutionary-era debates in the Virginia House of Burgesses -- be able to do justice to their lives? And if it couldn't, should it by trying?
These questions went unanswered as Isabelle and I explored the historic area, where I saw only one black person out of all the interpreters, and he was sitting with a notebook of what appeared to be instructions about his acting part, which he claimed were figures for his business.
Thinking she would like to explore a blacksmith shop, or a wig-making parlor, or watch seamstresses at work, I took her to each stop and it was all I could do to keep her from breaking something. I was also disappointed at many turns to find yet another gift shop filled with expensive quills or other "Colonial" trinkets. And people kept suggesting we check out the lambs on a small farm, which got us both excited, but we zig-zagged the town looking for them and never had any luck.
Still, we each enjoyed a few things. I liked sitting in an audience while an interpreter playing George Washington answered questions, and Isabelle stopped to dance at the feet of a few musicians.
But we had the most fun when we used our gilded historical surroundings as a playground with a little hide-and-seek in the garden at the governor's mansion, or ran around in his maze of shrubs. Isabelle kept finding little passageways that I couldn't get through, making great mirth out of her father's girth.
On to Jamestown
Kira and Cora picked us up about noon after a successful morning visiting local shops, buying food for lunch and exploring the historic campus of the College of William and Mary, also in Williamsburg.
We drove to Jamestown and had a picnic in the shade, just feet from the James River, in an area where picnics were probably not welcomed. Worried we would be chased away by park rangers, we hurriedly enjoyed bread, cheese, fruit, toffee nuts and root beer, packing away enough to hold us over for dinner.
There are two Jamestown sites: One run by the National Park Service called Historic Jamestowne explores the actual island colony, and a second, Jamestown Settlement, attempts to re-create the lives of the settlers and the Indians they encountered when they landed. We went to the real Jamestown first, which has a short introductory movie and hundreds of artifacts extracted in archaeological digs at the site, many of which are still under way. We saw the ruins of the colony, explored the church where some of the first legislation was passed that enslaved Africans and manhandled a statue of Pocahontas, courtesy of Isabelle, who ended up posing for a picture like a real pro.
If our children were older, I'm certain we would have spent much more time there, since perusing the artifacts was fascinating, even without an "interpreter." But I didn't need an actor to explain shackles to me, or to make me feel grieved when I read in an exhibit that the two societies often exchanged children so they could learn the other's language and become interpreters.
The way it was
We went next to Jamestown Settlement, by far our favorite stop on the trip.
The museum was incredible, with a host of interactive exhibits meant to explain the collision of three societies: the Colonists, the Indians and the Africans and how their lives would be shaped in the New World.
Weeks later, I can still vividly recall a room they used to explain navigation in the period, or a wall exhibit that mapped the existing settlements on the continent over time, allowing visitors to compare different periods by pressing buttons, and another which showed the astonishingly rapid decline of the natives as the settlements grew.
I could have spent a whole day in the museum, where volunteers or staffers were available in most rooms to answer questions and help explain various exhibits. But our girls were restless, so we went outside to wander around in two villages: one that mirrored life for the natives and another that explained the life of the Colonists.
Isabelle and Cora loved this the most of the entire trip. The Indian village had a number of huts, built with bamboo structures and woven mats for walls and roofs, that visitors could freely explore, touching or playing with everything in sight. Each hut was full of animal skins, a few weapons, pottery and oyster shells the natives used for various tasks.
There were interpreters this time who were not Indian but white, wearing outfits that did not reflect the relative nudity of the Powhatans. But somehow, it didn't matter, as the interpreters were simply on hand to explain the uses of the various tools and didn't make me squeamish by feigning a fake accent or lecturing me about historical minutiae.
The second village was a fort, filled with gardens of plants raised by the Colonists, homes and straw beds where Isabelle actually laid down to snuggle and a church where she climbed to the pulpit and lectured about Pocahontas. In one display, an interpreter fired guns from the period, showing onlookers how to load the weapons.
Our last stop of the day was on a replica of the Godspeed, one of the three ships that Capt. Christopher Newport had led to a small island on the southern edge of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
This was another treat: These ships were not only built to period specifications, but are also being used for promotional voyages today. (The Godspeed replica visited Baltimore's Inner Harbor last June.) The crew was, in at least that sense, real. Exploring each deck, I was fascinated by the sleeping quarters, which seemed scarcely big enough for a child. A volunteer on the ship explained that those would have been used by two men on the ship, an interesting testament to American largesse 400 years later.
Having walked miles in the course of a long history lesson about various periods of the American past, we had all developed quite an appetite. Shunning the restaurants in Williamsburg's Colonial area as too fancy or touristy, we found just the place not too far from our hotel.
Food for Thought, adorned with pictures and quotations of famous historical figures, had the right ambience for a tired family with two hungry toddlers, and a delicious menu that we found befitting of our history tourism.
I had some wonderful crab cakes, sweet potato fries and grits with just the right texture; Kira had crab Caesar salad; and the kids, I'm a little ashamed to admit, had chicken fingers and fries. They are too little to be gourmands.
We slept soundly that night, heading to nearby Newport News in the morning after a last hotel breakfast, so we could explore the Virginia Living Museum's new Jamestown exhibit. Like a cross between Baltimore's Port Discovery and a small zoo, the museum had prepared a maze that required you to test your wits with the same kinds of decisions that faced the Colonists. It was a participatory board game, informative about the challenges at Jamestown while providing the same kinds of thrills as a choose-your-own-adventure novel.
Exhausted from a great trip, we headed back to Baltimore, satisfied that we had been to as many places as we could in one weekend where "something important happened." In a sense, it was like signing a great historical guest book: Brad, Kira, Isabelle and Cora were here to explore your turmoil, and we found it to be very interesting. v HOW THE MONEY WAS SPENT
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