Travel: Williamsburg History

We are touring the grand Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, a recreated 18th-century structure once inhabited by Thomas Jefferson, when it strikes me that, really, Alan Carpenter should be here.

I know what you’re thinking: Who the hell is Alan Carpenter? I was asking myself the same question about a year and a half ago, after my daughter Hannah bounded into the living room one Saturday morning and announced, “It’s Alan Carpenter’s birthday! We’re having a party!” I glanced at my wife, who gave me one of those beats-me shrugs. Hannah informed me, in her best exasperated five-year-old voice, that Alan Carpenter was the president of Doll Land, the stuffed-animal-populated parallel universe in which she and her younger sister Sarah spend 95 percent of their waking hours. That night, my wife and I sipped cocktails as we awaited Alan’s arrival at the party Hannah put together. He turned out be a scrawny stuffed monkey Hannah had gotten when she was two, and who had previously been known around our house as, um, Monkey.

Alan Carpenter’s escapades have been a running theme in our lives ever since. There was Alan’s on-again, off-again courtship of Beauty, a pink stuffed bear, and Alan’s tightly contested reelection battle against archnemesis John Sand, a stuffed lion. The morning after George W. Bush was reelected last fall, Hannah announced that Alan had been defeated in his bid for a second term. Fortunately, when I recently asked her how Sand was making out, she said that Alan was still president and that Sand was actually vice president. Maybe I missed some sort of Florida-esque hanging chad controversy.

Anyway, I mention all this because it shows, I think, our natural proclivity to pretend, to take ourselves to different places and times—even when it comes to things like history and politics. And pretending about things like history and politics is what makes Colonial Williamsburg—where you walk around, experiencing what life was like in the 18th century—so much fun.

It’s hard to say which is more interesting: Williamsburg’s place in Colonial history, or the history of Colonial Williamsburg itself. Regarding the former: Williamsburg was one of the first major English settlements in the New World, and for a time during the early 18th century was something of a Colonial hot spot—more or less Philadelphia before Philadelphia became Philadelphia (with Philly, of course, being Washington D.C. before Washington D.C. became Washington D.C.). What’s fascinating is that Williamsburg would probably be long forgotten if not for the eccentricities of John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the oil baron, who used a chunk of the family dough to buy up land in these environs starting in 1926 and more or less rebuild what the town looked like in the 1770s, complete with 500 restored or re-created buildings, and costumed actors behaving like it really was the 1770s. The idea was to present history as something alive and exciting, not dull and depressing. Though the living history movement has gone out of fashion since then—critics complain it’s more show biz than authentic preservation—Williamsburg remains a powerful way to learn about the past. Not to mention a fun way to spend a getaway weekend.

One reason is the grand, Regency-style Williamsburg Inn, where we stayed for the weekend and which sits on the edge of Colonial Williamsburg. The inn has its own interesting history: Built by Rockefeller in the 1930s, it was the first hotel in America to be air-conditioned and through the years has hosted Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill and several U.S. presidents. Thanks to a 2001 renovation, it retains a feeling of luxury and grandeur even in the age of the Internet; the rooms have been enlarged, and the original 1937 Kittinger furniture has been completely refurbished. With two picturesque 18-hole golf courses, lawn bowling, two pools, and elegant dining facilities (we had breakfast Sunday morning at the superb Regency Room), it’s the kind of resort that’s a destination in its own right.

Still, the main draw remains Colonial Williamsburg itself. The weekend we were there had a full roster of activities: public audiences with Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry; a Colonial auction; a reenactment of an 18th-century trial; various concerts and ghost tours. All this was in addition to the artisans and craftspeople working in various buildings. What makes the attractions work is the palpable sense they give of how life was lived 225 years ago. For instance, following dinner Friday evening in the King’s Arms Tavern, one of several Colonial taverns on Duke of Gloucester Street, a storyteller came around and led us all in song. That hardly ever happens at Le Bec-Fin.

More important, the attractions help you understand the roots of the American Revolution itself. During our Saturday visit to the Governor’s Palace, home to Virginia governors from 1722 to 1780, our energetic tour guide got us to consider the structure, and Williamsburg itself, from the points of view of two different Virginia leaders: John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, a Scottish nobleman for whom town life here was pretty much akin to roughing it in the wilderness; and Patrick Henry, a Virginia planter to whom the Governor’s Palace seemed like Versailles. If they had such different views of a building, our guide asked, is it any wonder they would have different views on more important things?

We ventured into some of the non-­Colonial parts of Williamsburg—the bucolic William & Mary campus; the upscale shops at Merchants Square; an excellent restaurant called Berret’s Seafood, which features fish from the nearby James River and Chesapeake Bay. Still, we were drawn back into history, spending Saturday evening at an event called “Dance, Our Dearest Diversion.” As the guide explained, dance was not only the biggest form of entertainment in Colonial days; it was a measure of your social standing. When he asked for volunteers to learn some of the steps, I saw Hannah’s hand pop up. The next thing I knew, she was spinning around the floor with a boy about her age. As I saw her beaming, I couldn’t help thinking how time passes and things keep changing. One of these days, Alan Carpenter, you’re going to be history.

* Where to Stay
The Williamsburg Inn, 136 East Francis Street, 800-HISTORY,; rooms from $199.
The Williamsburg Lodge, 310 South England Street, 800-HISTORY; rooms from $159.

* Where to Eat
Regency Room, the Williamsburg Inn, 800-TAVERNS; dinner for two, about $125 with wine.
The King’s Arms Tavern, Duke of Gloucester Street, 800-TAVERNS; dinner for two, about $100 with wine.
Berret’s Seafood Restaurant, 199 South Boundary Street, 757-253-1847; dinner for two, about $75 with wine.

* What to Do
Colonial Williamsburg has a wide array of historic buildings, attractions, museums and events. Tickets for hotel guests start at $29 for adults, $15 for children. Go to for a complete schedule of events and descriptions of attractions. The Golden Horseshoe Golf Club has two 18-hole courses and one nine-hole course designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Rees Jones. 401 South England Street; 800-HISTORY.