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America's Historic Triangle

Chart a course through history with a visit
to Virginia’s Colonial attractions.

You may have been bored to tears in history classes at school, but America’s Historic Triangle, a family destination rich in history, may make your vacation one for the history books. Visit during the holidays and you’ll get a different perspective on traditional celebrations.

Grand Illumination

Above: Cressets are lit on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg during the Grand Illumination. Colonial Williamsburg photo

Below: A Colonial Christmas offers a glimpse into historical holiday traditions. Jamestown Settlement & Yorktown Victory Center photo

Victory Center

The Historic Triangle, encompassing three colonial communities in Virginia–Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown–is the birthplace of American democracy. The story of America’s first permanent English colony, the final battle of the American Revolution, and daily life in the 1770s are weaved through famous battlefields, buildings, and plantations that bring to life the story of our country’s foundation.

Begin the adventure by exploring the Historic Triangle attractions linked by the National Park Service’s Colonial Parkway. The 23-mile roadway starts in Yorktown, passes through Colonial Williamsburg, and ends in Jamestown. Enjoy spectacular views of the James and York rivers, or bike along its many trails, a pleasant spring, summer, or fall activity.

Jamestown Settlement

Your history lesson begins at Jamestown Settlement. Thirteen years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, three ships with 104 Virginia Company explorers and their cargo arrived on the banks of the James River in May 1607. Tour replicas of the three ships–the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery – that embarked in December 1606 from England on a voyage to Virginia.

This living-history museum site traces America’s Colonial beginnings through a re-created Powhatan Indian village, colonists’ forts, and an archaeological site. Indoors, find an exhibition gallery, a film, and costumed historical interpreters.

Visit from Nov. 27 to 29 and experience “Foods & Feasts of Colonial Virginia.” At the settlement, see how food was gathered, preserved, and prepared by the Colonists and Powhatan Indians. Interpreters will bake bread and demonstrate open-hearth and open-fire cooking. Visitors can try their hand at making the most common fare, a ship biscuit.

The Jamestown Settlement Café will offer traditional Thanksgiving dinners on Nov. 27. And from Dec. 1 through Jan. 4, period holiday traditions will be recalled as visitors see how Jamestown Colonists might have celebrated Christmas in 17th- and 18th-century Virginia.

Historic Jamestowne

The Historic Jamestowne site preserves England’s first permanent settlement in 1607 in North America by Capt. John Smith and the Virginia Company explorers. The ongoing archaeological dig continues to uncover remains–some 1 million artifacts so far have been excavated–from the original 1607 James Fort site.

Walk with a park ranger, costumed interpreter, or archaeologist to study the culture of the settlement, which included the English, Powhatan Indians (long-time inhabitants of the area), and Africans.

Exhibits and a multimedia presentation can be viewed in the visitor center. An archaeology museum displays artifacts unearthed at the fort site. The Glasshouse showcases artisans practicing glassmaking, an early industry on the island. Walk through the original 17th-century church tower, the island’s only surviving aboveground structure.

Colonial Williamsburg

It is easy to imagine life in the 18th century with a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, which is America’s oldest and largest interactive history experience with some 20 guided and self-guided tours. Begin your journey at the visitor center, which offers a film, Williamsburg–The Story of a Patriot, about the Colonial era. Guests with tickets can catch a free shuttle to Colonial Williamsburg’s historical area. Colonial Williamsburg is made up of taverns, trade shops, homes, community buildings, a governor’s palace (home to seven royal governors, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson), and museums, all spread over 300 acres. Visit the Capitol and witness a debate about independence or the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Be part of a mock trial in the courthouse, and see how newspapers and pamphlets were made in the printing office and bookbindery.

Talk to patriots (all dressed in period clothing) who discuss their city on the verge of war or how to distance themselves from their king to establish a new republic. Visit the homes and gardens of Williamsburg’s 18th-century residents.

Evening events and programs may include deciding the fate of a woman accused of witchcraft, taking ghost tours, and listening to live music at candlelit Colonial concerts.

For Thanksgiving, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg can enjoy a three-course meal in a historical tavern with traditional 18th-century trimmings, or bring the entire family together for elegant contemporary cuisine in one of the hotels on site. Tickets went on sale Oct. 1 for the Nov. 28 event.

Christmas celebrations kick off Dec. 7 with the Grand Illumination, an event that includes fireworks, twinkling candles, and warming cressets (metal baskets on a pole that contain small wood-burning fires). The season also includes holiday decorations tours, musical performances, and holiday dinners.

Yorktown Battlefield and Visitor Center

Explore this historic place where, in October 1781, the Revolutionary War came to an end and American independence was ensured. Drive battlefield and encampment roads used during the siege. Self-guided tours are available or purchase a driving tour CD that’s sold in the visitor center.

You’ll come upon historical buildings–such as the Moore House, where British troops surrendered to American and French armies led by Gen. George Washington–and the Nelson House, home to Thomas Nelson, who signed the Declaration of Independence. There also are various memorials and Yorktown National Cemetery at the site.

In the visitor center, artifacts from the siege, including portions of tents used by Washington and his men, and a film, The Siege of Yorktown, can be viewed.

Yorktown Victory Center

Visitors here can feel America’s struggle for independence emerging from Colonial unrest. Exhibits depict the everyday people who lived during the Revolution, the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and Yorktown’s sunken fleet of ships lost during the Yorktown siege.

Daily activities are demonstrated through costumed interpreters in a re-created Continental Army encampment and 1780s Tidewater Virginia farm. Visitors can be recruited into military life and watch musket and artillery loading and firing demonstrations.

From Nov. 27–29, see Army re-enactors turn meager rations of dried beans, salted meat, and hard bread into soups and stews. At the farm, learn about methods used to preserve fruits and vegetables for winter.

Hear accounts of Christmas celebrations and the hard winter experiences in Revolutionary War encampments during programs offered from Dec. 1 through Jan. 4.

More to see and do

After visiting Historic Triangle attractions, there are plenty of other things to do. Explore the cultures of Old European countries and enjoy the rides (open as weather will allow) at Busch Gardens® Williamsburg.

Starting Nov. 21 and continuing through Dec. 31, visit Busch Gardens Christmas TownTM to enjoy holiday fare, shopping, and shows. Experience Old World Christmas traditions while walking paths bathed in more than 7 million twinkling lights.

Take a tour of the 1,200-acre College of William & Mary campus, the second-oldest college in the country, founded in 1693 by royal charter. A self-guided tour of 15 locations begins and ends near the Sir Christopher Wren Building, which dates to 1700. Its Muscarelle Museum of Art traces its collection to 1732.

The Williamsburg Winery, Virginia’s largest and one of the country’s most acclaimed, is located on a 300-acre farm called Wessex Hundred. Winery tours and tastings in an Old World-style building with a barrel cellar and production area are offered year-round.

The winery’s Gabriel Archer Tavern offers lunch daily and a bar menu Fridays through Sundays. Its on-site hotel, Wedmore Place, has 28 exquisitely appointed rooms and suites with a European flair. Downstairs at Wedmore Place is Café Provencal, a high-end restaurant.

Lodging options are plentiful including the Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel & Suites (AAA Three Diamonds), adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center.

Any time of year, southeast Virginia’s Historic Triangle will educate and entertain you.

Karen A. Avitabile is editor of AAA Journeys based in West Hartford, Conn. Deborah Reinhardt, managing editor of AAA Midwest Traveler and AAA Southern Traveler, also contributed to this story.

November/December 2014 Issue


For more information, contact the Greater Williamsburg area,, (888) 882-4156.

To visit the Historic Triangle, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

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