Colonial Williamsburg, with its beautifully restored buildings, period interpreters and manicured gardens, offers a wonderfully immersive slice of 18th-century American life. But there are many other great things to see in this corner of southeastern Virginia. Historic locations abound, from fields where battles were waged to 400-year-old plantations to some of the most famous formerly private homes in the country. Just a two-hour drive northwest, for example, is Charlottesville, with its clutch of presidential estates and award-winning wineries nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fifty miles east of Colonial Williamsburg is Virginia Beach, with seemingly endless sand and surf and an emerging funky, independent streak. And with roller coasters and other thrills nearby, there are plenty of more-modern draws, too.
The 1781 Battle of Yorktown was the turning point in the Revolutionary War. Today the Yorktown Battlefield and its earthen siege fortifications are preserved as a national park; rangers lead walking tours of the battlefield and the 18th-century town. Nearby, the just-opened American Revolution Museum at Yorktown guides visitors through the entire war, with exhibits and state-of-the-art interactive experiences, such as the 180-degree-screen “4D” Siege Theater, where viewers feel the rumble of cannon fire and the spray of saltwater.
Almost two centuries before independence, colonial history began in Jamestown, which in 1607 became the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America. Now that spit of land is another protected park, Historic Jamestowne (a single ticket covers both the Jamestown site and the Yorktown Battlefield). You’ll find active excavation digs and a fascinating “archaearium” showcasing some of the more than two million artifacts that have been unearthed here, along with an extensive look at the life of one of Jamestown’s most famous residents, Pocahontas. A mile away, history comes alive at Jamestown Settlement, a living-history museum complete with a full-scale re-creation of the 1610 James Fort and a Powhatan Indian village, both filled with knowledgeable historic reenactors.
Tours of the stately James River plantations offer a unique glimpse of Virginia’s agrarian aristocracy. Sherwood Forest was the home of President John Tyler after he left the White House, in 1845 (he chose the name because he considered himself a political outlaw); it also happens to be the longest wood-frame house in the country. Shirley Plantation, dating back to 1613, is the oldest plantation in Virginia. The 11th-generation descendants of the original family still own the farm—and its brick Georgian Great House, where they live—which makes it the oldest family-owned business in America. Nearby, the area that is now the Berkeley Plantation is positively steeped in historic firsts: It’s the site of the first official Thanksgiving Proclamation, nearly two years before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts; it’s the birthplace of President William Henry Harrison; and it’s where, during the Civil War, while the plantation served as a Union camp, one of the generals composed the now-famous “Taps” melody. Costumed guides offer excellent tours of the exquisitely restored 1726 mansion and terraced gardens.
After your historic adventures, stop by Cul’s Courthouse Grille, a deli set in an 1870s general store. Edna’s Chicken Sandwich, topped with homemade pimento cheese and green-tomato chow chow, is delicious.
Presidents and Pinot
Charlottesville, only a two-hour drive from Williamsburg, is the backdrop of the homes of three early U.S. presidents. The most famous is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, an architectural standout and one of the finest historic homes in the country. In addition to the neoclassical main house, visitors can explore the old slave quarters, the newly restored stables and the manicured grounds; they can also opt to take the summer garden-tasting tour to sample Indian Blood peaches, Tom Thumb peas and other produce grown in Jefferson’s day. President James Monroe’s Highland estate is close by and paints a picture of modest 19th-century farm life, although new excavations suggest Monroe’s residence may have been much grander than the farmhouse that stands today. Finally, James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier is a Georgian masterpiece that’s only recently been restored to its original splendor. The house spent most of the 20th century hidden within an Art Deco manse owned by the DuPont family; a $25 million restoration was completed in 2008.
Charlottesville is also the heart of Virginia’s wine country. One of the most outstanding wineries is Barboursville Vineyards, which has been operating for more than 40 years on a former sheep farm. It’s extremely well regarded: In 2007, when Queen Elizabeth II was in Virginia to honor the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, a Barboursville Bordeaux-style blend was served at the celebration dinner. Visitors today can sample pinot grigio and other vintages in the tasting room or enjoy a picnic on the rolling grounds, perhaps in the shadow of the ruins of the original Barbour family mansion, designed by Thomas Jefferson, in 1814. Wineries across Virginia have become well-known for their full-bodied viognier white wines; lawmakers actually made viognier the state wine in 2011. But it was Horton Vineyards, only a couple miles from Barboursville, that first introduced the grape to Virginia soil, back in 1991. Today, Horton produces a diverse mix of wines, including the world’s first sparkling viognier, and it’s the only port-producing winery in the state.
Fun in the Sun
Once you’ve had your fill of founding fathers and tricorner hats, hit up Busch Gardens in Williamsburg for white-knuckle roller coasters and other thrills. New this year is the Viking-themed InvadR, the park’s first-ever wooden coaster. Another recent addition is Tempesto, a 63-mile-an-hour ride, full of vertical loops and backward dips. Take your pick from half a dozen live shows every day, including the newest, All for One, a swashbuckling presentation of intricate swordplay and eye-popping pyrotechnics. Next door is Water Country USA, Virginia’s largest water park, packed with high-adrenaline slides such as Vanish Point, a 75-foot-high tower where the floor drops away, plunging thrill seekers down a pipeline at more than 40 miles an hour. (For those who prefer a slightly tamer day in the water, there’s also a lazy river and a wave pool.)
For even more outdoor fun and some terrific offbeat finds, head 50 miles east to Virginia Beach. At New Earth Farm, a sustainable and educational working farm outside of town, adults can shear sheep, practice cheese making or learn how to create kombucha in one of the farm’s classes. Younger visitors 10 and over can sign up for field-to-table cooking courses, during which they’ll harvest eggs and pick produce to help prepare (and then eat) a farm-fresh meal.
Downtown, the ViBe Creative District is an emerging enclave of galleries, eclectic shops and one-of-a-kind eateries. Browse laid-back looks and beachy-hip styles at French Twist Boutique—expect flowy tops and silky tanks by French designers, along with local artwork and lots of accessories produced by area artisans, including jewelry and leather goods. You can pick up a bag to haul your swag at North End Bag Co., where gorgeous leather and canvas totes are crafted by hand on-site. For a caffeine fix, there’s Three Ships Coffee, a local farmers-market favorite that’s now got its own brick-and-mortar outpost. Diners can sample the best of the region at Commune, the city’s first farmer-owned restaurant, which sources all ingredients from within 100 miles.
Or you could always just grab a blanket, head to the beach and stake your claim somewhere along the miles and miles of Virginia Beach’s sandy shores.
American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
200 Water St., Yorktown; 888-593-4682; historyisfun.org; adults, $12; children 6–12, $7. A Four-Site Value Ticket covers all four Yorktown and Jamestown attractions: adults, $37; children 6–12, $14
12602 Harrison Landing Rd., Charles City; 804-829-6018; berkeleyplantation.com; tours, $12 a person
2050 James Monroe Pkwy., Charlottesville; 434-293-8000; highland.org; adults, $14; children 6–11, $8
1368 Colonial Pkwy., Jamestown; 757-856-1250; historicjamestowne.org; adults, $14; children 15 and under, free
2110 Jamestown Rd., Williamsburg; 888-593-4682; historyisfun.org; adults, $17; children 6–12, $8 a person
931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., Charlottesville; 434-984-9800; monticello.org; home and grounds tours, $28; garden-tasting tours, additional $15 a person
11350 Constitution Hwy., Orange; 540-672-2728; montpelier.org; adults, $20; children 6–14, $7
New Earth Farm
1885 Indian River Rd., Virginia Beach; 757-536-6102; newearthfarm.org; Food Lab cooking classes, from $20 a person
14501 John Tyler Hwy., Charles City; 804-829-5377; sherwoodforest.org; self-guided tours of the grounds, $10 a person
501 Shirley Plantation Rd., Charles City; 804-829-5121; shirleyplantation.org; tours, $11 a person
1000 Colonial Pkwy., Yorktown; 757-898-2410; nps.gov; adults, $7; children 15 and under, free
1 Busch Gardens Blvd., Williamsburg; 757-229-4386; seaworldparks.com; adults, $80; children 10 and under, $70
Water Country USA
176 Water Country Pkwy., Williamsburg; 757-229-4386; watercountryusa.com; admission, $54
17655 Winery Rd., Barboursville; 540-832-5834; bbvwine.com
6399 Spotswood Trail, Gordonsville; 540-832-7440; hortonwine.com
501 Virginia Beach Blvd., Virginia Beach; 757-963-8985; communevb.com; lunch for two, $25*
Cul’s Courthouse Grille
10801 Courthouse Rd., Charles City; 804-829-2205; culscourthousegrille.com; lunch for two, $20
Three Ships Coffee
607 19th St., Virginia Beach; 757-321-9371; threeshipscoffee.com
French Twist Boutique
513 19th St., Suite 101, Virginia Beach; 757-961-1735; frenchtwistboutiquevb.com
North End Bag Co.
607 19th St., Suite B, Virginia Beach; 757-230-9138; northendbagcompany.com
RCI® affiliated resorts in Williamsburg include:
Set on 250 acres of fields and forest. 3601 Ironbound Rd.
Member Review: “Close to nearby historical venues.”
Outdoor amenities include jogging trails, heated pools and a playground. 191 Cottage Cove Lane
Member Review: “Large living space.”
This property, built on a former golf course, affords spacious grounds. 725 Bypass Rd.
Member Review: “Hospitable staff.”
Stay in beautifully furnished units just a half block from Williamsburg attractions. 315 York St.
Member Review: “Love the pool!”
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Williamsburg include:
Fife and Drum Inn
Well-appointed rooms in a handsome brick inn steps from the colonial center of town. 411 Prince George St.; 888-838-1783; fifeanddruminn.com; doubles from $179 a night
Two spacious suites and exquisite service; colonial dances are hosted every Tuesday evening in the upstairs ballroom. 710 S. Henry St.; 877-565-1775; newporthousebb.com; doubles from $159 a night
Six sunny rooms and a sumptuous breakfast of Virginia specialties make this B&B a treat. 600 Richmond Rd.; 800-422-8011; williamsburg-manor.com; doubles from $129 a night
- *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Summer 2017