Living in coastal New England is to be surrounded every moment by the architectural and geographic echoes of the colonial era. This year, the family and I took it further by tripping back to the 18th century with several historical vacations. What follows are some tips if you’re planning your own getaway.
Colonial Williamsburg is the Jerusalem for pilgrims of Revolutionary history. The foundation prints weekly calendars, available in the hotel lobbies, chock full of events and presentations. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Public Audience with a Founding Father, which usually occurs at 10 AM Tuesday through Thursday behind the Governor’s Palace. The depth and context provided by the actors (portraying Washington, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry) is amazing.
The website says reservations are required at all of the taverns, though we had no problem being seated at 11 AM at any of the three serving lunch. The food at all of them is fine, though I was partial to Shields Tavern. We found it impossible to get into Christiana Campbell’s without a reservation; you may want to book well ahead of time (like, several weeks ahead of time). I also strongly recommend the Blue Talon just beyond the colonial area. I had the curried goat special washed down with burnt-sugar ice cream and a glass of Calvados.
We stayed at the Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel just north of the historic area, and strolling under the bowers and past the frog pond on your way to 1775 is a pleasant way to begin the morning. There is a serious drawback: the only bar on the premises is a rinky-dink restaurant that’s closed more than it’s open, which nearly gave me a case of the DTs. If you too drink like a Founding Father, you may want stay closer to the taverns or Merchant’s Square.
What’s fantastic about Strawbery Banke is that it isn’t frozen in one period. Rather it shows the Portsmouth, New Hampshire neighborhood of Puddle Dock throughout its lifetime, from 17th-century settlement to 20th-century slum. The Shapley-Drisco House is a duplex with one side depicting a 1790s general store and the other a 1950s family home, complete with flickering television set and ash trays aplenty. Another building is furnished as a World War II-era grocery, ration lists posted on the wall. Kids should check out ye olde toys and games in the Jones House.
There’s only one restaurant on the premises plus a summertime ice cream shop, but being in the heart of Portsmouth means you don’t have to go far for great food. For breakfast, run — do not walk — to The Friendly Toast on Congress Street and order the pumpkin pancakes with Raisinets. For lunch I recommend RiRa Irish Pub in Market Square. History buffs may also want to visit the home of Declaration signatory William Whipple on Market Street.
And because our family just can’t get enough tricornes and sedition, we stopped at Old Sturbridge Village on our way home from Portsmouth. Whereas Colonial Williamsburg excels at recreating the climate of the Revolution, OSV complements it by exhibiting what folks did when they weren’t loitering in the colonial capitals debating taxes and insurrection. The working sawmill — slowly but persistently cutting a tree into planks with every turn of the water wheel — fascinates me. There’s also a cidery, a print shop, a shoe shop, and more.
When I was a kid, my family made a point of eating at the nearby Publick House whenever we passed through, a tradition that continues with my own peeps. The Oliver Wight Tavern, located at the entrance to OSV, is very good as well. The massive gift and bookstore adjacent to the restaurant always sucks us in for at least half an hour.
As the Marquis de Lafayette might have said, Bon voyage et bon chance.