Williamsburg: History, without the warts

Talking with the Marquis de Lafayette

So after spending some time with my family in Cape Charles, VA, I'd planned to swing back home via Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello. As interested as I am in history and as close as I live to both, it was starting to seem ridiculous that I hadn't been to Williamsburg since I was a kid, and had never been to Monticello.

Talking in the apothecary's shop.

I had pretty mixed feelings about Williamsburg. On the one hand, all of the buildings are either fully restored, or painstakingly recreated to look like the city did during revolutionary times. Unlike other historic sites I've been to (save Mystic Seaport), where old buildings are intermingled with the new, in Williamsburg, you can walk around and get an idea of what it was really like during those times. And it's a real site, where real history happened.

Wetherburn's Tavern, one of the historic buildings you can tour.

But something just didn't feel right. I felt it first when I dropped in on "An audience with George Washington," held in an outdoor ampitheater, and the actor they had playing Washington was loudly proclaiming all sorts of things about the revolution. But George Washington wasn't the loud, speechifying type. I felt it more strongly when the crowd of tourists gathered for a reading of the Declaration of Independence. It was read by a trio, each reading parts — a white man standing on the capitol balcony, and a black man and white woman in front of the capitol gate.

I can understand the desire to present a more inclusive front, but let's be realistic, here. Two out of those three people were NOT who the founding fathers were talking about when they said that all men were created equal. When they said men, they really meant land-owning white men. Perhaps if I hadn't read "Lies My Teacher Told Me" shortly before going on my trip, I might have had a different take on Williamsburg. But I did, and the longer I was there, the more I began to feel like they were neglecting real history — particularly slavery — in favor of presenting a Disneyfied front.

Only on one house tour — Randolph House — was slavery a key topic. But plenty of house tours talked about historic preservation. China that was pulled out of a shipwreck, and purchased, to make what we tourists saw on the table as authentic as possible. Painstaking research into the wallpaper and paint on the walls.

I attended one last event, this time an audience with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, a man who hated public speaking so much he submitted his state of the union addresses in written form, was presented in Williamsburg as a clear, confident speaker. There were other, smaller historical nitpicks — Jefferson talked about having just written the Declaration of Independence, when in reality, people didn't know who wrote it for many years. I sat and listened for awhile, and realized — Colonial Williamsburg cares more about getting its wallpaper right than the history that matters.

Capitol building.

In an environment that has so much going for it — a real, authentic looking place where history did actually happen — it's disappointing that Williamsburg doesn't make an effort to actually present realistic, balanced history. It's still a place worth going, but it's also a place where I hope the parents of all those kids running about the place know enough history to explain to their kids what really happened 230-some years ago.


Quaint little Cape Charles

Cape Charles, Virginia.

So I'm recently back from another week of vacation, although this time I only went one state over — to Virginia. It's been awhile since my family's last vacation together, so this year we were planning to get a beach house for a week in Virginia Beach.

Actually, we HAD a beach house in Virginia Beach, until the realty company called and said that the owner had rented out the house for the whole summer, and we were basically SOL. We needed a pet-friendly rental, and with just a few months before the trip, they were few and far between. Everything pet-friendly left in Virginia Beach was either super expensive, or a little shady looking. Fortunately, I'd emailed a woman about a Virginia Beach house, and she had replied back saying that it was booked, but she had a place in Cape Charles that was available.

Why it was important to have a pet-friendly place. Otherwise no cute Rex!

I'd never even heard of Cape Charles, but the more we started to read about it, the better it looked. It's across the Chesapeake Bay bridge tunnel from Virginia Beach, on the Eastern Shore in Virginia. A quiet little bay-side town, with a population of about 1,100 people, and from the pictures it looked to have a quaint little downtown. The house was much bigger and nicer than others at the price in Virginia Beach, and only two blocks away from the beach, so we went for it.

We stayed on the left side of this century duplex.

What we got was a far different beach experience than Virginia Beach, but one that was a lot more relaxing and enjoyable. The house was only a block away from "downtown," but the street was a quiet, residential one. And the house itself was clearly a century home, and fairly well updated on the ground floor. Beyond that, a treacherously steep staircase went up to three bedrooms that felt a bit more "century," although they were clean and well-painted. I actually enjoyed them, because it reminded me of the upstairs at my grandparents' old house.

Cape Charles beach.

The beach was never crowded — there were rarely more than about 40 people there, so there was always plenty of space. I found the water to be odd, since the last few beaches I've been to have been Atlantic beaches. On the bay, the water took a very long time to get deep. You could go a hundred yards out and it still might not be up to your waist. It was nice for floating in the inflatable lounger I bought ($6 at Target!), but not so good for swimming, especially since there weren't a lot in the line of waves.

Downtown Cape Charles.

The downtown consisted of about four blocks on one street, a mix of businesses, shops, restaurants, and one coffee house, which I wanted to check out, but didn't manage to with its limited hours. I joked that, aside from restaurants, the town had one of everything — one doctor, one dentist, one eye doctor, one hardware store, one pharmacy, etc.

Kelly's Gingernut Pub.

Dining-wise, there were really only three full-meal, sit-down restaurants, plus the coffee house, a more casual-looking cafe, and a pizza place. None of them were chain restaurants, and the two full restaurants downtown, The Old Fire House and Kelly's Gingernut Pub, were both quite good. The Old Fire House had the edge on food, but Kelly's had an impressive beer list for a small-town place, and looked like it would be a fun bar to have a few pints in. Both of them were in converted buildings — a bank, for Kelly's, and a building that had been a fire station (shocking, I know) and a car dealership at different times for The Old Fire House.

The Old Fire House.

The third restaurant, Aqua, was at a far newer complex outside of the main town, with a marina, shopping mall, and a bunch of condominiums. It was kind of a soulless spot, and there weren't a lot of people out and about there, but all was forgiven when my mom ordered the peach, heirloom tomato, and goat cheese salad there the first time. It was an amazing combination of local produce, and so large she fortunately had to share. We ended up going back a few days later and ordering up more salads, plus main dishes, and the more menu items we tried there, the more clear it was that they were doing great things with local produce — vegetables were the highlight of many dishes. So although Aqua is a blatant attempt to have a swanky, newish restaurant in the swanky, newish marina/condo area, and its space doesn't have nearly the same character as the other restaurants, I have to give them props for some of the best food I've had in awhile.

THE salad.

Although there might not have been as much to do off the beach on the Eastern Shore as there was in Virginia Beach, there were some options. We nixed a trip to Chincoteague for its pony penning day because the ponies swim anywhere from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., and nobody felt like getting up at 4 a.m. to drive up there. We also passed on taking a ferry out to Tangier Island, a place so old and separated, the residents still have Elizabethan English accents. But we did visit Ker Place, a Federal-style mansion about an hour north of Cape Charles. It's a nice little dose of history to break up the beach-going, or, if you're me, it's a nice appetizer for a much bigger main course. Because on Thursday, I said goodbye to the family and headed out on the next leg of my loop around Virginia — Colonial Williamsburg.

Ker Place.

As for Cape Charles, I wouldn't want to live there — the lack of variety would eventually make me insane. But I really enjoyed my time there, and I wouldn't mind going back. It's a great place to get away, in a less than 5 1/2 hour drive from the D.C. area.

Here's a link to all of my Cape Charles pictures. And my Ker Place pictures.