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Other places to visit near Busch Gardens: Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Washington, D.C.

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Published: July 29, 2009 at 7:20 PM

Like many folks who visit Busch Gardens Williamsburg each year, we're visiting some area historical sites in addition to our theme park visit.

Today, we visited Colonial Williamsburg:

Governor's Palace at Colonial Williamsburg

Laurie and I started the day by leaving the kids with Williamsburg's free babysitting service:

Stockade

Since this is a working trip, I spent some time with the 18th-century version of an independent website publisher:

Printing press

Then, we decided to get good and lost in the Palace Gardens' maze. Just remember, if you get into trouble, shoot up red sparks.

Garden maze

Eventually, we had to reclaim the kids. So we took 'em over to the green for a game of hoops.

Rolling hoops

Later, Natalie and Brian looked into some 18th-century science projects.

Magnifying glass

Williamsburg gives kids 14 and under an activity guide, which they can get punched to earn a prize. The prize is ultra-lame - a postcard - but Natalie and Brian enjoyed the activities (like playing hoops) so much that they didn't care.

The only disappointment? The food. I mean, the barbecue sandwich I had for lunch looked fine:

Barbecue sandwich, chips and slaw

But, for $9+, plus drink and tax and tip, it just wasn't special enough to match the surroundings. (Our dinner, at Aromas Coffee and Cafe in Merchants Square, was much, much better... and recommended.) So go outside "the park" for your meals.

Ultimately, Colonial Williamsburg is a theme park. Not one with rides, but a themed recreation of another time, nevertheless. Almost all the buildings date from the 1930s or later. And to get the most from your day, it demands planning and strategy, just like visiting a theme park.

I think of CW as a colonial RenFair. If you want to get the most from the day, you need to interact with the players. My kids loved playing games with the actors, such as the hoops. And if you follow along with the various reenactments, you really can begin to feel and enjoy the spirit of the place.

Walk up and down the streets without interacting, however, and you'll just feel like you're chum for the sharks in a highly-themed shopping mall. With mediocre food.

For real history, though, I much preferred the authenticity of Historic Jamestown:

Jamestown

This is the site of the first successful English settlement in the Americas. (Don't get it confused with the theme park-y re-enactment, Jamestown Settlement, next door.) It's ruin now, but with such powerful history here, actors and reconstructions aren't needed for visitors to feel its ghosts.

Washington, D.C.

Last weekend, we visited Washington, D.C., on our way to Williamsburg. I won't review every detail, but did want to note two worthy choices that many other visitors seem to miss.

Supreme Court of the United States

Ever since Barack Obama moved in, getting tickets into the White House has become next to impossible. And long lines and crowds greet almost all visitors to the Capitol, even with advance reservations through your Representative or Senator. But most of the time, you can walk right into the nation's third branch of government, with few others in your way.

Supreme Court

When the court is not in session (i.e., the summer through September), you can sit in the courtroom itself for hourly talks about the court, given on the half hour. The rest of the building is a shrine to American jurisprudence, and well worth visiting for legal and history geeks, like me. And no lines to get it in.

Mitsitam Cafe, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

This is, simply, the best meal in town. Several of the Smithsonian's cafeterias excel (with the regrettable exception of the one at the most popular museum, Air and Space), but the cafeteria at the American Indian museum resets the standard for what a cafeteria can be.

Let's put it this way, if we made themed museum cafeterias eligible for the Theme Park Insider Award for Best Restaurant, I'd be sending a framed award to Mitsitam next July. It's that good.

How about a cedar-planked, fire-roasted juniper salmon? Or a razor clam stew, with potatoes and leeks, that will be taunting my dreams for weeks to come?

Razor Clam Stew at NMAI

One final tip for D.C. visitors. I'm a big fan of the district's excellent subway system, Metrorail. But if you'll be taking more than one round trip during weekday rush hours, go ahead and pay the $5 for a Smartrip card. That'll save you the soak-the-tourist surcharge that Metrorail charges during rush hours to passengers who don't pay via Smartrip cards.

Tomorrow... our visit to Busch Gardens.

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on July 29, 2009 at 7:37 PM
Excellent!

The food at Williamsburg does not look too bad! Still, looks like a great time. I think I need to make my trip out there!

From James Rao on July 30, 2009 at 4:36 AM
We used that same "babysitting service" when we went to Colonial Williamsburg....

The food, like at any theme park, is overpriced, but it can be part of the fun. A lunch at King's Arm Tavern for example, will run you an arm (and a leg), but you are paying for the atmosphere, as well as lively service and decent enough food (the chicken pot pie was excellent, as was the peanut soup). The character interaction is in many ways similar to a character meal at a Disney park, but instead of Mickey and friends, you might be eating lunch with Patrick Henry and his cronies. Ditto for Chowning's Tavern, however the tomato soup they have is delicious and worth every penny.

Also within the Colonial area, the Raleigh Tavern Bakeshop had decent bakery fare at decent prices. It is good way to start your morning tour in Colonial Williamsburg.

I do agree with your assessment that you have to "get into" the fun of CW, but if you do, the pay off will be nice. Also, each day leads up to some significant historical event, while the whole week culminates in the famous Patrick Henry "give me liberty, or give me death" speech. We had a lot of fun in CW when we went (and personally I dislike Renaissance Festivals, so while the comparison you made is valid, the "actors" at CW are MUCH better than what I have experienced at "Fair"). I highly recommend the area to history buffs and Hall of President fans everywhere! ;)

As for the "theme park-y Jamestown re-enactment", it is also worth a visit, especially if you have kids. The fort, Indian village, and boats are a great way to help bring history to life, so gauge your audience. Historic landmarks are great, but walking through a fort, wearing old time armor, and seeing a musket being fired first hand, those are experiences most kids will treasure.

The Yorktown Victory Center is also very well done, especially for history buffs. It is a shame you missed it.

Two other restaurants in the area we enjoyed were the Carrot Tree Yorktown (great sandwiches, especially the Strawberry Fields croissant) and The Whaling Company, which was wonderful. In fact, WC was the best place we ate at during our Williamsburg trip. It showcased excellent service, atmosphere, and food. I highly recommend the fresh North Atlantic scallops and shrimp (sans the shrooms). The place was right near BGW, but easy to spot and definitely worth a visit.

Lastly, since you mentioned the DC area metro, there is a restaurant at Union Station called "America" that has the best sliders in the world (at least as much of the world as I have had the pleasure to experience!). Did you happen to visit it while you were traveling? Additionally, the National Zoo, if you get a chance to see it, is one of the best zoos in the nation, and it is "free" to all visitors.

Anyway, thanks for the report, Robert, it was a fun read!

From Robert Niles on July 30, 2009 at 4:47 AM
I neglected to mention that we ate at Chowning's Tavern, but we couldn't try their root beer - because their compressor was down.

C'mon... if root beer is your signature item, how on Heaven's earth do you allow a compressor to fail (without backup), keeping you from serving it? At the very least, couldn't someone run over and grab a bunch of bottles from the various gift shops that sell it and make those available in the restaurant?

And the Raleigh Tavern Bakeshop offered only pre-wrapped individual cookies, muffins and cake slices, piled in huge baskets. They were... nice, but the presentation left much to be desired. Again, it's all about atmosphere, and it looked nothing like a colonial bakeshop. The coffee was wretched, too. Go for Aromas in Merchants Square for morning coffee, instead.

I didn't try Jamestown Settlement, and don't want to knock it, but I can see where some folks might get confused and think that actually is the Jamestown settlement. Which, it isn't. It's a recreation, potentially worth doing, but shouldn't be substituted for going next door and seeing the real thing.

Oh, and by the way, please ignore the directions to Jamestown posted on the NPS website. Colonial Highway is closed near Jamestown and you need to go the "back way," past Jamestown Settlement, to get to the historic site.

From James Rao on July 30, 2009 at 7:11 AM
Chownings signature item, IMHO, is the tomato soup. It was delicious. But you're right...all the restaurants in the area are too expensive.

When we went to the bakery in June of 2008 it was just that: a bakery. There were a variety of fresh baked goods mixed with a few prepackaged items. Nothing like cinnamon rolls mind you, but some interesting sweet bread choices and muffins & cookies. I wonder if the economy has forced the place to change its wares a bit? It was really a pretty good bakery when we went. Honest.

As for coffee, no one in my family drinks it, so I can't speak to whether it is good or not. I prefer to take my caffeine in pill form as it is quicker, and has less of a bitter after taste! We did attempt to stop by Aromas for lunch one day, but it was packed (sign of a good place, I guess) and we skipped it. Sounds like we should have been more patient.

Lastly, I wasn't trying to dismiss the actual Jamestowne area at all, just commenting that the recreation is definitely worth your time as well. Similar, in may ways, to visiting a pavilion at Epcot's World Showcase: interesting, educational, and well-themed.

From Elizabeth Gray on July 30, 2009 at 7:17 AM
The DC Ex-Park Serivce employee speaks....

Glad you like the cafe in Smith A. Indian. It is the best Smithsonian meal left. A little expensive, that is why I did not mention it before. Many of the others have fallen by the way side. There use to be a great ice cream shop in American History but alas it is now a crappy vendor. Subway I think.

Chowning's is light fare and not the best meal, though it is the cheapest (I realize that is not saying much). The best meal is a King's Head Tavern or Christiana Campbells. However they are really formal full coarse meals. Also the summer months the food quality does take a noesdive in the Taverns. The best time to visit Williamsburg is in the early fall. Food is alway authentic and great. For BBQ you should had done the 15 minute drive to Pierce's Pit BBQ. Much better for the price. The Cheese Shop in the Marketplace is also off the hook. I forgot to mention that before.

KUDOS for going to the Park Service side of Jamestown!! Granted I am biased but it is some much more interesting than the Amusement park side that everyone else goes to. Did you make it to the Glass Blower? I go there every year a pick a new piece for my collection. The sites speaks for itself and it such a pretty spot.

While I agree that CW is a Amusement Park of sorts it is really quite more than a RenFaire if you know how to work it. Being a Rev War Historian, I have learned how to visit CW and get an educational experience that is enteraining as well. You do need a plan but you also have to know which things to hit. Some of the best programs are the smaller ones where the re-enacters are actually demostrating things and learning how to do them as well. I once was lucky enough to walk in to the Govenor's Palace kitchen as they were LEARNING how to make chocolate the 18th Century way and was able to help. This was one of the best experiences I have had there. I would love to show you how to do CW right. Never the less I hope you had a good time. I would love to hear more details of your DC visit and give you advice for the future. Thanks for visiting my neck of the woods.

From Melissa Faulkner on July 30, 2009 at 8:00 AM
Robert,
What are the prices like in the museum cafeterias in D.C.? We will be touring it in April and need food advice. We are staying at the Holiday in Capitol so we are pretty much right on the Mall. Any food suggestions would be great, thanks.
From Joshua Counsil on July 30, 2009 at 8:10 AM
Good report. Gotta make that trip someday.
From James Rao on July 30, 2009 at 10:00 AM
Melissa, it may not be "on the mall", but America restaurant is right off the mall in Union Station. And while it is not native to DC, the food is outstanding. Plus for around $10 you can get "A Trio of Classic Roadside Sliders with Velveeta Cheese" and you will NOT be disappointed.

Here is their website: ARK Restaurants.

From Elizabeth Gray on July 30, 2009 at 1:16 PM
Hey Melissa, I live in the area and can give you suggestions. Find me on facebook and let me know where in the area you are going to visit.
From 161.44.193.180 on July 30, 2009 at 1:25 PM
I think it was in Bill Bryson's book, _The Lost Continent_, he points out that being an actual town and technically not a privately owned theme park, you don't have to pay to walk around the streets of Williamsburg but only if you want to go into the privately-owned museum buildings. IIRC he says that the whole setup of the turnstiles and everything is intended to make you THINK that you have to pay to go in, but you don't really have to. Is dat da fack Jack? Could save some families a lot of coin if they just want to wander around taking pictures, and don't feel any strong need to operate an 18th C printing press.
From Russell Meyer on July 30, 2009 at 4:58 PM
Sorry Robert, but EVERYONE pays the same for Metro fare whether you have a SmartTrip or not. So, as a tourist, you ended up paying $5 for a card you will likely never use again. The card does have the convenience of allowing you to get out of the Metro parking lots on weekdays and a speedier trip through the turnstyles, but that $5 for a couple of days is really not worth it if you don't live in DC. The SmartTrip also allows you to transfer from rail to bus 1 time without having to pay a bus fare since the system eliminated the paper transfer system.

There is no longer a "rush-hour" fare as Metro has been charging what was called "rush-hour fares" from opening-9:30 AM and 3-7 PM on weekdays and 2 AM-closing on weekends and calling those "regular fares." All other times of the day, riders pay what are called "reduced fares." However, the reduced fares will probably be discontinued with the next fare increase that will likely take effect early next year. Whether you're 5, 25, or 55, from Washington, DC or Walla Walla, Washington, you will still pay the same fare for the same trip at the same time. Metro does offer discounts for senior citizens, allows children under 5 to ride for free, and the federal government picks up a large portion of the tab for its workers to ride the system through the "Metrocheck" program.

However, anyone can get a a 1-day pass, which is good for unlimited rides after 9:30 AM on weekdays and all-day on weekends and holidays at a cost of $7.80. That means it would take 3 long trips (across city lines) or 4-5 short trips to make back its value.

Sorry to debunk your conspiracy that you thought existed, but unfortunately, you fell into the trap that is the SmartTrip system.

From Robert Niles on July 30, 2009 at 9:33 PM
Hi Russell, the stuff I read said that the SmarTrip users got the reduced fare during the times when I was paying the regular fare (during rush hours). Two of our three days were on the weekend, when we paid the reduced fare, so I didn't bother with SmarTrip. But if those reduced fares go away, then you are absolutely correct, there's no reason to sink the $5 into the SmarTrip card.

Anonymous is also correct in that you do not need to pay to get into "the park" section of Colonial Williamsburg. The fee just gets you on the bus and into the museums and exhibit homes. That said, I still think that's worth it. Here's an example: A thunderstorm soaked the area the afternoon we visited. A couple without tickets ran into the Magazine (a ticketed building) to find shelter... and the attendant kicked 'em out, into the pouring rain. They had to find a non-ticketed building to wait the rain out.

Finally, we did visit the glass blower at Jamestown and he was a big hit.

From Elizabeth Gray on July 31, 2009 at 12:01 PM
:)

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