Road trip! Destination: Virginia's James River area

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 7:39 p.m.

The James River Peninsula often becomes an “en route” part of a trip to Virginia's ocean communities or even North Carolina's Outer Banks.

But it is much more than that. It also is quite a bit more than Williamsburg, the remade colonial village that perhaps has become its best-known spot.

It is a spot of much historical significance, being the home of the first attempt at British colonization and the site of the climactic battle in the War for Independence.

Beyond that, however, a group of plantations displays an agrarian culture that created a gigantic difference in thinking that led to the Civil War.

It is more than a place to pass through.

A word of caution, though: Days can be hot and humid down there. It seems only natural the Busch Gardens theme park there would have a sister site named Water Country, U.S.A.

The James River area is about 390 miles away from Pittsburgh.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

King for a day

A visit to Colonial Williamsburg is a trip back in time.

Not only have the homes and businesses been restored, cars are not permitted to ruin the 18th-century feeling, period music drifts from various sites and re-enactors imitate famed historic figures, such as Patrick Henry.

So, park your car and forget about it. The area is small enough to handle on foot, but there are some free shuttle buses that circulate the fringes.

During the day, of course, the village is crowded with tourists. Sometimes, the busy atmosphere can take away some of the historic feeling.

For that reason, plan to have a dinner in town, then go for a walk along the quiet streets.

During the day, though, take advantage of the events, talks and concerts that are constantly offered.

Details: 757-220-7645 or

No place like home

Throughout the James River area, a world of places to stay makes vacation planning easy.

But, mind you, don't forget the word “planning.” The area gets busy, so it's important to book a room.

One of the best ways to enjoy the area is to stay in one of the 29 colonial homes restored and for rent in Colonial Williamsburg itself. Right in the historic area, the homes are decorated in colonial fashion, but still have those important amenities our ancestors did not. Indoor toilets, for one.

Also, since they are in the historic area, they are quiet at night or early in the morning before visitors flock in. The area is perfect for quiet walks.

Rentals range from $150 to $405 a night, and there are 79 rooms spread throughout the buildings. Some buildings have only one sleeping room, making it really seem like home.

Details: 800-447-8679 or

The first to have a go at it

Just when Williamsburg is looking old, a trip to nearby Jamestown seems in order.

It predates the colonial capital.

The Jamestown settlement began in 1607 and was the first English settlement in the New World. The visitors center at Jamestown has galleries and a film that looks at the cultures of the Europeans, Africans and Powhatan Indians who met at the site.

By 1611, two other settlements were established beyond Jamestown, which should have given the Powhatans an idea of what was to come.

The Jamestown historic site also features re-creations of a Powhatan village, a colonist's fort and the three small ships that brought the English here, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery.

Details: 757-253-4838 or

Getting the job done

When George Washington led the Continental Army to victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the fact of the matter was clear.

The British finally realized they were not about to defeat the uppity colonials. The Marquis de Lafayette, who led the French forces that were a big part of the victory, said at the time “the play is over.” He was right, and the Yorktown Victory Center chronicles the years of revolt that surrounded this pivotal moment in the history of the United States.

Exhibits talk about the people who lived in the area, details of the siege and the British ships lost in the York River.

Outside, there is a Continental Army encampment. An 18th-century farm provides a look at life minus the intrusion of soldiers.

Details: 757-253-4838 or

A symbol of the South

After the first, rugged settlements and the development of an 18th-century urban community, the James River area began to be the site of residences that have become symbolic of the South: plantations.

While this area is generally thought of in colonial terms, eastern Virginia is the heart of antebellum, agricultural life.

Loosely joined as a group called James River Plantations, five magnificent residences offer treasures from three centuries in Charles City County between the James Rand Chicahominy rivers.

Shirley (804-829-5121) was Virginia's first plantation and dates to 1613. Sherwood Forest Plantation (804-829-5377) was the home of President John Tyler from 1842 to 1862. Westover (804-829-2882) was built in 1730 by William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond. Evelynton (800-473-5075) was part of a Byrd expansion and named after his daughter, but since 1847 it has been in family of Edmund Ruffin, who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War. Berkeley (804-829-6018) is believed to be the site of the first official Thanksgiving in 1619.

Information on the plantations where tours are offered is at

Look away, Dixieland

While the James River area is known mostly for its role in early America, the area was an important site in the Civil War. Nearby Petersburg presented a bulwark to the Confederacy that, when it fell, spelled the end of the war.

Petersburg was an important transportation site with rail yards that presaged the giants of the 20th century. Capturing those yards became part of the strategy to taking the Confederate capital in nearby Richmond and led to a nine-month siege.

Details of that siege and life as a Civil War soldier can be seen at Pamplin Historic Park, also home of the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, which tells the stories of the combatants. The Battlefield Center, located near the zig-zagging Confederate defenses, talks about the battle itself and how the fall of Petersburg meant the fall of the Confederacy.

Details: 804-861-2408 or

To get closer to the action, stop at the Petersburg Battlefield Park (804-732-3531 or, where the story of the battle is told at the Eastern Front Visitor Center. The site of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters is an examination of the huge supply base and hospital he had there.

Easing up a little bit

While focusing on various eras of history is a challenging and satisfying pursuit, there's nothing wrong with having a little fun. Nearby Busch Gardens offers that with its assortment of coasters and thrill rides, collections of animals, as well as a variety of places to dine and shop.

The rides are the biggest attraction, naturally, with bare-knuckle beauties such as the Loch Ness Monster and Alpen Geist, in which riders are flipped through some inversions at speeds up to 67 miles an hour.

One-day passes begin at $70. Details: 800-343-7946 or

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