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Virginia Travel Tips


Statehouse, Richmond (804) 786-4344
The 1788 Virginia Capitol was designed by Thomas Jefferson while he was living in France as US Ambassador. Jefferson was inspired by the Maison Carree, a first century Roman temple in Nimes, France. As a result, the Virginia Capitol was the first public building in the US designed in the Classic Revival style. Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson would sit for hours staring at the ancient Roman temple. He gave his initial drawings to French architect Charles Louis Clerisseau who completed the plans. The pitched roof outside hides a beautiful dome that rises up from the interior rotunda. Also inside the building is the historic House of Delegates where Aaron Burr was acquitted of treason in 1807 in a trial presided by Chief Justice John Marshall, and where in 1861, Robert E. Lee accepted his command of the Confederate forces. A life-sized bronze statue of Lee stands in the center of the room on the exact spot where 54-year old Lee stood and said, "I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will ever again draw my sword." (Note: The Virginia Capitol served as the Confederate Capitol from 1861-1865.) Outside the House of Delegates, is the Rotunda. A circular room on a checkerboard black and white limestone floor that contains fossils of snails, sea lilies, corals and nautiloids, dating back to 400 to 450 million years ago. Standing on the center of the floor is the life-sized Carrara marble sculpture of George Washington, the centerpiece of the Capitol rotunda, surrounded by a circular wall with alcoves containing marble busts of the seven other US Presidents who were also native sons of Virginia. French artist Jean Antoine Houdin spent two weeks with Washington at his home in Mount Vernon making a face mask. (Supposedly Martha Washington walked in before the cast hardened and George grinned slightly, giving him that "Mona Lisa" smile). During his visit Houdin also took Washington's measurements and studied his features and mannerisms. It's reported that this statue is not only the most priceless statue in US, it's also the greatest likeness of George Washington. "That is the man himself," proclaimed Lafayette when he saw the statue for the first time, "I can almost realize he is going to move."

Check it out . . . The Capitol Courtyard, also designed by Thomas Jefferson, is a beautiful park with an enormous statue of some of the Founding Fathers.

White House of the Confederacy, Richmond (804) 649-1861
Adjacent to the Museum of the Confederacy of Civil War documents, relics, machinery, materiels and personal belongings of famous Confederates, stands the quietly elegant White House of the Confederacy, the executive mansion where President Jefferson Davis and his family lived during the Civil War. After 10 years of restoration and a widespread search for the original furnishings, the mansion has regained its Victorian opulence and its historic significance. Eleven rooms exhibit the lifestyle of Jefferson Davis as he governed the new Confederacy and lived with his young wife and five children. The mansion is full of both happy and sad memories. Throughout the home are public and personal belongings with many fascinating stories associated with each item.(One particularly sad event was the fatal fall of Davis's five-year-old son who had been sliding down the banister of the wrought iron spiral staircase. Davis subsequently had all banisters removed.)

Museum of Virginia History, Richmond (804) 358-4901
The Story of Virginia is neatly organized into six segments, from Pre- colonization through colonial life, to the Revolution, to becoming Americans, to the Civil War, Reconstruction, WWI, WWII and Civil Rights. Each segment is overwhelming full of fascinating artifacts, furniture, clothing, paintings, portraits, diaries, and government documents that clearly depict life in each unique stage of Virginia's history. Telephone handsets with audio recordings that complement many of the exhibits, enable visitors to hear the story behind the visual. And there are many tactile experiences, too. Children (or small-sized adults) can try on colonial garments and see themselves in the mirror provided while reflecting on what it may have been like to perform daily duties in such voluminous attire. One can listen to the music of earlier days, or hop on an actual streetcar from the 1950s. This museum is one of the best arranged, most logically cataloged, and most tactile state museum we've seen, (Kentucky is another), where music, tactile samples and real-life accounts enrich the walk through time.

Check it out . . .One fascinating exhibit of extraordinary detail is a 19th century dollhouse, a complete and thorough replica of a wealthy merchant's home. On the exterior walls of the building, every brick is laid exactly as its life-sized counterpart. The interior rooms and furniture are identical to the actual house. Even the paintings on the wall are miniatures of actual family portraits. And the grandfather clock in the hall keeps real time.

Colonial Williamsburg (800) 447-8679
In 1926 Governor Byrd referred to Virginia as a "virtual museum of the founding and growth of America." That same year the minister of Williamsburg's 300-year old Bruton Parish Church, Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, convinced John D. Rockefeller to fund the restoration of the entire main street area of Virginia's colonial capital. In 1926 an actual town community of 88 Colonial buildings had already existed and work began immediately to restore them to their 18th century appearance. Meanwhile, archeological excavations and archival research was conducted on the hundreds of other private homes and public buildings to recreate them on original foundations. The result is truly amazing. Imagine if Washington DC were frozen today, and then 300 years from now someone were to restore and reconstruct the homes and public buildings. Imagine, too, researchers poring over family and public records to restore not only the buildings, but to recreate the stories of the people who lived and worked in these buildings. That's what Colonial Williamsburg is like. It's overwhelming. The backbone of this historic town is the main thoroughfare, the Duke of Gloucester Street, anchored on one end by William & Mary College, the second oldest college in America (Harvard is the oldest). On the other end of the thoroughfare is the State Capitol building where Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Peyton Randolph and other Revolutionaries met, debated and ultimately took down the British flag and launched a revolution.Walking from one end of the Duke of Gloucester Street, from William & Mary College to the Capitol, one sees the taverns, 18th century grocery stores, apothecaries, milliners, shoemakers, silversmiths, wigmakers, bakers, marketplaces, and parade grounds. It's a living 18th century town where the shopkeepers and artisans continue to make their living as they would have in the 1700s. On the outer streets of the Duke of Gloucester are: The Governor's Palace and gardens, the tenant farmers' dwellings, and other private homes of the famous and the forgotten. Every building has a real story about a real person who lived there, some fantastically famous, some admirably humble. In addition to the college, the Capitol, and he Governor's Palace, is, of course, the ever-present colonial Parish, a huge brick building, restored to its 1693 condition. Oh! And there's even a restored 18th century hospital, the first hospital for the mentally ill. Schools, Hospitals, Legislative Buildings, Taverns, Shops, Tradesmen, Palaces, Mansions . . . the town has everything. The most wonderful thing, of course, is . . . no 20th century intrusions. No telephone poles to ruin a photograph and no noisy automobiles. The only "traffic" are the horses and carriages. Tourists walk the streets among costumed interpreters as they conduct their daily business. It's a fantastic journey into not only a historic town, but a town where the flames of the American Revolution were kindled until the full conflagration erupted.

Tip: There is so much to see and do in Williamsburg, so many things you need to know -- before you arrive -- so, plan ahead! Otherwise, it can be very overwhelming. The various gardens alone could take a week to tour. Call the Visitors Center well in advance for a travel planning package, and do yourself a favor . . . spend the $6.95 for the book, "Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg." It's the best way to immerse yourself in the culture before arriving on the scene, and it will help you isolate the things you wish to see most, for you will have to prioritize. The book is more than a guide about the buildings, it's a wonderful story of the townspeople, beautifully written with great "Meet the People" brief biographies of the people who lived, worked, and went to college here in the 1700s. Not just the Founding Fathers, either, but stories about Indians, slaves, tenant farmers and even an account of how the mentally ill were treated in the Public Hospital.

Tip: The high road and the low road . . .if you're going north from Williamsburg to Richmond, take the more scenic road, Route 5, rather than the interstate, and get an extra treat of seeing the James River Plantations along the way. And if you're going south to Jamestown or Yorktown, take advantage of the glorious 20-mile Colonial Parkway, a meticulously crafted country road that integrates the region's natural beauty and cultural resources into a memorial roadway of exquisite colonial charm.

Colonial National Historic Park
Colonial National Historic Park consists of the original Jamestown site and the Yorktown Battlefield site. The 1936 Colonial Parkway -- a beautiful scenic road, built by the National Park Service -- links these two sites, as well as Colonial Williamsburg noted above, in what's referred to as Virginia's "Historic Triangle." (Note: The sites below describe the Jamestown original site and Yorktown battlefield site maintained by the National Park Service. The state of Virginia also maintains historic sites called the Jamestown Settlement and the Yorktown Victory Center, which can be confusing.We opted for the original sites maintained by the NPS rather than the state's recreated sites, even though the state sites offer costumed interpreters and hands-on experiences (what the lady at the NPS gift store in Jamestown referred to as "conjectured" sites.). The NPS offers the actual sites and relics, the state offers a means to enrich the historical experience. It's probably better to do both, but since time was limited, we chose to see the real thing and let our imaginations do the interpreting.)

Jamestown (757) 229-1733
At the western end of the Colonial Parkway is Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English colony in the New World founded in 1607. Even though Jamestown served as the state capital for almost 100 years, the Old Church Tower is the only original building that survives today (a newer church is attached to it to complete the picture). Oil paintings on a scenic loop road depict the probable appearance of the ruins. The Visitor Center shows an orientation film as well as displaying dioramas, paintings and artifacts found during archeological excavations which continue today, constantly revealing "new" stories about the times. The reconstructed 1608 Glass House replicates an early attempt by the colony to produce glass for British trade. Today glassblowers follow many of the same primitive techniques. It's riveting to watch them in action.

Tip: Don't miss out on the opportunity to purchase the handblown glassware made here. Many of the pieces are replicas of actual artifacts found during Jamestown's archeological digs. We bought a wine decanter that looks exactly like the 380-year old decanter we saw in the museum. Fun.

Yorktown Battlefield (757) 898-3400
The Yorktown Battlefield enshrines the area where the last major battle of the Revolutionary War was fought and won by Washington's troops and French allies over Britain's General Charles Cornwallis. Begin your tour at the Visitor Center. An entertaining film captures the tension of the times and the significance of the battle. Next, tour the indoor museum which features artifacts (including Washington's actual tent), paintings, documents, and a reconstructed section of a gun deck. Next, a driving tour of the battlefield shows cannons, redoubts and markers describing the action that took place at each site. The tour ends at the Moore House (still standing) where the surrender papers were signed. At the end of the Battlefield tour, be sure to tour the small town of Yorktown, within walking distance of the Visitor Center, just past the elegant "Victory Monument." The town's community of 17th century homes and public buildings along its small, main street are a testimony to the hardship the civilians faced during the seige. Cannonballs remain lodged on the exterior walls of many of the homes. Grace Episcopal Church, the marl church built in 1697 (and still offering Sunday services using communion silver dating back to 1649), suffered through the Revolutionary and Civil War, yet stands peacefully steadfast in this quiet community overlooking the York River.

Arlington House, Robert E. Lee Memorial, Arlington (703) 557-0613
George Washington Parkes Custis (George Washington's step-grandson), built this house in 1817. In 1831, the front living room served as the chapel when Custis's daughter, Mary Anna, married Robert E. Lee, at which time, she inherited the mansion. The Lee's lived in the house until 1861 when Lee resigned from the US Army to join the Confederacy. In 1862 Union troops occupied the house which been had confiscated on a tax technicality, and in 1864, a national cemetery was created on 200 acres of the estate. After the war, and after Robert E. Lee's death, George Washington Custis Lee, Lee's eldest son, sued the federal government to return the estate to his family. In 1882 the Supreme Court ruled in Lee's favor and returned the property to him. However, thousands of graves now covered his family estate and Lee sold the property back to the federal government. Today the Lee mansion, Arlington House, is a memorial to General Robert E. Lee, a man loved and respected by both northerners and southerners. Family furniture and heirlooms have been returned and the house has been restored to its 1850 appearance when General Lee and his family lived here. The house is full of not only Lee's history, but the history of George Washington Parkes Custis, an interesting man himself. The Morning Room, once used as a painting studio by George Washington Parkes Custis, shows his enormous painting of his grandfather, George Washington, at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey. A door off from the Morning Room leads to Mrs. Lee's Conservatory, an enchanting room of tall windows and exotic plants. The mansion is a delightful walk into one family's history that began with George Washington and ended with Robert E. Lee.

Check it out . . .The Lee Memorial sits on a hill in a direct line to the Lincoln Memorial, across the Memorial Bridge to Washington, DC. The Memorial Bridge rises over the Potomac River, joining the North and South. No one knows if this symbolism was intentional or Providential.

Check it out . . . Since this is a cemetery where funerals continue to this day, the flag outside the Arlington House is at half-mast, every day except weekends.

Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington (202) 554-5100
Of the 150 national cemeteries Arlington National Cemetery is probably the best known. Seemingly endless rows of simple white headstones follow the curves of this hilly terrain marking the graves of soldiers from every American war, from the Civil War to the Persian Gulf War. The cemetery was created when Civil War casualties overflowed burial grounds in Washington, DC. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs proposed that 200 acres of the confiscated Robert E Lee estate be used for a national cemetery, claiming that "the grounds about the mansion are admirably adapted to such a use." (See Arlington House listing above.) More than 245,000 servicemen are interred among the hilly 612 acres along the Potomac River. All who are remembered here have one thing in common: service to their country. Among those buried are George Washington Parkes Custis (George Washington's grandson), Pierre L'Enfant, (the man who designed Washington D.C,), William Howard Taft, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Omar Bradley, and Joe Louis.

Portsmouth Lightship Museum, Portsmouth (757) 393-8741
Lightships, or "floating lighthouses,"as they were sometimes called, were built to service areas along the coast that could not sustain a land-based lighthouse. The ship's mast was affixed with a lantern equipped with a bright light that could be seen in darkness for 12 miles or more. Manned by a crew of 12-15 men the ship's main purpose was to guide boats safely into harbor at night or in fog conditions. Sometimes, however, emergencies called the ship and crew into lifesaving service, and many lightships were rammed by the very boats they were trying to save. The Lightship Portsmouth is an excellent example of these maritime beacons. Christened as Lightship #101, she began her career March 6, 1912 and was launched on January 12, 1916 for service at Smith Island Shoals off Cape Charles, Virginia. Subsequent missions found her anchored off Cape Henlopen, Delaware and Nantucket, Massachusetts. At every new assignment, she was given the name of the locality. For example, she was named NANTUCKET while stationed in Nantucket, Massachusetts. When she was decommissioned in 1964, the city of Portsmouth requested the old lightship with the hope of restoring her as a historical monument. The ship was donated to the city of Portsmouth who restored to her to her 1916 appearance. The ship was awarded National Landmark status on May 5, 1989, and as is customary with lightships, her name was changed to reflect her new commission: PORTSMOUTH. Visitors are allowed below deck for a tour of the cramped quarters of the captain, the cook and crew who lived on these ships, sometimes as long as six months at a time. These were terribly lonesome conditions, heightened by tension of the endless threat of impending danger.


Anvil Campground, Williamsburg (757) 565-2300
It's difficult to evaluate a campground during its off-season. While we were here the office was closed and the facilities were in a constant state of repair.However, the park is in a great location, close to all the historic sites. And, less than a mile away is a beautiful state park with duck ponds, picnic areas and wonderful walking/hiking trails.

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