If you think Colonial Williamsburg is the Republican Disneyland, you haven't been there in a while.
The nation's largest living history center near Newport News, Va., once had that reputation in the way it depicted the American Revolution: white men waving flags and guns. But that's been banished, along with George Washington's cherry tree.
Now, visitors can hear from slaves debating whether to take up the offer to fight for the British and gain their freedom. They can quiz Patrick Henry on why he thought the Constitution was a bad idea, or listen to the complaints of Native Americans.
But if you've read any of the bestselling books on the period, like Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers or Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, you know that once the Founders are taken off the pedestal and dusted off, their story becomes even more compelling. The noble vision implemented by imperfect people makes their achievements all the more astounding.
One comes away from a visit to Williamsburg even more appreciative of the freedoms we take for granted. Patriotism is not something the Tea Party should have a monopoly on.
But would you want to take your family there on a vacation? For those of us who don't remember much from school about American history and whose kids find the Revolution irrelevant to their problems, the answer is that this is the best way to bring that period alive.
Colonial Williamsburg is the restored 301 acres of what was Virginia's capital during the turbulent period from 1699 to 1780 (when it was moved to Richmond). It is close to Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement, and Yorktown, where the Americans finally defeated the British. All three can be seen in four days and the big surprise is that they're all exciting places to learn for the whole family.
As experienced travelers know, half the success of a trip comes from good preparation. Read The Official Guide to America's Historic Triangle and go through The American Revolution for Kids by Janis Herbert together. Also, watch the early episodes of the outstanding documentary America: The Story of Us (adults should also watch Terrence Malick's The New World for a vivid retelling of the Jamestown story).
At www.colonialwilliamsburg.org you can look at the schedule of special events for the time you want to visit.
We asked about the best bed-and-breakfast in the area and everyone referred us to Cedars of Williamsburg, the oldest in the area, famous for its hospitality and located in a quiet area a short walk from the historic district.
Take the shuttle once you arrive to the Visitors Center and start with the overview film. Also, browse the terrific bookstore, where you can read the dust jackets of books about American history to get an idea of what you may have been missing (better than trying to search online).
The Center is where your kids -- and perhaps you -- can start playing RevQuest, a clever three-hour game that takes participants across the historic district as spies for the Revolution (in case you haven't heard, AMC's hot new TV series Turn is about George Washington's spy ring).
There are lots of opportunities to travel back in time along the Duke of Gloucester Street, where dozens of buildings are open to learn how the mentally ill were treated, how food was prepared without modern conveniences, or how the courts tried to deliver justice.
The street bursts with activity from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. each day, as actors put on mini-plays in the street and on stages, interacting with visitors as they recruit for the revolutionary army, debate the news, or discuss their hardships, making the challenges resonate for today.
]In the evening, there is everything from candlelight tours of haunted houses to lessons in colonial dancing.
Colonial Williamsburg's motto is "that the future may learn from the past." The Founders, warts and all, were willing to sacrifice everything for principles remain inspiring. The central message: citizens need to be informed and active and we can't afford to take our freedoms for granted.
Jamestown and Yorktown
Less than a half hour away from Williamsburg at opposite ends of Colonial Parkway are Jamestown and Yorktown. Inexplicably, the free shuttle between the three sites was recently canceled, so you'll need a car and the closest and cheapest is B&W Rental 800-899-2271 (on weekends it closes at noon, while most places to visit are open until 5, so plan accordingly).
We drove one afternoon to the two Jamestowns and you need at least two hours at each. First, we went through the outstanding museum at Jamestown Settlement, where a nonprofit that has recreated the fort that was built after the community was founded in 1607. This allows visitors who really see and understand it (including the role of Pocahontas in saving the life of its leader, Captain John Smith, and providing food to the settlers when they were starving).
The original site of the fort is run by the U.S. Park Service, Historic Jamestowne. See the introductory film, the archaeological dig, and the amazing museum (which documents the cannibalism that some turned to).
There are also two Yorktowns. You can drive around the Colonial National Historic Park Battlefield's key points before the Visitors Center opens at 9 a.m. Plan to spend an hour inside -- the film gives a good overview of what happened when American and French troops cornered British forces and determined world history. After following the history from Jamestown and Williamsburg, one has to be astounded by the Revolutionaries' belief they could defeat the greatest empire in history.
The movie at the Yorktown Victory Center (same web site as Jamestown Settlement) takes a dramatized approached to what life was like for the ordinary American soldier. You will need a couple of hours to go through the excellent museum, which looks at the archaeology done on British ships that were sunk before the battle, while outside there is a Continental Army encampment and period farm.
The takeaway is that the roots of today's multicultural and entrepreneurial American culture go back to the beginning, when only those willing to take enormous risks and work with others who were very different sailed for the New World.
"America's Historic Triangle" is the best package deal for seven days at all five places: $88.50 for adults, $38.75 ages 6-15 (available on the web sites and there are other attractions in the area to fill out a vacation).