Day 7, October 14, Sunday – before driving south toward Colonial Williamsburg we drove for about an hour around Arlington – by the Pentagon and by the Arlington National Cemetery. Pentagon was huge boring gray building, not particularly esthetically pleasing. In order to visit Arlington National Cemetery we had to park pretty far away and then walk to the cemetery. Given our limited time we decided to leave it for our next visit.
Our next short stop was in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. It was located across the Potomac River from the downtown Washington. Alexandria was founded 1n 1749. However, the first settlement was established there in 1695 in what was then the English Colony of Virginia. We spent about an hour walking along old streets, beautiful waterfront and visiting art studios located at Torpedo Factory Art Center. Alexandria was very pleasant and relaxing city with cobblestone streets, colonial houses and churches.
After driving south for a while and passing Richmond (actually bypassing since we did not drive through it) we took Virginia Route 5 toward Williamsburg. We wanted to visit old plantations that were located along this route. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the first plantation (Shirley Plantation) it was already 4:30 PM so we positive that it was already closed. However, we still decided to check the grounds. To our surprise, they were about to start their last tour and waited for us while we paid for our tickets.
It was very interesting tour that was limited only to the first floor of the Great House (built in 1738) because the descendents of the original owners still live on the second and third floors of the building! The house was stunning and imposing and sat on the banks of the James River. Our tour guide told us about the Hill-Carter family, showed original family furnishings, portraits, silver, and hand-carved woodwork. Current inhabitants of the house belong to eleventh generations of the original family. Shirley Plantation is still the working farm that is America’s oldest family owned business since 1638! To this day, the eleventh generation continues to own, operate, and work this grand southern plantation. They started with growing tobacco as most of early Virginia farms did but later turned to different crops including cotton since tobacco was completely depleting soil of the nutrients.
Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the Great House but here is interesting site about Shirley Plantation that has a picture of their seemingly-unsupported "flying staircase" that supposedly is the only example of such a staircase remaining in North America:
In terms of military history, the plantation served as a supply depot for the Continental Army during the Revolution and as a field hospital for Union forces during the Civil War. Union General George McClellan spared Shirley from destruction in return for the care provided to wounded soldiers by the Carter family.
One other interesting thing was that all of the bricks used for the houses were made on-site. During the 18th century, it was common practice to make bricks as close as possible to a building site, as was the case at Shirley, in order to avoid transporting them. It was not cheap even in those days but the Carters family was one of the wealthiest in America so they could afford brick not just for the main house but also for other buildings.
The house was surrounded by several support buildings, including a two-story kitchen with living quarters, a two-story laundry with living quarters, a smokehouse, a stable building, an ice house, a large storehouse, and a dovecote.
On a way back to the main road we were able to see cotton harvesting which was quite educational to watch. Unfortunately, it was getting too late to visit other plantations so went directly to Williamsburg.
Before checking into hotel, we had dinner in Food For Thought, pretty highly rated restaurant in Williamsburg. We found it totally over-rated. We had mussels in cream sauce for appetizer (fresh, tasty and light). Then I had their famous Crab Cakes (fine but nothing special) and Alex had Swordfish special (nothing special about it; the swordfish actually tasted pretty fishy). We also ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir which was barely drinkable. In addition, there menu was written in cutesy language which was annoying and difficult to read. This was definitely one of the places we were not planning visiting again.
On a different note, we loved our hotel - The Williamsburg Hospitality House – large, clean nicely furnished room and friendly staff. The entire hotel’s décor was very much in line with Colonial Williamsburg theme.
Our hotel was located across the street from College of William and Mary (founded in 1693; the second-oldest institution of higher education in the United States after Harvard University) and only short walk to Colonial Williamsburg. We had breakfast in their restaurant. This was the very first time I tasted real Virginia ham and Southern comfort food – grits. While I loved Virginia ham, grits was another story. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of grits:
Grits (also sometimes called sofkee or sofkey from the Muskogee word) are a food of Native American origin common in the Southern United States and mainly eaten at breakfast. They consist of coarsely ground corn, or sometimes alkali-treated corn (hominy). Grits are similar to other thick maize-based porridges from around the world, such as polenta, or the thinner farina.
Here is my definition – totally tasteless unpalatable hot white stuff one must to grow with to appreciate it. It was served with cheese on top which did not help it a bit. Definitely not something I am planning cooking at home.
Day 8, October 15, Monday - after breakfast we left our car at hotel and walked to the Colonial Williamsburg - a living history museum. “From 1699 to 1780, Williamsburg was the capital of England’s oldest, richest and most populous mainland North American colony and the seat of power in the new nation’s most influential state. Named in honor of William III, King of England, and designed by Royal Gov. Francis Nicholson, Williamsburg is one of the country’s oldest planned communities.
Encompassing 301 acres, Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area re-creates 18th-century Williamsburg as it appeared preceding and during the American Revolution. Throughout the city, sights, sounds, and activities help guests reconnect with America’s past and become active participants in 18th-century life. “
“The combination of restoration and re-creation of the entire colonial town attempts to re-create the atmosphere and the ideals of 18th-century American people and revolutionary leaders. Interpreters work and dress as they did in the era, using colonial grammar and diction.”
Unfortunately, as with the most of our trip, we did not plan well and could not afford several hours needed for full submersion in history. We still had long drive ahead of us and also wanted to visit couple plantations and possibly Thomas Jefferson’s house. So instead of buying tickets and visiting every event and show we just walked through the town for a couple of hours. We absolutely have to come back with more time on hand.
To be continued...