At Williamsburg, history does not repeat itself

April 25, 2013

I received the message from the revolutionary agent who, despite her 18th-century dress and speech, had no time for period delivery services. When America’s freedom is at stake, and the park is closing in a few hours, we patriots cannot idle the hourglass waiting for a carrier pigeon or a horseback-riding courier.

My phone bleeped with the next clue in the interactive game “RevQuest: The Lion and the Unicorn.” Ever loyal to the American Revolution and my iPhone, I did as I was told. I could not fail Colonial Williamsburg, as it had not failed me.

Details: Williamsburg-area attractions

My last visit to the Virginia attraction, about 10 years ago, had not fared so well. Let’s just say that after a wearisome butter-churning demonstration, I switched to margarine. I also contracted a phobia of costumed actors.

But the Williamsburg of yesterday is not the same as the Williamsburg of today. History, thank my lucky stars, did not repeat itself on my most recent visit.

Over the years, Colonial Williamsburg and the satellite attractions of Yorktown, Jamestown and Busch Gardens have expanded and evolved, creating new experiences that will surprise return guests. Of course, you can still see the Smiths (tin, silver, black) laboring over their craft, and I assume the cook is still assaulting her butter. But you will also find the new in the old — text-messaging with revolutionaries, for example.

To discover Williamsburg 2.0, I returned a few weeks ago with an open mind, a rejuvenated sense of curiosity and a charged cellphone — because despite the progress, Colonial Williamsburg does not have outlets.

Jamestown

Significant birthdays require over-the-top presents. You wouldn’t give your 99-year-old uncle a striped tie for his centennial, would you?

In 2007, Jamestown Settlement commemorated the 400th anniversary of the community’s founding by enlarging and updating the state-operated museum, which originally opened in 1957 for the 350th milestone. The gift to America’s first permanent English colony included new exhibits and galleries inside and out. A series of artifact-packed rooms, for instance, delves into the lifestyles and traditions of the English, the Powhatan Indians and African cultures; you can sample the Algonquian language, a form of which the Powhatan people spoke, and stroll down a mock English lane complete with tenements and barking dogs. The renovation plan also injected more juice into its life-size re-creations of James Fort, a Powhatan village and a landing dock with replicas of the ships that crossed the Atlantic, landing in Virginia in 1607.

At the Powhatan village, a female interpreter dressed in tawny animal skins explained that the setting was based on a 400-year-old community that lived five miles down the road. She encouraged me to step inside any of the five houses on display, where the interior decor was wall-to-wall road kill. Outside one abode, a woman sewed tiny shells onto an animal hide dress that she had created from scratch. Across the way, a woman tended a garden. She was all alone — where were all of the Powhatan men? — so I gave her a hand with the digging. I pushed the soil around using a long wooden staff with a knobby end, hoping the tractor would be invented within the next five minutes.

The village seamlessly segues into the dock and the three vessels, Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, resting quietly on the James River. Depending on the hour, you can help raise or lower the sail and the flag. Or you can just board a ship and listen to engrossing stories about the 144-day crossing. You want one? How about: Out of a total of 105 passengers and 39 crew members, only one Englishman died. The cause of death, said the sailor with the Papa Smurf beard and culottes, was that his “fat melted,” which in modern-day lingo means “heat stroke.”

Up a slight hill, kids in metal breastplates and helmets were running alongside chickens at the faux James Fort, a collection of thatched-roof buildings including an Anglican church (so Spartan), a two-room dwelling with a kitchen (fowl for dinner again?) and beds (my, what flat mattresses you have), and the governor’s house, which will open this summer.

“Everything here is real, but not real-old,” said the weaponry expert in the blacksmith’s forge. “I’m not going to shoot a 400-year-old musket.”

He did, however, grab a firearm off the wall and then Pied Pipered our group to an open-air stage with a back wall of trees. He warned that anyone sensitive to loud sounds should cup their hands over their ears, a primitive form of Bose noise-cancellation headsets. I still jumped, but the technique definitely softened the aural blow.

The shiniest of the new exhibits at Jamestown Settlement is “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution,” which opened in March, runs through Jan. 20 and acts as a harbinger of good attractions to come. The more than 60 items on display are only squatting in Jamestown Settlement until their permanent residence at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown opens in late 2016. The facility will replace and one-up the Yorktown Victory Center with exhibits and an outdoor living-history section that sounds very familiar (hint: Jamestown Settlement).

“The new museum will give visitors a fuller picture of the American Revolution,” said Tracy Perkins, a spokeswoman with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. “You get the full story from beginning to end.”

The storyline of the American Revolution Museum is less complete: Construction started last year and is in the parking lot phase. Not much to see, unless you are a scholar of gravel piles.

The Jamestown exhibit, meanwhile, provides a satisfying sampling of the museum-in-progress. A life-size coronation portrait of King George III and a copy of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpture of George Washington appropriately bookend the show. In between, I gained an appreciation of the patriots’ punk sensibilities through such objects as a Bible with blacked-out references to the king and a 1765 teaspoon engraved with the saying “I love liberty” and the image of a bird escaping its cage. Fly, free bird, fly.

If you stumbled across the James Fort at Historic Jamestowne, around the bend from the settlement, you might think that the American Revolution Museum construction had migrated west. But, no, the site always looks dirty and dog-bone dug up. And it will remain so as long as William Kelso and his team of archaeologists continue to unearth structures and items from the 1607 trove.

“It’s so loaded with artifacts,” said Kelso, as we stood over a trench containing a 17th-century kitchen with two clay ovens, “it’s going to take us a long time” to excavate the site.

The scientists dig on weekdays, weather dependent, and encourage visitors to stand on the sidelines and cheer their progress. Guests can even earn the privilege of saying, “I was there when . . .” the team discovered the chapel where Pocahontas and John Rolfe wed, or found the grave of a teenage boy killed by Native Americans, or pulled up an ivory sundial from 1610. Not to give away any great reveals, but at the kitchen dig, Kelso expects to find food remnants, cooking implements and the bones of dogs and butchered horses.

Many of the Jamestown Rediscovery finds are housed in the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, another gift for the 400th birthday. The repository contains such James Fort artifacts as the skeleton of the captain of Godspeed, which contains a mouthful of perfect teeth, and buttons, glass bottles and a flintlock pistol from the Civil War period. A corner of the museum also showcases the more recent discoveries, including last year’s sundial and burgonet helmet.

When I bumped into Kelso at the archaearium, I asked him whether any discovery caused his heart to flutter. He led me to a freestanding glass case where a palm-size slate appeared to levitate.

“It is literally a tablet,” he said of the treasure found in a cellar well in 2009, “that was used over again. . . . It connects to Shakespearean English.”

The ancient writing pad was covered in sloppy scribbles. I could make out birds, plants, a stick figure and, with the help of informational placards, a man in a ruff collar and Venetian breeches and a woman in a doublet vest with padded shoulder wheels and a pleated skirt over hip pads. The slate spoke to me. It said, “Honey, fashions may come and go, but doodling is always in style.”

Busch Gardens Williamsburg

If you want to hear about Mach Tower, the tallest ride in the park, I can provide a review only from the ground. Based on my observations, you will be strapped to the outside of a massive doughnut and dropped 238 feet. You will scream until your lungs are raw and then dizzily walk to the nearest bench and reassess your life.

Now if you care to learn about Verbolten, which opened last year, come take a seat beside me in the German sports car. Don’t forget to lower the safety bar.

The thrill ride, set in the German quadrant, opened last year and involves a scary-scenic auto tour of Deutschland run by Gerta and Gunter. But don’t fall for the cute sibling act: The two are the evil twins of Hansel and Gretel.

While the line wormed its way through a faux ticket office decorated with touring posters and gnomes, I chatted up a mom and her cricket-size son. I wanted intel. She said the word on the street was that Verbolten was less of a coronary risk than the twisting and twisted Loch Ness roller coaster. She mentioned some moments in the dark of the Black Forest and a surprise that I will not give away. But here is some sound advice: Don’t eat schnitzel before you board the car.

After hobbling off the ride, slightly coaster sick, I decided to skip the Griffon (hurtle down 205 feet at a 90-degree angle) for a tamer activity: playing with wolves.

In 2009, the Williamsburg-area attractions started to pull back the Oz curtain, allowing insider peeks and close-up interactions with roller coasters, archaeological digs, Clydesdales and collies, wolves and, this year’s addition, birds of prey. Busch Gardens also gave the wild kingdom inhabitants some extra love, renovating the eagle habitat this year and amping up animal interactions on the walking path.

Our group of five met at Wolf Haven, a narrow yard that resembles a dog show agility course. Before we could cavort with the wolves, Megan Glosson, a zoological supervisor, needed to first train us. She described the teaching process, tossing out such instructive phrases as “positive reinforcement,” “bridging stimulus” and “LRS,” or least reinforcing scenario, which basically means that the wild animals are never forced to perform and are free to go about their wolf business at any time.

For the demo, Megan positioned herself on a Juliet balcony, a few feet from Maska and Kitchi, a pair of nearly 4-year-old males. They stood like sculptures on log posts, their long gray faces turned to hers. She shouted “Place!” and then “Okay!,” a verbal pat on the back for a job well done. They remained frozen on their stools, awaiting a treat.

The rescue animals have learned 45 to 100 behaviors, such as how to move from one spot to another (called A to B), jump over hurdles and nose-kiss a ball. When my turn arrived, I stood on the balcony with Megan and shouted, “Ball!” Kitchi jumped off the pedestal, leaped into the air and gently touched his nose to the dangling orb. Contact made. I shouted an encouraging “Okay!” and tossed him a meaty treat, which he snapped up with open jaws.

What a good Canis lupus.

Colonial Williamsburg

Agent 368 and I got off to a rough start.

“Madam, you will put us in danger,” the female revolutionary said to me sternly. “Do you really want to put all of these people in danger?”

The rebel in me wanted to respond, “Hey, Little Miss Revolution, if this really is 1776, then you don’t even know what a Canon point-and-shoot camera is!” But instead I lowered my camera and meekly said, “No, I don’t.” I was determined to stay within the confines of the game and the era.

One aspect of Colonial Williamsburg never changes: The enactors do not break character. This can cause a squall of confusion. For example, at R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse, which joined the Duke of Gloucester streetscape in 2009, the proprietress asked us where we came from. I answered Washington. Right answer for 2013; wrong response for 1776, 14 years before the founding of the nation’s capital.

“Which side of the river, north or south?” she asked.

“Uh, north,” I answered without thinking.

“So you are from Maryland?”

“No, south.”

“Then you are from Virginia.”

“Forget it. I’m actually from Canada,” I said, not wanting to play along anymore.

When the mistress of java served us cold coffee, no Stevia, I knew that it was time to return to my own century.

To its credit, Colonial Williamsburg knows that to keep its guests engaged, especially those from Generation OMG, it must cross enemy lines into the 21st century. In 2011, it introduced “RevQuest: Save the Revolution!,” a scavenger hunt based on traditional sleuthing and text messaging.

“This is made for kids,” said Frankie Klaff, a child psychologist whose two grandchildren were racing around Revolutionary City with her iPhone. “It combines an old-fashioned treasure hunt with what kids relate to — texting.”

The game features three rolling installments with different plotlines, characters, challenges and conclusions. When I purchased my admission ticket, I received a packet stamped with “Secret,” plus a bright red bandanna. I was officially a Questor. According to the materials, I was about to set out on a mission to “Avert the Crisis and Save the Revolution.” No pressure.

A thin pamphlet provided long poetic clues and a text number I would punch in for additional information. To complete the mission, I would have to visit several businesses and establishments in the historic district — the park’s way of sneaking the equivalent of vegetables into my meal of a visit. The first command was to go to the Governor’s Palace gate and follow the eyes of the Unicorn west. Cryptic but not impenetrable: I saw other red-kerchiefed players congregating at the Robert Carter House and followed them.

After receiving our orders from 368 — “We will meet again. If so, it will be as strangers” — I set off, heading east across the green, as instructed. However, instead of trying to decipher the clue, I decided to change tactics. I would form a troop of Questors; Frankie donated her grandkids to my cause.

Tali, 11, and Cale, 8, were invaluable compatriots. They were resourceful: When we had to look for a torn sheet of paper in a “dreaded” place, Tali flicked on the flashlight app on her grandmother’s iPhone. And they were dogged: After three texts informing us that “Some trickster, perhaps, has led you astray,” Cale finally cracked the code. Of course, I contributed as well. I lent them my pen, which we needed to jot answers in our booklet.

Hours later, we reached the Resolution, where a patriot awaited. (Frankie noted how the diversion distracted the kids from their hunger.) For our efforts, he gave us a special coin (I oddly earned two) and a card with a Web site, in case we cared to submit any comments.

“Did you have fun saving this country?” asked the patriot. “If you want to save it again, come back in June.”

In Colonial Williamsburg, the revolution never ends, and America will always need me. That’s reason enough to come back.

Andrea Sachs (not the one who wears Prada) has been writing for Travel since 2000. She travels near (Ellicott City, Jersey Shore) and far (Burma, Namibia, Russia), and finds adventure no matter the mileage. She is all packed for the Moon or North Korea, whichever opens first.
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