A FAMILY TRIP to Colonial Williamsburg conjures up an expedition requiring weeks of planning and a stay of at least several days. But, for those living in the Washington area, there is another way to let your children absorb the sights, smells and sounds of 18th-century America, so pleasurably recreated by this historic site.

Just go. Go in the next few weeks, in fact, when the dogwoods bloom and the gardens are bright with tulips, daffodils and mountain laurel. Do call ahead to book a room and perhaps a dinner reservation.

But -- and here's the secret -- spend only one night. An overnight stay allows enough time for total immersion in 18th-century Colonial America, yet won't ruin the family budget.

Exactly a three-hour drive from Washington, Williamsburg is too far for a day trip. But overnight, it's special enough to qualify as a major adventure for a child. And frankly, it's seductive enough to please visitors of any age.

Mid-April through late May is a relatively slow time, according to Al Louer, a spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. That is, the spring vacation crowds have left and the summer hordes have not yet arrived.

As the capital of Virginia -- England's largest American colony -- from 1700 to 1780, Williamsburg is laden with political significance. It was here, in the Capitol, that Patrick Henry made his famous "No taxation without representation speech," and that key decisions were made by the patriot leaders as they plotted America's independence.

A tour of the Capitol will explain the history in detail, but with a limited timetable, you may find that younger children are just as happy to skip it and concentrate on the social history of Williamsburg, amply revealed through the dozen or so craft shops.

Peek into the bootmaker's shop to watch Colonial-style buckle shoes being cut and sewn by hand. An 18th-century shoemaker could make two pairs a day. Today, with interruptions from visitors, the output is slower, but still enough to shoe all of Williamsburg's costume-clad employees.

Or visit the Geddy foundry where craftsmen cast items from candlesticks to spoons in the cozy workshop. As in all the craft shops, the pace is leisurely, questions are encouraged, and you feel yourself lulled by the rhythms of 18th-century life.

You might stop in at the Music Teacher's Room to hear a short performance of recorder, harpsichord and violin, as well as an explanation of the instruments.

While the pleasures of Williamsburg are too numerous to list, here are some tips for making a quick trip even more fun: LODGING -- If you call Colonial Williamsburg's toll-free reservation number, you will probably be advised that the Williamsburg Inn -- closest to the historic area -- is completely booked. But don't rule it out. On the morning you arrive, ask at the Visitor Center's lodging desk about cancellations. (This can only be done in person.) Spokesman Al Louer says there's "almost a guarantee" you'll find a room this way.

While it is more expensive, the convenience -- and thrill -- of staying near the historic district are well worth the price. Ask for a room in one of the Inn's annexes, or Colonial houses. Less expensive, several of these are actually located inside the historic area.

By inquiring the day we arrived, eight-year-old Eliza and I were able to get a room for one night, for $95, in the Inn's Brick House Tavern on the Duke of Gloucester Street, which runs through the center of the restored area.

It was worth every dollar. We were shown to our room by a uniformed porter who bicycled ahead of our car. Eliza's eyes widened in amazement when she saw the twin canopied beds . . . and the color television. "It's not at all what I expected," she confided. "I never thought they'd have TVs."

The television did seem a bit incongruous in the restored tavern. But as it turned out, watching TV in bed that night was the perfect remedy for tired feet. FOOD -- Pack a lunch the day you set out for Williamsburg, or plan to stop at one of the several McDonald's just off I-64 south of Richmond as you make your approach to the well-marked Visitor Center.

Don't make the mistake, as we did, of thinking you can indulge in a cozy, Colonial-style lunch at one of the three restored taverns in the historic area. They do not accept reservations for lunch and the lines can be daunting.

Depending on the age of your children, you may want to consider dinner at one of the taverns, decorated in period furnishings and served by costumed waiters. In that case, call as far ahead as possible. LINES -- There's no way around it: You will most likely encounter long lines. Williamsburg attracts 1.75 million visitors annually, a number that has risen steadily in recent years. The worst lines are in front of the Governor's Palace and the Capitol; the shortest waits are in the early morning and during lunch hour. (Even the longest lines are never more than 25 or 30 minutes, Williamsburg spokesmen promise.)

Every morning a line forms in front of the Courthouse of 1770 as visitors try to obtain "same day only" tickets for attractions such as horse-drawn carriage rides and special tours.

If you or your children don't like to stand in lines, don't. There is plenty to see and do in a short visit even if you don't get inside the Governor's Palace or the Capitol.

Instead of a horse-drawn carriage ride, try snagging a seat on the ox-drawn cart that ambles around the Market Square Green. Or duck into the large gardens behind the Palace to explore the canal, a boxwood maze, the fruit garden, bowling green and the coachhouse where the wheelwright is at work. GETTING AROUND -- Wear comfortable shoes and plan to walk a lot. Williamsburg's 173 acres can seem far-flung. But meandering down a grassy lane you may spy a swan in a lush gully, or sheep browsing sleepily in a fenced-in meadow. Peek into the gardens meticulously maintained behind each of the restored houses. Such glimpses of town life are what exploring Williamsburg is all about. ON YOUR WAY HOME -- Plan your exit so that you drive along the winding six-mile country road to Carter's Grove, a restored plantation on the James River. The woodland on either side of the road has been preserved to give visitors a glimpse of 18th-century Tidewater Virginia.

And if you're not completely exhausted, take a 30-minute detour to drive the Colonial Parkway along the York River between Williamsburg and Yorktown. In dogwood season, the route is breathtaking. THE WILLIAMSBURG WAY

If you're heading to Williamsburg, here are some things to keep in mind.

GETTING THERE -- From Washington, take I-95 south to Richmond, then I-64 to Williamsburg. Follow the signs to the Visitor Center. Exactly a three-hour drive from D.C.

RESERVATIONS -- Call 1-800/HISTORY for reservations at lodgings and restaurants operated by Colonial Williamsburg. Call the Chamber of Commerce (1-800/446-9244) for reservations at other hotels and motels. There are about 8,000 hotel rooms in the Williamsburg area. Colonial Williamsburg operates the four hotels closest to the historic area: the Williamsburg Inn (old-style elegance, expensive, rooms from $130 in the main inn; less in annexes such as the Brick House Tavern and Colonial houses; the Williamsburg Lodge (shares pool, tennis courts, golf course with the Inn, rooms from $85); the Motor House (rooms from $71); and the Governor's Inn (a former Sheraton, opening in mid-May, geared to families, rooms from $55).

COLONIAL DINING -- Williamsburg operates three Colonial taverns in the historic area, open for lunch without reservations and for dinner with reservations. Call as far ahead as possible for evening reservations. The three are: King's Arms Taverns, Christiana Campbell's Tavern and Josiah Chowning's Tavern. Less expensive, quick meals can be found at A Good Place to Eat in Merchant's Square (open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., it serves bread and ice cream made by Colonial Williamsburg); the cafeterias in the Motor House and the Visitor Center; the Clubhouse Grill (overlooking the Inn's golf course); and the Williamsburg Lodge coffee shop.

PASSES -- The Patriot's Pass (your photo encased in a plastic clip-on badge) permits unlimited admission to all the major exhibits. $19 for adults and $10 for children six to 12. It also includes the Patriot's Tour, a free two-hour walking tour that leaves from the Courthouse of 1770. Basic admission, permitting entrance to 13 exhibits, is $13 for adults and $6 for adults. The Patriot's Pass, which is valid for a year, is definitely worth the additional cost. SHOPPING -- Colonial reproductions, from hand-dipped soap and hand-made paper to pewter, glass, fabrics, wallpaper and furniture abound. There are several "stores" tucked in between the craft shops and restored homes. The same items and more are sold at the Craft House, between the Inn and the Lodge, and a similar outlet in Merchants Square. There is a good bookstore with a wide range of titles on Colonial America in the Visitor Center. It's worth picking up a copy of the detailed "Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg" ($3.50) to peruse when you get home.

SPECIAL CHILDREN'S PROGRAMS -- Special tours and programs for children ages four through 14 begin June 23 and run through August 24. Tickets ($5 each) must be purchased at the Courthouse of 1770. The tours are scheduled for two hours in the morning or afternoon. If you go before June 23, the children might enjoy the lantern tours, which start nightly from the Courthouse of 1770 at 8:30 p.m. and tour the buildings and craft shops by lantern and candlelight.