A living monument to a resonant period in American history, Colonial Williamsburg is part architectural showplace, part history museum and part interactive theater where the routines and rituals of life more than two centuries ago are reenacted every day.

In this restored historic area, visitors can engage actors portraying George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry in a debate on our precious freedoms; listen as "Matthew and Mary Ashby" challenge the colony's unfair taxation of free black families; and debate the rights of man and slavery with statesman "George Wythe." And in the same area you can explore 88 restored 18th-century houses, shops, taverns, dependencies and public buildings, featuring 200 period rooms displaying more than 100,000 artifacts from the Colonial era.

The irony for Williamsburg is that the very revolution it nurtured in its government halls and taverns proved its undoing: In 1780, the government was moved to Richmond for safety from British attacks, never to return. And for 150 years, Williamsburg withered. The resurrection of Williamsburg began in 1926, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. became a convert to the vision of a minister named W.A.R. Goodwin, who dreamed of a Williamsburg whose historic buildings, Colonial homes and gardens would be restored to their original majesty. Rockefeller and his family made the dream reality.

More than a half-century later, Colonial Williamsburg is a museum where visitors can feel, touch, taste and experience the past.

Must-Sees

The first stop must be the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center (between Route 132 and Colonial Parkway, watch for signs; 800/447-8679). Here you will find maps and program schedules and here is where you can buy your pass. There are three levels of one-day admission passes. The basic ticket ($27 adults, $16 children 6 through 12, younger free) includes an orientation walk, the trade sites, homes, shops and exhibition buildings, plus the DeWitt Wallace Gallery and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center. The Colonist's Pass ($31, $18 children, 5 and younger free) includes all of the above plus Bassett Hall, the former Williamsburg home of John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Carter's Grove, a plantation outside of Williamsburg. The top pass is the Patriot's Pass ($35, $20 children), which includes everything, plus parking and a 20 percent discount on evening programs (except in holiday season).

There are two special programs for children: The Young Colonials Club (800/447-8679, Ext. 5399), for children ages 5 through 12, offers two supervised afternoon and evening programs, with activities that may include lawn bowling, helping with household chores, picnicking, swimming and a visit to the Governor's Palace Maze. The "Felicity in Williamsburg" program (800/404-3371) allows young girls to immerse themselves in the world of Felicity Merriman, one of the five historical dolls in the American Girls collection (program offered Sept. 4-Dec. 19, except Dec. 5). Children can also rent Colonial costumes at a booth on Market Square.

And what will you see in the historic area, which is one mile long and a half-mile wide? Some of the major sites include the Governor's Palace (for information on any of these specific sites, call 800/447-8679), where the 18th-century Colonial governors lived and ruled. Don't miss the formal gardens behind the palace or the dependencies, particularly the kitchen, where demonstrations of Colonial cooking are held, and the coach house, where a wheelwright demonstrates his trade. The Capitol, where the House of Burgesses and the courts met, was the political center of Colonial Williamsburg, and reenactments today focus on the major events of those turbulent times, including Patrick Henry thundering his defiance of the King in 1765 and Richard Henry Lee's move for independence on June 7, 1776. And more historic buildings and shops line the streets, including a public gaol (jail), a lodging house and an octagon brick magazine that was used to store arms and ammunition as far back as 1715. Here also you can see tradesmen's shops and workplaces, where skilled artisans use 18th-century tools to forge iron and steel, make bricks, work with leather, weave clothing, cobble shoes and build the furniture of the day.

Museums in the historic area also focus on America's past: The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center has perhaps the best collection of American folk art in the nation, and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery is a showcase of 11,000 decorative wonders from the 17th to early 19th centuries. Six miles east of Colonial Williamsburg on U.S. 60 is Carter's Grove, a magnificent Georgian mansion and plantation built in 1755 on the banks of the James River.

There is more to see than buildings and formal gardens. Entertainment, educational events, parades, demonstrations and concerts fill each day and evening. The daily programs of activities, available at the Visitor Center and the various inns and hotels, are keyed to seven specific events in Williamsburg's past that trace the city's history from the high point of its relationship with the British Crown to revolution and eventual independence. Check each day's program for activities, concerts, walking tours and entertainment.

There is an intensified emphasis on slaves and free African Americans who made up 52 percent of the residents of Williamsburg during the Colonial era. Educational programs and street dramas bring to life such subjects as the troubles that surface when a young enslaved couple decides to get married. (Note: Not all of these programs are intended for children. Check the program guide for warnings of mature subject matter.) The street dramas have proven so realistic that visitors have sometimes disrupted the dramas.

Special walking tours explore such subjects as the shops and workplaces; legends, ghosts and myths of the town; and music of the period. And there are even court trials, where you can cast your vote on the fate of an accused witch and Blackbeard's first mate, the pirate Israel Hands.

Colonial Parkway, a serene and lovely drive, connects two other nearby historic sites: Jamestown, the site of the first colony, and Yorktown, where British General Cornwallis surrendered and independence was won. The National Park Service operates the Jamestown Colonial National Historical Park (757/229-1733), which has a visitor center with films, exhibits, a gift shop, a reconstructed Colonial glass kiln where demonstrations of glass blowing are presented and the modest ruins of the original town. Nearby, the Jamestown Settlement (Route 31 at the James River; 888/593-4682) is the re-creation of the colonists' first village.

In Yorktown, the Yorktown Victory Center (888/593-4682) and the Colonial National Historical Park (757/898-3400), which includes Yorktown and Yorktown Battlefield, depict the events leading up to the revolution and offers exhibits on life in the colonies.

When to Go

"Volunteers" will converge on Colonial Williamsburg Sept. 4-5 for "A Call to Arms: A Muster of Troops and the 1st Virginia Convention," a program depicting the deterioration of relations between the colonists and Britain and the rise of local militia. Call 800/246-2099. The most popular season in Williamsburg is the Christmas holidays, when concerts, bonfires, special dinners and other activities bring the Colonial yule to life. Make your plans very early in the year if you wish to visit during the last half of December. Call 800/447-8679.

Where to Stay

All of the major chain hotels and motels have locations in Williamsburg. Inside Colonial Williamsburg, visitors can stay in accommodations ranging from the luxurious Williamsburg Inn to the more moderately priced Williamsburg Lodge, Williamsburg Woodlands or Gover-

nor's Inn. For a special experience stay in one of the 80 rooms in the restored Colonial houses in the historic area. Please ask about the special packages that include passes, guides, breakfast and golf, depending on which you choose. For more information, call 800/447-8679.

Where to Eat

You must try the fare at the 18th-century taverns at least once. Josiah Chowning's Tavern (109 East Duke of Gloucester St.), King's Arms Tavern (416 East Duke of Gloucester St.), Christiana Campbell's Tavern (101 S. Waller St.) and Shields Tavern (422 East Duke of Gloucester St.) serve dishes based on Colonial recipes. And at night, entertainment includes period musicians and gambols (board games, magic and boisterous fun). Reservations are suggested. Call 800/447-8679.

At Merchants Square, on the west end of Duke of Gloucester Street, the nationally acclaimed Trellis serves local seafood and regional dishes (403 Duke of Gloucester St.; 757/229-8610) and a block away is Seasons (110 S. Henry St.; 757/259-0018), which features sandwiches, pastas and steaks.

After Dark

My favorite early evening entertainment is to stroll the quiet (and darkened) streets of Colonial Williamsburg, listening for the clop-clop of horse-drawn wagons and sounds of the sheep and cattle in the fields while I try to imagine how it was two centuries ago. If you want something more lively, check Colonial Williamsburg's nightly program for music, dance and theater.

Getting There

Colonial Williamsburg is about 175 miles from Washington. From the Beltway, take I-95 south to I-295 east to I-64 and Exit 238.

For More Information

Contact the Williamsburg Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 201 Penniman Rd., P.O. Box 3585, Williamsburg, VA 23187. Call 800/368-6511. For information on Colonial Williamsburg, call 800/447-8679 or visit the Web site: www.colonialwilliamsburg.org.