Living history can be informative and fun. And visiting the early settlements and battlefields of America's Historic Triangle -- Jamestown, Yorktown and WIlliamsburg -- offers both.
Beyond learning and better understanding the past, there are the modern pleasures of dining, shopping and recreating. Victoria Cimino, CEO of Visit Williamsburg, takes us along.
We begin with Jamestown, the earliest settlement. Go on to Yorktown, where the culminating battle of the American Revolution took place. And then Colonial Williamsburg, the world's largest living history museum.
And we end, of course, with Victoria's special memory of Virginia's Historic Triangle.
Victoria Cimino is president and CEO of Visit Williamsburg, the official destination marketing organization for Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to many guidebooks.
Contact Lea! @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.com.
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*transcript edited for clarity
Lea Lane 0:06
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.
America's historic triangle in southeast Virginia is an area of settlements that predate the birth of the United States by over 100 years, and that history has been brilliantly brought to life for travelers to learn about and enjoy. Our guest is Victoria simonneau, President and CEO of visit Williamsburg, the official destination marketing organization for Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown. Welcome, Victoria to places I remember.
Victoria Cimino 0:52
Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
Lea Lane 0:55
Let's start with historic Jamestown, where travelers can walk in the footsteps of Pocahontas and John Smith, at the original site of the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States. Historic Jamestown is the location of a fort originally settled in 1607. Settlement existed for nearly 100 years as the capital of the Virginia colony, but was abandoned after the capital moved to nearby Williamsburg in 1699. Tell us some more about Jamestown.
Unknown Speaker 1:25
So as you've said, you know Jamestown is where it happened. It was the first permanent English settlement here in the United States. You know, Massachusetts and Plymouth Rock and Jamestown definitely have a rivalry. Well, it happened for us in 1607. Massachusetts. Yeah, yeah. But in historic Jamestown, which is just this really cool Island. It's where that first settlement was found. You can see sort of the remains of some of the original buildings that were built back in those early 1600s. There's even a completed remodel of the original 1617 Memorial Church where the first General Assembly of Virginia was held.
Lea Lane 2:09
I heard about that. That's a recent discovery, right.
Victoria Cimino 2:12
They're discovering new new buildings and footprints and different pieces of pottery and rings and jewelry. I mean, it's it's constant. It's every day. It is a real time archeological dig. And there aren't many places in the United States where you can see that happening and participate in it in real time. And so, so yeah, it's beautiful. Just outside of the historic significance of the area and the real time archaeological digs, it's right on the James River, the expanse of James, you get to see boats going back and forth. There's walking paths. I mean, it's just a lovely way to spend a day.
Lea Lane 2:54
I remember taking a walking tour with a costumed living history character. Who are some of the people who would take you around in Jamestown?
Victoria Cimino 3:02
You know, it varies. It really does. And I my favorite way to explore historic Jamestown is being taken around by one of the archaeologists. They're really able to point out Okay, so we found a piece of jewelry from Portugal. And that must have been a trade between a Portuguese sailor and an English sailor and, and just very interesting stories. One of the most interesting and I didn't realize this until I went to historic Jamestown, again, after many years when I took this role on, is that the early times for these English settlers were really challenging. I mean, at one point, more than half of the settlement was downed by disease and hunger. And so this group out of desperation turned to cannibalism.
Lea Lane 3:51
Really? You never hear that in the history books.
Victoria Cimino 3:54
No, no. And they found in the course of doing these archeological digs, the remains of a young girl who they trace back to a certain area in England based on her what was found in her bones from nutrition. So back then it was, well, if you were from this area of England, then you ate this kind of diet. And so they're able to trace that back out of severe desperation. And this was discovered that this settlement had at one point turned to cannibalism just to survive. So So yeah, just sort of these really interesting stories that you can get in looking at what they're finding within the earth that I find the most fascinating, outside of Jamestown Island and historic Jamestown. There's also Jamestowns' Freedom Park, which is home to significant American history, and it is recognized as the site of our nation's earliest free black settlements in America. So you can go there today there are walking tours available with park rangers showcasing both free and enslaved black homes and narrating their stories. There's an 18th century cemetery. There is also the site of the Revolutionary War battle of Spencer's Ordinary, and a 17th-century residence that is playing host to archeological research, showcasing what early colonial life was like. So there's even a botanical garden that houses more than 800 species of native vegetation. And I think that that is prevalent within this destination; you not only get to see real time archeological digs, you get to see the interpretation of what existed and what took place during 1607 and beyond. But you're also in this amazingly beautiful setting and backdrop, where there are gardens and waterways and folks forget that this area is on a peninsula. So these settlers didn't get here by train. So our waterways provide an immense amount of outdoor recreational opportunities as well. So you get to see history from many different vantage points.
Lea Lane 6:12
How long would you recommend as a minimum, if you wanted to experience both the history and the recreation?
Victoria Cimino 6:19
I would say four nights five days is your sweet spot.
Lea Lane 6:23
I'm sure there are wonderful inns.
Victoria Cimino 6:26
Yeah, there is lodging for every every everyone here, you know what, whether you'd like a smaller boutique property, or more of a big brand hotel. I mean, we have everything in between as well.
Lea Lane 6:40
I just remember I was thinking about one exhibit the glassblowing exhibit, and it was one of the industries I guess, of the early settlers. And it was fascinating to watch them create that in front of us and feel a part.
Victoria Cimino 6:54
And so and all along within this region, the National Park Service is omnipresent, right? Colonial Heritage Park, they they work with all of our major attractions. And so glassblowing is a great example of that. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation also has a museum, not on the site of the historic island, but next door. And that's a great place where you can see a replication of the ships that came over back in those early days. So all kinds of things to see and do just in Jamestown alone.
Lea Lane 7:26
Let's move on to Yorktown, another part of Virginia's Historic Triangle on the nearby York River. Tell us about the Yorktown battlefield where American independence was won.
Victoria Cimino 7:38
So this is also run by the National Park Service. And when you arrive at the main visitor building, there's a wonderful museum there, it highlights the area, it shows you sprinkled throughout that historic area in your town, our homes that date back to the early 18th centuries, and most of which are museums, most of which can be toured, some have been turned into small businesses. And I can talk a little bit more about that in a minute. So when you get to the actual battlefield site, you can still see today the giant hills that were done to help protect the Americans from the British bombs that were coming in from the water. You get to see not far from the battlefield, you get to go down to York River beach area, and take a look at what's called Cornwallis cave -- for everyone who has paid attention to their history books or just likes the movie The Patriot, you will recall that General Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown. And that is ultimately where America won its independence.
Lea Lane 8:44
On October 19 1781.
Victoria Cimino 8:47
Yeah, yeah. I always remember that day because it's my brother's birthday. And while you're there, National Park Service Rangers will point out Okay, so the British were over there. And then the French came in on the left here. And they bombed for X number of days. And the Americans continued to have to dig trenches to protect themselves. And so you get, the Ranger narrative, that final battle,
Lea Lane 9:15
I remember the field tent used by General Washington during the battle. That was my favorite.
Victoria Cimino 9:20
Yeah, ya know, and, and so that is just super interesting, right? And you get it from that national park service perspective and approach. And then from there, we always encourage people to walk through that historic village of your town. And so again, there are a number of historic homes that are run by the park service that you can tour. There are also independent tours that take place. Last October, I did a haunted Yorktown tour.
Lea Lane 9:20
. At night or day?
Victoria Cimino 9:20
Yeah. And so that was pretty interesting, because that was not only a battlefield during the Revolutionary War, but also saw some Civil War action, and so there is a lot of military presence in that area and as the ghost storytellers will tell you, a lot of that along the way. But so there are all different kinds of tours that you can take of that historic Yorktown area. And in one of the homes, it's called Cole Diggs house, is a small business. It's a coffee shop called Mob Jack Bay. And there they have actually recreated the coffee blends that would have been drunk by patriots.
Lea Lane 10:33
Really? What did they taste like?
Victoria Cimino 10:36
Delicious. Honestly, it's some of the best coffee it really kind of spoils you.
Lea Lane 10:40
They have lattes, then?
Victoria Cimino 10:41
No lattes. No, no. I don't think the foam machine was quite as good. Yeah. But so what's really neat about so Mob Jack -- they and the Cole Diggs house in this national park, historic home. And the story behind coffee directly relates to the Revolutionary War because coffee was the drink of patriots. So true. Patriots didn't drink tea. So true. Patriots drink coffee, and it was just their subtle way of saying, Go America. We want to Yeah.
Lea Lane 11:16
I remember the Nelson House there; home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence. That's a great bonus when you're walking through Yorktown.
Victoria Cimino 11:24
Absolutely. And then once you go beyond the National Park Service area, you're right on the York River, and the York River is highly salinated, so you literally will see dolphins jumping in the water. Lots of boats
Lea Lane 11:39
You can sail on the Yorktown schooner.
Victoria Cimino 11:42
You can sail on the Alliance. That's right. So there are so many ways again, on the other side of the peninsula on the York River side to experience the region's aquaculture. Great seafood comes out of that.
Lea Lane 11:55
For instance ...
Victoria Cimino 11:56
Oysters! So anyone who loves delicious oysters, we've got them here in the Williamsburg Yorktown areas. There's also some great shopping right along the river front, wonderful little restaurants, and so you get small town center walkable, do some shopping, do some dining checkouts in history, it really is a great day.
Lea Lane 12:19
Sounds like a great destination. I think we focus on the history. But as you mentioned, there is so much more. Well, the third and most famous part perhaps of the historic triangle is Williamsburg, the capital of the Virginia colony from 1699 to 1780. It played a significant role in the American Revolution. And it's heart is Colonial Williamsburg, a historic district and living history museum where actors in period costume depict daily colonial life in the streets, stores and workshops. Victoria, please describe more about this famous site, which is the largest living history museum in the world.
Victoria Cimino 12:56
It is expansive, and expansive is probably not the best word to even use, because Colonial Williamsburg takes so many facets and details into consideration in how it presents colonial America to visitors to that area. I think one of the most fascinating things about Colonial Williamsburg is the time and dedication and the science behind the experience of visitors have. And so not unlike historic Jamestown in Jamestown Island, when I mentioned that there are a number of archaeological digs taking place that is going on in Colonial Williamsburg at the same time. And all throughout the area, you see literally history being uncovered in real time, and are able to talk to archaeologists about what have you found. And most recently, history lovers can get to go behind the fence at what is known as the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. It's one of the oldest black churches in the country. And Colonial Williamsburg was basically pulling up a parking lot and stumbled across this important piece of our history where both free and enslaved black individuals were able to congregate, and that congregation exists today. It's called First Baptist Church. And what's been interesting about the archeological dig is that they have now found grave sites of the early members of that congregation. And that has sparked a whole nother chapter about folks who are finding their ancestors who may be buried underneath the original church. There's it's just such a wonderful kind of story coming together around people able to reconnect with with the history of Williamsburg in a different way.
Lea Lane 14:56
One thing I remember when I was there is Talking to enslaved people costumed people acting out the role and telling the story in a very vivid way. And some people were extremely moved by this because it made them feel connected to the history of our country and the realities that happened. So it matters a lot to, to watch this and to learn.
Victoria Cimino 15:21
Yeah, all of our attractions here in the greater Williamsburg area are hyper committed to ensuring that true stories are told: there's the good, the bad, and the ugly. And it's important, really important, we need to embrace all of that. So outside of some of the archeological digs that are taking place, and are again, giving you this real time exposure to these amazing discoveries. You do have your living history museum, and as you mentioned, that's where you'll find folks dressed in colonial costumes, representing and playing out the role of some significant folks in history. And some of the folks who kept Colonial America moving and growing. And so along with that is Merchant Square; you get the historic living history piece, and then just up the road, you have great boutiques, wonderful dining, excellent shopping, outdoor places to eat, you have the combination of a very sophisticated modern experience against the backdrop of a living history museum; it really is a unique experience. And there is nothing else like it in the country.
Lea Lane 16:37
What about at night? What are some of the things that you can do?
Victoria Cimino 16:40
Well, outside of great food and beverage that exist throughout the historic district, there's also some really cool ghost tours that you can do. I mean, again, you know, this is an area that not only was the first English settlement in our history as a country, but it is also where the Revolutionary War saw a ton of action; Civil War battles took place here. And just with settling a new nation come hardships. The ghost stories that exist here in the area are both interesting and fun. I took my 12 year old niece on one last summer and she is still talking about it. And she swears up and down that she saw a ghost in the window of the house and made me take the picture and show her the picture.
Lea Lane 17:30
A person who looked like a ghost?
Victoria Cimino 17:33
She believed it was a ghost that took the form of a person Yeah, yeah. So a lot of fun for adults and children alike. And then outside of some of our more well known historic attractions, there's a ton to see and do outside of that: Busch Gardens water country. And there's a go kart track that my knees just loved, and bumper boats and mini golf and we have beaches and aquaculture opportunities on each side, great food and beverage. So lots to see and do that kind of check every box.
Lea Lane 18:10
I want to go again. Yeah.
Victoria Cimino 18:13
I didn't even bring up golf.
Lea Lane 18:17
I'm sure it's a wonderful course -- or two or three
Victoria Cimino 18:19
Or 12. Yeah, the three municipalities. Yeah.
Lea Lane 18:24
Well, I think the quality is the Rockefellers who started the Colonial Williamsburg area. I know that they care very much about everything that's done. So it started with a wonderful idea of doing it right. And I know it's continued that way. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, there is one of the best folk art museums. There's a decorative arts museum. So you have that as well. And it's just a wonderful place to have fun and to really feel history. The whole area is fantastic for families. Yes, no question.
Victoria Cimino 18:56
Yeah, yeah. families and couples alike; this is a great wedding destination. Very unique backdrop for those who want to incorporate some of the the history that we have here into their vows and wedding.
Lea Lane 19:10
Very romantic. Well, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. So Victoria, would you please share one of your special memories or stories of Virginia's historic triangle?
Victoria Cimino 19:23
When I was a kid, I was probably about eight or nine years old. That was the first time that I visited the region and my family vacationed once a week at the beach. We're from Ohio. No, we were one of those Midwest families that spent that solid week in a beach house and we would go to Sandbridge Beach, which is not far from here. Virginia Beach, Sandbridge Beach, just about less than an hour from Williamsburg. My parents brought us to Colonial Williamsburg and I just remember being fascinated by not only the governor's palace and just the opulence of the buildings that were both original or reconstructed. But then also the taverns are what I have memories about. I just remember sitting in this old tavern thinking George Washington may have eaten dinner here, or stayed here at one point. And to me, that was just the coolest thing on the planet outside of the great food that you can experience in the taverns that exist in Colonial Williamsburg; you immerse yourself in history, and it's all around you. And when you're eight or nine years old, just kind of the scene that you create in your head, about folks who were helping us gain our independence, that were likely in this same exact spot that you were, I do think that there's something magical about bringing young kids to this area, because imaginations at that point of your life are just so lovely. And you can really create that movie in your head.
Lea Lane 21:00
Well, thank you. Very vivid, Victoria Cimino, President and CEO of Visit Williamsburg for sharing with us; it's more important than ever to learn about our history, and to have fun doing it. And it's especially enjoyable to see it come alive in places like Virginia's Historic Triangle, so thanks again.
Victoria Cimino 21:19
Thank you, I appreciate it.
Lea Lane 21:21
My book, Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 countries, is available in print, Kindle, and I read the audio version. You can follow me on forbes.com where I write five travel posts a month. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. And I'd love to hear from you on any of my links in the episodes show notes or on my website, placesIrememberLeaLane.com Until next time, make some travel memories.