Into the breech in Virginia

With 'costumed interpreters' and family attractions, Victoria Summerley finds Virginia's modern-day colonials anything but revolting
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The Independent Travel

It was the six-inch green tobacco worm that cured me of all my romantic illusions. I'd been hearing about Virginia all my life, it seemed, through stories that sounded like fairy tales. I knew from primary school all about brave Captain John Smith. My children had told me about gorgeous Pocahontas (or at least the Disney version, with Mel Gibson as Smith), insisting on playing "Colours of the Wind" endlessly on the car stereo as they did so. I'd even read about the Suffolk explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, a friend of Walter Raleigh, who prospected the eastern seaboard of the US and named Martha's Vineyard after his dead daughter.

Terrence Malick's film, The New World, starring Colin Farrell as John Smith, had been filmed in Virginia shortly before I arrived (it opened in the UK on 27 January). And here I was standing only a few hundred yards from where it all happened 400 years ago, staring at a lime-coloured grub twice the length of my finger.

History does not record whether John Smith was a dead ringer for Mel Gibson or Colin Farrell. But it does say that he, Captain Gosnold and around 100 other settlers left London on a dark December day in 1606 in three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery. On May 14, 1607, they landed on Jamestown Island, to establish the Virginia English colony on the banks of the James River, 60 miles from the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. That site - the first permanent English colony in North America - is now known as Historic Jamestowne, or Jamestown Island, where an archaeological excavation of the James Fort is still throwing up new clues as to how the settlers - and their neighbours, the indigenous Indian tribes - survived from day to day.

In America, a century of history is a big deal. Give them a 400th anniversary and they go slightly crazy. To be fair, when you stand on the shores of the James River, and imagine what it must have felt like to step onto what must have seemed like paradise after nearly six months at sea, you can see why they get so excited about it.There are guided tours of the site, and the duties are shared by the Association for the Preservation of Virginian Antiquities (APVA) and the National Parks Service rangers. Our APVA guide's talk was as dry as the earth the archaeologists were sifting, and most of our group peeled off like sunburn before we'd gone more than 100 yards. On the way back, I wistfully watched an NPS guide at the head of a group of moist-eyed, enthusiastic Americans. Personally, I've never known an NPS ranger give a bad tour, so given the choice, that's the one I'd go for.

While there's not much left above ground of the original settlement, you don't have to make much of an effort to imagine what it was like - just along the road is a full-scale living history exhibit, the Jamestown Settlement, which has replicas of the three ships, a Native American Indian village, a stockaded settlement and people wearing mob caps and knee breeches - costumed interpreters, the Americans call them - to answer all your questions.

Well, I say answer all your questions, but they can only answer them in a 17th-century sort of way. The smiling lady in the mob cap clutching the tobacco worm, for example, couldn't tell me what the creature was, other than that it ate the tobacco crop and was a great pestilence. A plague of worms could destroy a tobacco crop in a week unless they were picked off by hand and squished underfoot.Just imagine. You set off from Blighty in a boat hardly bigger than a wooden crate, you land in America, come under constant attack from hunger, cold, malaria and the occasional understandably disgruntled Indian tribe, then when you finally plant your tobacco (the point of the whole exercise), it gets eaten up by a humungous green caterpillar. They didn't tell you that in the Disney movie.Being a smart-arsed, 21st-century sort of person who doesn't wear a mob cap and who has access to the internet, I can tell you that tobacco worms are the caterpillars, or larvae, of the hawk moth, but it seems churlish to be picky about such details. Living history is a big thing in Virginia. And in this particular neck of the woods - the Historic Triangle, as it's known, which comprises Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown - it has reached Hollywoodesque proportions, but with the added bonus of being rather more historically accurate than your average blockbuster.

The Powhatan Indian village at the Jamestown Settlement, for example, looks so cosy with its fur rugs and reed-thatched houses, that my children and I wanted to move in immediately (the faux suede costumes of the guides looked rather groovy, too). But we also discovered, thanks to the work of archaeologist William Kelso and his team at the original Jamestown site, that far from being two communities living very separate lives, the Native Americans and the settlers appear to have coexisted intimately. Artefacts found inside the settlers' fort, such as shell beads and arrowheads, suggest these items were actually made there, rather than just being traded.It takes only 23 miles to travel the Historic Triangle, from Jamestown, where the first British colony was founded, via Williamsburg, capital of the British colony from 1699 to 1780, to Yorktown where George Washington's victory ended British rule in 1781, aided by the French navy. It must be the one of the most painless ways of taking in 174 years of history I've ever encountered.

The three sites are situated on what's called the Historic Peninsula (as you've probably gathered, they're big on "Historic" round here), the most southerly of three necks of land formed where rivers run down into the vast Chesapeake Bay, fretting the Virginia coastline into a lacework of inlets and spits. They are connected by the Colonial Parkway, a broad, quiet road (no commercial vehicles are allowed) that winds through the verdant forests and water meadows of the Colonial National Historical Park. Along the parkway, there are lots of laybys where you can stop to refresh yourself with a swim or a picnic.

If you think the living history at the Jamestown Settlement sounds fun, then Colonial Williamsburg is quite extraordinary. Also known as (yup, you guessed it) the Historic District, it prides itself on being the largest living history museum in the world, a 301-acre site that includes whole streets of restored, reconstructed, and historically furnished buildings, including the Governor's Palace, the Capitol, the courthouse, the hospital, the prison, the parish church, the tavern and dozens more.

The whole thing was begun in 1926 by a local rector, Dr W A R Goodwin, who wanted to find some way of preserving the town's historic buildings, and persuaded the philanthropist tycoon John D Rockefeller to fund his project. Hordes of costumed interpreters tell the stories of the people who lived here - black, white and Native American, slave, indentured, and free - at a time when America was beginning to chafe under the yoke of British rule. If it wasn't for the crowds of tourists, you could almost imagine you were back in the 18th century. There are horse-drawn carts, men in tricorn hats discussing the iniquities of King George's taxes - and it's dead easy to buy a mob cap.There's no admission fee if you just want to wander around, but for buildings like the Governor's Palace, you have to pay to get in. Go to the Visitor Center first (Rule One of any tour in the United States: they're usually excellent), where you can get a map, information about any live events and spend money in the gift shop if you're that way inclined.

The trouble with living history is that it's very good at telling you the hows and the whats of life in the past, but not so good at the whens and the whys. So when you get to Yorktown, make a point of going to the Yorktown Victory Center. This excellent museum tells the story of the American Revolution in a timeline format, interspersed with exhibits that look at the impact of the revolution on all Americans - patriots, slaves, and those who were loyal to the king. Outside, there is a recreated Continental Army encampment where you can talk to the surgeon about how he treated wounds in the 18th century or see how quickly a Brown Bess musket could be fired. There's a little farm, too, with a farmhouse and a tobacco-drying shed, where you can admire the crops and the vegetable garden and show off your knowledge of tobacco worms.

If you want to take take your 18th-century experience on through the night, you can even stay in an 18th-century hostelry, such as the Williamsburg Inn (from around $200-$700, or £120-£400, per night). The Inn is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places and offers a first-class restaurant, a golf course and a spa.

There is a real Williamsburg as well as a Colonial Williamsburg, and it's here that you'll find all the big hotel chains - as well as the restaurants that cluster around the historic district. We tried the Trellis Restaurant, which promises Contemporary American Dining, for which read dishes like jumbo lump crab cake with curried acorn and butternut squash, currants and pistachios. Desserts are a speciality: my son chose Death By Chocolate, a "seven-layer chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, and cocoa meringue extravaganza". He was in heaven.

To be absolutely honest, though, I found it was quite nice at the end of the day to go back to the 21st century. Call me an intellectual lightweight, but after a few hours of people talking to me in archaic speech patterns, I found myself collapsing in front of an episode of "Seinfeld" with a sigh of relief.

We stayed in the Four Points Sheraton, which had a pool and a hot tub, a washing machine and a tumble dryer and sold soap powder at the reception desk, which in steamy Virginian high summer, proved extremely useful. It was also two miles down the road from the Busch Gardens amusement park, which to my amazement, I really enjoyed. It's laid out on a sort of European nationality theme, with areas called Ireland, Italy, Germany and so on. I had a fit of the giggles as we spotted Big Ben next door to thatched cottages in "England", and the Brigadoonesque "Heatherdowns Railroad Station" in "Scotland", but the smirk was wiped off my face when my kids decided to go on the Loch Ness Monster, a terrifying, double-looping rollercoaster. One rather endearing feature is that the piped music is all classical or folky (such as Irish fiddle music), which gives it a sort of naive charm. And there's not a mob cap in sight.

'The New World' opens in the UK this weekend

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer flew to Washington DC with United Airlines (0845 844 4777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk), which flies from Heathrow.

GETTING AROUND

The writer hired a car from Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www. holidayautos.co.uk). One week in Virginia starts at £105.

VISITING THERE

To book a historic B&B, visit www.williamsburghistoricinns.com. Colonial National Historical Park (Jamestown and Yorktown) (00 1 757 898 3400; www.nps.gov/colo). 9am-5pm. Admission $10 (£5.56).

Further Information

For a free Capital Region guide and CD, call 01234 764553 or visit www.capitalregionusa.com

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