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(2014 - Winter Issue)


“Did you bring your fork?” asks the server, scanning our table devoid of the cutlery in question. “Well, uhm . . .” I hesitate as the cheery waitress disappears into the kitchen and re-emerges with the required eating implements.

It’s not that Chowning’s Tavern is a low-budget eatery that can’t afford utensils—quite the contrary. It’s just that here in Colonial Williamsburg, they aim for authenticity, and apparently back in the day when this was the capital of Virginia, diners would have carried their own cutlery. Even the menu reflects the era with such items as Welsh rarebit—an 18th-century savoury of cheddar cheese and mustard-spiced beer sauce over toasted sippets, plus thirst-quenching house specialities—root beer, cider and ginger ale, made the old-fashioned way.

Chowning’s is one of 500 buildings—88 original and the rest replicas from 1699 to 1780—that make up Colonial Williamsburg, the “oldest and largest live interactive history experience in the U.S.” Spread out over 122 hectares, it takes awhile to experience it all.

There are the shops along Duke of Gloucester Street, where various tradespeople—shoemaker, weaver and wigmaker—ply their craft; the Prentis Store, one of the best surviving examples of a working colonial store, where quill pens are a big seller; and tours you can take of various buildings such as the Public Gaol and the Capitol building, which still has the original Speaker’s chair from 1735. Allow at least another few hours to see exhibits in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

In addition, nearly a dozen different events take place each day, so it’s always lively. During my visit, I enjoy “a public audience with George Washington” in the Governor’s Palace garden and later watch the General review the troops on Market Square along with fife and drum band and canon salutes.

The many wide pedestrian-friendly streets make it a pleasant place to visit. There are no cars in the historic core, though you can hop a ride on a horse-drawn carriage, or a bus, which does a loop around the city.

Yet, Williamsburg is more than a showcase of unbeatable historical attractions. The destination is also keen to highlight its offerings from fine-dining options and upscale boutiques (especially in Merchants Square), as well as luxurious accommodation including the Williamsburg Inn and the Kingsmill Resort.

Decadent Chocolate Treats

Even a mid-morning coffee break can be an extraordinary experience here as we discover one Saturday morning. After a visit to the colourful weekly market on West Duke of Gloucester Street, where vendors sell everything from flowers to Virginia boiled peanuts, artisanal sheep milk cheese and pecan pies, we stop in at MAD About Chocolate—a two-year-old dessert shop with decadent treats. We’re greeted by the owner, who as it turns out, is Marcel Desaulnier, an award-winning chef and author of 10 cookbooks including perhaps his best known, Death by Chocolate.

Seated at a table surrounded by his wife Connie’s eclectic artwork, he answers our questions, as we sample the freshly-baked goods—brownies, muffins, a savoury cheese-cake and a chocolate chip cookie so substantial I take it with me and eat it in stages over the next few days. Death by Chocolate, Desaulnier explains, was originally the name given to a cake he helped create at a previous restaurant. “It was a seven-layer chocolate cake and took five months to perfect,” he elaborates. “One slice weighed one pound.” It’s not served anymore but you can make it yourself using the book’s recipe.

Chocolate has many health benefits I tell myself after the morning’s indulgence, and for that matter, so does wine. Even 18th-century Virginians considered drinking alcoholic beverages to be “wholesome, refreshing and beneficial,” so it seemed fitting to make one of our stops the Williamsburg Winery, Virginia’s largest winery and one of its most celebrated. It is recognized as producing some of the best wines in the world by Decanter Magazine’s World Wine Awards in 2007–2012. Following a tour of the cellar, we sample seven of their wines including the medium-bodied Matthew’s Chardonnay (2011) and the Burgesses’ Measure Merlot (2009) with its berry bouquet and spicy finish.

The winery is situated on a 121-hectare farm known as Wessex Hundred, which also includes a 28-room European-style luxury hotel Wedmore Place, and Café Provencal, where Chef Ika Zaken’s gourmet dishes use locally-sourced ingredients including vegetables from the on-premises garden.

America’s Historic Triangle

Like most visitors to the area, we take side trips to two other nearby towns (Jamestowne and Yorktown), which, together with Williamsburg, makeup “America’s Historic Triangle,” sometimes called the birthplace of democracy.

At Historic Jamestowne, America’s first permanent English settlement (1607), we see the brick church tower that is the only surviving above-ground structure, plus artifacts uncovered at the site now on display in the Archaearium. Over at Jamestown Settlement, we wander through a recreated colonial fort and Powhatan Indian village, then climb aboard the Susan Constant, one of three recreated 17th-century ships on display that resemble the vessels that brought the English colonists in 1607 on a four-month journey from London, England, to Virginia.

Completing the triangle in Yorktown, where the British Army surrendered to the allied French and American forces led by George Washington, we board a different kind of boat—a 32-metre gaff-rigged schooner called the Alliance. Unlike the Susan Constant, its purpose is not to send colonists to the new world in search of riches, but to offer pleasant, leisurely rides on the York River. And that’s exactly what we experience, soon after we board at Riverwalk Landing near a popular sandy beach in the late afternoon. Passing historic landmarks, the boat eventually glides towards the Coleman Bridge—“the world’s largest double swing-span bridge”—until the sun turns into a giant red ball and descends below the horizon.

Travel Planner

It’s about an 11-hour drive fromToronto to Virginia. Delta, United and American Airlines offer scheduled service between Eastern Canada and Richmond or Norfolk, about an hour’s drive from Williamsburg.

For more information, visit:

Colonial Williamsburg: colonialwilliamsburg.com

Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee: visitwilliamsburg.com

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