Virginia's Lower Peninsula is a 400-square-mile (1,036-square-kilometer) finger of land sandwiched between the James and York Rivers and jutting into the Chesapeake Bay. It has the oldest continuous European settlements in the original 13 colonies.
Route 5, from Richmond, capital of Virginia, to Yorktown, where the Brits surrendered to U.S. and French forces in 1781, is a lovely two-laner skirting the James. Each bend in the road takes you deeper into American history. The drive is short, only 63 miles (101 kilometers), but it spans centuries.
Start in Richmond
Get acclimated at Richmond's American Civil War Center (490 Tredegar St.; tel. 1 804 780 1865; www.tredegar.org), housed in a former Confederate foundry. Stoke up on the corn bread and fried fish smothered in Vidalia onions at Croaker's Spot (1020 Hull St., Richmond; tel. 1 804 269 0464), just up the street from the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site (600 N. 2nd St.; tel. 1 804 771 2017; www.nps.gov/mawa), devoted to a noted African-American businesswoman. Stay at the Berkeley Hotel (1200 E. Cary St., Richmond; tel. 888 780 4422; www.berkeleyhotel.com), an upscale boutique hotel close to the capitol.
Leaving Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, drive east past Tobacco Row, where the mighty tobacco companies used to store their bales. Now the old brick warehouses lining the James house young professionals in "live-work" lofts. As you follow the James River downstream, you'll next encounter a series of glorious colonial-era plantations, each with spectacular grounds overlooking the river and each offering tours to visitors.
The Shirley Plantation (501 Shirley Plantation Rd., Charles City; tel. 1 804 829 6322; www.shirleyplantation.com), privately owned since 1638, maintains a busy calendar of events listed on its website. Today there's a polo match. Dozens of spectators in crisp khakis or seersucker suits tramp the playing field in rubber-and-leather duck boots. Bare-shouldered women in hats sip drinks under big tents, their laughter as light as a summer breeze. Swing music floats on the air. If it weren't for the trilling cell phones, this scene could be set in the 1940s. Take a guided tour of the main house, then show yourself around the gardens and original 18th-century outbuildings, which have their own exhibits.
Four miles (six kilometers) downriver from Shirley is the Berkeley Plantation (12602 Harrison Landing Rd., Charles City; tel. 1 804 829 6018; www.berkeleyplantation.com). It exemplifies the aristocratic residences common on the peninsula. Established in 1619, Berkeley saw America's first official Thanksgiving, commercial shipyard, and whiskey still. It is the ancestral home to two Presidents (the Harrisons); the first ten Presidents visited here. You learn all this in the plantation's cellar, where the musty, chilled air scarcely dampens visitors' curiosity for the displays of a vanished time.
Outside, a gravel path leads to the Ladies' Winter Garden and the river beyond. Halfway there, turn around to view the main house built of bricks fired on the plantation and note the timelessness of the scene. Washington saw this. So did Lincoln. Back at the house, check out the kitchen, built apart from the main structure in the 17th century to prevent fires from spreading. Notice a cannonball lodged in the wall, courtesy of Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart. He missed his target—Union General George McClellan—but this bit of frozen violence is a reminder that lands around here were once killing fields.
Stop next at the Westover Plantation (7000 Westover Rd., Charles City; tel. 1 804 829 2882), which is the closest of them to the river. Built around 1730, it is regarded as one of the most outstanding examples of Georgian architecture in America.
Further downriver, pull into the stately confines of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia's 18th-century capital. With 88 original colonial structures (and 400 reconstructed ones), and populated by a staff of recreators trained in authenticity, the outdoor museum strives to relive the past. The famed colonial-styled Williamsburg Inn (136 East Francis St.) offers a serene landscape and high standards of customer service. For even more colonial flavor, book a room through the Colonial Houses program. Guests stay at one of 26 authentic homesteads furnished in authentic styles ranging from a room over a tavern to a full-size house (tel. 1 757 229 1000; www.colonialwilliamsburg.com).
Williamsburg's several taverns are authentic but pricey. One favorite is Christiana Campbell's Tavern (120 Waller St.; tel. 800 TAVERNS). Don't expect sublime food, just superb atmosphere. A good eatery, among the cheapest, is the Golden Horseshoe Clubhouse Grill (410 S. England St.; tel. 1 757 229 2141). If negotiating Williamsburg's crowds proves tiring, the Green Leafe Cafe (765 Scotland St.; tel. 1 757 220 3405), a favorite watering hole of College of William and Mary students and profs, serves decent hamburgers and 30 draft beers.
Jamestowne, Jamestown Settlement, and Yorktown
The National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginian Antiquities jointly run Jamestowne (historicjamestowne.org), the actual site of Virginia's first settlement. But more fun is the nearby state-run Jamestown Settlement (tel. 888 593 4682; www.historyisfun.org), with replicas of the three ships that brought the settlers from England. End the drive on the banks of the York River at Yorktown. It's full of history museums and such historical sites as the 1720s Custom House, believed to be the oldest in the country, and the Grace Episcopal Church, which is 300 years old and counting. Yorktown has B&Bs and guest cottages, along with a waterfront area with shops and restaurants.
Learn about Colonial Williamsburg at www.history.org; vacation packages and lodging options are listed at www.visitwilliamsburg.com. For Richmond attractions, see http://www.richmondgov.com/. For Yorktown attractions and a calendar of events, see www.yorkcounty.gov/tourism.
—Text by Andrew Nelson