Every American schoolchild knows about Plymouth -- about how a band of English pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution, left Europe on the Mayflower and set up a settlement at Plymouth in December 1620. What you won't know until you visit is how small everything was, from the perilously tiny Mayflower to the landing point at Plymouth Rock. But rather than feel disappointed, children may be awed to realize just how difficult this venture was, and how brave the settlers were to attempt what they did.
The logical place to begin (good luck talking kids out of it) is at Plymouth Rock. This landing place of the Mayflower passengers was originally 15 feet long and 3 feet wide, though it has eroded over the centuries and been moved many times. The 1920 portico that protects that much-dwindled rock makes it even harder to imagine Pilgrims springing off the boat onto shore, but thankfully the rock is complemented by the Mayflower II, a Plimoth Plantation attraction berthed beside Plymouth Rock. It's a full-scale replica of the type of ship that brought the Pilgrims to America in 1620; you'll be amazed that 102 voyagers survived a transatlantic voyage on a wooden vessel only 107 feet long. Costumed guides give first-person accounts of the voyage, and alongside the ship museum shops provide a stage set of early Pilgrim dwellings.
Having landed, now you're ready for the big attraction: Plimoth Plantation, an extensive re-creation of the 1627 Pilgrim village. Enter by the hilltop fort that protected the village and walk down to the farm area, visiting homes and gardens constructed with careful attention to historic detail. Plimoth has some of the most convincing costumed reenactors in the country, who chat with visitors while going about daily tasks as they were done in the 1600s. Sometimes you can join the activities -- perhaps planting, harvesting, witnessing a trial, or visiting a wedding party. Though the Pilgrims enjoyed friendly relations with the native Wampanoags (the nearby Wampanoag Homesite re-creates their village), the plantation's Pilgrims still conduct daily militia drills with matchlock muskets, no doubt because boys like my sons so adore weapons demonstrations. Your ticket (buy a combination ticket with the Mayflower II) is good for 2 days' admission, so no need to rush through the site -- there's too much to see.
A few non-Plantation sites in town are worth a stop. Pilgrim Hall Museum, 75 Court St. (tel. 508/746-1620; www.pilgrimhall.org), displays original artifacts like Myles Standish's sword and Governor Bradford's Bible. Then visit Burial Hill, right off of Town Square, and Cole's Hill, on Carver Street, to see the graves of the Pilgrims who died that first winter -- more or less half the original group, a sobering statistic indeed.
Nearest Airport: Boston Logan International, 40 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ John Carver Inn, 25 Summer St. (tel. 800/274-1620 or 508/746-7100; www.johncarverinn.com).
Best Time: Open late March to November.