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7 Top Historic Restoration Vacations

Seven U.S. destinations where families can take a step backward and immerse themselves in early American history.

500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights 500 of the most exciting and memorable cities, museums, and trips throughout the world. The seven U.S. destinations below are a few of the best sights for families interested in stepping back into early American history.

What: Plimoth Plantation: The Pilgrims' Progress
Who: All ages
Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA

Every American schoolchild knows about Plymouth -- about how the 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 will probably 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 portico that protects the rock, erected in 1920, makes it harder to imagine Pilgrims springing off the boat onto shore, but the atmosphere is still inspiring. Mayflower II, a Plimoth Plantation attraction berthed beside Plymouth Rock, is a full-scale replica of the type of ship that brought the Pilgrims from England 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 re-enactors 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 (nearby Hobbamock's Homesite re-creates their village), the plantation Pilgrims still conduct daily militia drills with matchlock muskets, no doubt because boys like my sons so adore weapons demonstrations. You can buy a combination ticket with the Mayflower II, and admission is good for 2 days; so don't rush through the site -- there's too much to see.

Two non-Plantation sites in town are worth a stop: Pilgrim Hall Museum, 75 Court St. (tel. 508/746-1620;, which displays original artifacts like Myles Standish's sword and Governor Bradford's Bible; and Plymouth National Wax Museum, 16 Carver St. (tel. 508/746-6468), where more than 180 life-size figures in dioramas depict episodes in the Pilgrim story. On the hill outside is the gravesite of the Pilgrims who died that first winter -- more or less half the original group, a sobering statistic indeed.

Contact: Plimoth Plantation Hwy. (tel. 508/746-1622;

Season: Open Apr-Nov.

What: Williamsburg, Jamestown & Yorktown: Virginia's Colonial Past
Who: All ages
Virginia, USA

One of our best family vacations ever was a 3-day getaway to Colonial Williamsburg, one of those summer trips we'd postponed for years, waiting until all three kids were old enough to make sense of its history. The weather was sweltering hot, then pouring rain -- and none of that mattered. Williamsburg works on so many levels, it's a slam-dunk. The kids learned a lot, but they also had more fun than we ever expected.

It's also a relative bargain, considering how much Williamsburg offers for the money. Rockefeller money underwrites the 301-acre site of Virginia's colonial capital, sprucely maintaining its 88 original buildings (houses, shops, offices, inns, courthouse, jail, armory, Capitol, the works) and hiring a top-notch staff to run things so graciously, 21st-century hassles seem to disappear. We bought a package pass that admitted us to three Historic Triangle sites -- which we visited in chronological order: Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown -- as well as nearby Busch Gardens and Water Country USA. Staying on Colonial Williamsburg property, we could walk in and out of the historic area, and at check-in we booked as many extras as we could from a crowded activity schedule. We had dinner in one of the taverns on-site (for reservations call tel. 800/TAVERNS), eating surprisingly delicious authentic dishes by candlelight with live minstrels strolling around. We watched an actor channel Patrick Henry for an hour, deftly answering the audience's every question. All the costumed interpreters stationed around the site are amazingly well-informed; some of them refuse to admit they aren't living in 1770 (almost a running joke with the visitors watching them), but others are more relaxed, like the cabinetmaker who jokingly asked us to bring him some Dunkin' Donuts -- and even he had Ph.D.-level knowledge of his era, not just cabinetry but agriculture, the colonial economy, and pre-Revolutionary politics, and we were fascinated by our half-hour chat while he turned chair legs on his lathe.

Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, was a great surprise: You can drive around the actual site, with ruins of the original buildings, but the kids got more out of the Jamestown Settlement reconstruction -- they could really see the alarmingly tiny ships that brought the settlers from England in 1607, and the primitive stockaded settlement, scarcely more sophisticated than the replica Powhatan Indian village nearby. At Yorktown, where Washington won the final victory of the American Revolution in 1781, we drove around the battlefield route and explored a replica army camp. Next time we'll skip Busch Gardens, but Water Country USA was a marvelous surprise, the perfect goofy way to end our history-packed 3 days.


Williamsburg Visitor Center, VA 132 south of U.S. 60 bypass (tel. 800/HISTORY or 757/220-7645;

What: Old Sturbridge Village: Portrait of Young America
Who: All ages
Sturbridge, Massachusetts, USA

Let's be honest: Old Sturbridge Village is a fabricated tourist attraction, an early-19th-century village composed of authentic buildings moved here from other locations. The costumed docents around the site are only pretending to follow the pursuits of 170 years past. But Sturbridge Village is a careful, thoughtful re-creation, and my family warms to it because it depicts an ordinary farm village, and illustrates a period of time they haven't studied to death.

Only 1 of the more than 40 restored structures in the complex stands on its original site -- the Oliver Wight House, now part of the Old Sturbridge Village Motor Lodges (see below). The rest were transported here from as far away as Maine. But all are authentic buildings and they represent the living quarters and places of trade and commerce of a rural settlement of the 1830s. What struck us, in comparison to other historic re-creations, was that by the 1830s a more diversified economy was beginning to emerge; not only are there shops for traditional trades like blacksmithing and printing and coopering, but there is a shoe shop and a tinsmith's shop (tin ware had become a popular commodity by the era). At the edge of the village sits an industrial area with a gristmill, a sawmill, even a carding mill for the nascent textile industry. A professional class is starting to emerge by this time, too, with a lawyer setting up his tiny white frame office downtown and a country bank that issued its own currency to farmers, replacing the old barter system for local transactions. There's both a Quaker meetinghouse and a regular Congregational meetinghouse, showing the growth of religious diversity.

It's also a very kid-oriented attraction: Some of the village's "residents" include children who roll hoops and play games true to the period, and there's a children's museum where kids 3 to 7 can dress up in costumes and use their imaginations in a pretend farm kitchen and one-room school.

As opposed to Williamsburg and Plimoth , Sturbridge is not a place where historic events took place -- it's just an ordinary hometown. And while we like open-air museums like Shelburne and Bunratty where different eras are dramatically juxtaposed, at Sturbridge you can look down the town common and, for a split second, imagine you really do live in the 1830s.


Old Sturbridge Village, 1 Old Sturbridge Village Rd. Visitors Center, 380 Main St. (tel. 800/733-1830 or 508/347-3362;

What: Charles Towne Landing: Carolina's Great Colonial Port
Who: All ages
Charleston, South Carolina, USA

In some ways all of Charleston, South Carolina, is a historic re-creation, full of stately homes and gardens and drawling Old South decorum. Like any city, however, it started as a village, and its humble beginnings are reconstructed today at Charles Towne Landing. It's refreshingly modest, with the real feel of a struggling settlement in a raw new territory.

Carolina was originally named for King Charles of England, who in 1663, strapped for funds, gave eight of his most generous supporters a huge chunk of North America (encompassing most of present-day North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia). These so-called Lords Proprietors had no interest in living there, but they recruited a crew of rice growers from Barbados to farm the land, who arrived on the banks of the Ashley River in 1670. Within a decade they had established Charles Towne -- again named for the king -- at the fine natural harbor where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet. Bumper crops of rice and indigo (produced by slave labor, of course) soon made South Carolina the wealthiest of England's American colonies, and Charleston remained America's busiest seaport until well into the 19th century.

Today, 663 acres at the site of that first settlement has been turned into charming Charles Towne Landing. Exhibits showing the colony's history have been tucked underground; aboveground you'll see a re-creation of a small village, a full-scale reproduction of the 17th-century trading vessel Adventure (overseas trade was a key factor in Charles Towne's boom), and a replica of a 17th-century crop garden where the rice, indigo, and cotton were grown. There's no flashy theme-park atmosphere here: What you see as you walk under huge old oaks, past freshwater lagoons, and through the Animal Forest (with the same species that lived here in 1670, from bears to bison) is just what those early settlers saw. Costumed interpreters conduct hands-on learning projects, and you can rent a bike to explore 80 acres of gardens along the marsh and lagoons.

After touring the open-air park, you may also want to visit several of Charleston's historic homes, including the Heyward-Washington House, 87 Church St. (tel. 843/722-0354), built in 1772 by the "rice king" Daniel Heyward, with its authentic 18th-century kitchen; and Magnolia Plantation, S.C. 61 (tel. 800/367-3517 or 843/571-1266;, where the Drayton family have lived since the 1670s, with its simple pre-Revolutionary house (not the original, but an authentic substitute).


1500 Old Towne Rd. (tel. 843/852-4200;

What: Old Town State Historic Park: Spanish Village of Old California
Who: All ages
San Diego, California, USA

In California, colonial history moves south to north -- it was down in San Diego that the first Spanish missionary, Father Junipero Serra, came from Mexico in 1769 to begin converting the Native Americans, and he steadily moved north from there. While the mission building was soon moved up the hill, this scatter of adobe buildings was the nucleus of the original town of San Diego.

Old Town's buildings have been furnished to re-create the early life of the city as it was from around 1821 to 1872. This is where San Diego's Mexican heritage shines brightest--the stars and stripes weren't raised over Old Town until 1846. In the 1820s, the town's commercial center moved closer to the waterfront, giving rise eventually to the Victorian-era Gaslamp Quarter (which has also been outfitted as a tourist destination, with more commercial wallop); this area was no longer prime real estate, and thus escaped redevelopment. Seven of the park's 20 structures are original; the others were constructed to supplement them in the 1930s. Among the sites are an unbelievably tiny schoolhouse; a newspaper office; La Casa de Estudillo, a mansion built around a typical central courtyard, which depicts the living conditions of a wealthy family in 1872; and the high-raftered barn of Seeley Stables, named after A. L. Seeley, who ran the stagecoach and mail service in these parts from 1867 to 1871. Pick up a map at Park Headquarters, and while you're there check out the displayed model of Old Town as it looked in 1872.

What our family liked about Old Town was its lack of preciousness -- it isn't walled off from the surrounding city, and its dusty wide main street feels like a lonely Wild West outpost. When you're here, it's hard to believe that something as slick as Sea World is only a few miles away. There isn't a nonstop program of stage activities, the way there is at Williamsburg , although on Wednesday and Saturday costumed park volunteers reenact life in the 1800s with cooking and crafts demonstrations, a working blacksmith, and parlor singing. Every day there's a free 1-hour walking tour; but it's entirely possible to explore the site on your own, and it won't exhaust you. All around the historic complex are restaurants, some Mexican, some not. It's a relaxed, small-scale place, no hustle, no bustle -- which, come to think of it, was probably just what that early settlement was like, too.


4002 Wallace St. (tel. 619/220-5422;


Shelburne Museum: American Hodgepodge
Who: Ages 6 & up
Shelburne, Vermont, USA

Most historic restorations choose one era -- sometimes even one specific year -- and adhere to it scrupulously. The charming thing about the Shelburne Museum is that it hops from one time period to another. In the course of an afternoon, you can wander through an immense red round Shaker-style barn, a mahogany-paneled 1906 side-wheeler excursion steamer, and a quaint 19th-century farmhouse with stenciled walls. To add to the pleasure, the whole collection is scattered over 45 rolling acres of bucolic Vermont countryside, right by the shores of Lake Champlain.

Established in 1947 by Americana collector Electra Havenmeyer Webb, the museum contains one of the nation's most singular collections of American decorative, folk, and fine art, occupying some 37 buildings, transported whole to this site from around New England and New York. Like many historic collections, it has a blacksmith's shop, a print shop, a one-room schoolhouse, a brick meeting house, a stagecoach inn, and a settler's cabin with rough-hewn wood walls. But the mix also includes a lighthouse, a covered bridge, and a rail station, where the locomotive once used to pull the President's train sits on a siding. The Circus Building is a sure-fire child pleaser, with a vintage carousel outside and two spectacular hard-carved miniature circuses inside, one of them including no fewer than 35,000 tiny figures.

My two favorite spots here, though, are the re-created Park Avenue apartment of Electra Webb, furnished in 1930s elegance, with incredible Monets and Degases on the walls, and the 1950s ranch house, with its Early American living room and yellow Formica kitchen, loaded with authentic items I recognized from that not-so-long-ago era. Suddenly the past seems truly alive when I enter those rooms (though it was sobering to realize that my kids still considered the 1950s house as "full of old stuff").

My preferred way to approach the Shelburne Museum in summer is to ride the Lake Champlain car ferry from Essex, New York (tel. 802/864-9804; It's a pleasant glide across this beautiful lake, and we feel almost as if we've come from another country, into an odd and delightful place where you can wander randomly through time.


Rte. 7 (tel. 802/985-3346;
Season: Open May-Oct.

What: Greenfield Village: Henry Ford's History Lesson
Who: All ages
Dearborn, Michigan, USA

Automobile magnate Henry Ford had two passions: cars and history. No, make that three passions: cars, history, and philanthropy. (Plus he was really into clocks.) Once the phenomenal success of his Model T made him a multimillionaire, he could indulge all these passions by building a 90-acre indoor-outdoor museum complex. And Ford couldn't have spent his money any better.

Greenfield Village is more than just another historic re-creation; it's a glorious hodgepodge of actual homes transported here from around the United States (and even a few from Europe), most of them associated with specific individuals Ford admired. With money-is-no-object largesse, Ford acquired the home and bicycle shop of the Wright brothers, the farm where tire maker Harvey Firestone grew up, the workshop of botanist Luther Burbank, a courthouse where country lawyer Abraham Lincoln tried cases, the boyhood home where H. J. Heinz first bottled horseradish sauce. He snapped up the homes of poet Robert Frost and dictionary author Noah Webster, and a schoolhouse where educator William McGuffey taught. Ford's own birthplace is here, too. If he couldn't get the original, Ford had a meticulous replica made, as he did with George Washington Carver's log cabin birthplace and Thomas Edison's New Jersey invention complex. Keeping these homes company are everything from a Cotswold stone cottage to a Cape Cod windmill to a set of Georgia slave quarters to a London clockmaker's mechanical glockenspiel to a fanciful 1913 carousel. You won't be able to imagine yourself into any single era, but you'll sure pick up vivid snippets of the past.

Once you've done Greenfield Village, there's yet more to see at the Henry Ford Museum next door, a 12-acre repository of Americana. With the same sort of acquisitive curiosity, Ford's staff assembled collections of historic airplanes (including the Fokker that Admiral Byrd used to explore the Arctic) and of course cars -- everything from a 1901 Model T to one of the few existing '48 Tuckers to the limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was shot. My favorite things here are an original neon McDonalds sign, an unsolicited testimonial scrawled by bank robber Clyde Barrow ("I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one"), and Buckminster Fuller's 1946 house of the future. From here, you can also take a tour of the famous Ford Rouge Plant, where you can see in action the factory assembly line process that made Ford's fortune. Two days is not enough time to see everything here.


20900 Oakwood Blvd. (tel. 313/271-1620;

This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.

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