In Williamsburg, time can feel remarkably linear. The American creation myth is spun so concretely that it becomes easy to envision the path from the 1700s to the present day without the detours of civil conflict, social upheaval, depression, world war, crisis, and reality television. In Williamsburg, America lives as it was born: an ideal.

That is why, perhaps, it was initially difficult for me to forge a connection to the place. Arriving at 17, I was a college student deep in the turmoils of change and growth, exiled to what felt like a corny, static pastiche of Colonial America.

For me, lots of life happened in the marshy land between the York and James Rivers. In the way that anyone’s college town becomes a physical manifestation of a very specific time, Williamsburg is that place for me. Yet, I would argue that it is also an objectively remarkable place, one overlaid with multiple timelines and narratives, constructed consciously and accidentally, sewn together with ghost stories, BBQ joints, expansive riverside plantations, and 60s era motels. There is no place like it.

Below, I want to share seven unique spots that helped me learn to love this strange corner of Virginia.

With something like 4 million visitors per year, there is ample information out there for you to plot a course through the well-known (and, admittedly, excellent) living history museum and amusement park. Instead, if you’re looking to stray from the oft-trodden path of Crocs and culottes, you may discover a strange polity shared by 19-year-old city councilmen and retired Ambassadors’ wives, simultaneously the heart of genteel Southern charm and where the Blue Line bus terminus grimly reads “Wal-Mart.”

This is the kind of place where (as was the case with a group of friends who moved off campus my senior year) it is possible to share a block with millionaires, colonial re-enactors, esteemed professors, and a meth lab. Welcome to Williamsburg.

1. James River Ferry

jamestown scotland ferry, state route 31 ferry
Crossing the James River on the car ferry. Fall 2013.

2110 Jamestown Road, Williamsburg, VA 23185

Runs 24/7 – Free

Next door to the Jamestown Settlement (famed for cannons and cannibalism), the VDOT car ferry launches its slow trek across the great estuarial expanse of the James River. In the temperate months, it’s a scenic wind-in-the-hair delight, and the crossing affords more than enough time to ditch the car on the deck below to take in some of the most lovely sights in the area.

Since the end of the 17th century, ferries have connected land near Jamestown with the wilder, less populated Surry County to the south. Today, Surry is a place that usually only enters the awareness of the comparatively urbane Williamsburg and James City County during emergency siren tests at the nuclear power plant on the distant riverbank.

The James River is spanned by a hellish array of chronically congested bridges and tunnels closer to Hampton Roads, and the next crossing is over 25 miles upriver in Charles City County, making the ferry a critical piece of infrastructure for the area. It’s best to steer clear of a potential wait by avoiding peak hours on weekdays.

Once across the river in Surry County, it’s possible to take a beautiful drive on rolling country roads through farms, pumpkin patches, corn mazes, and forests. Nearby Bacon’s Castle boasts magnificent gardens and is said to be America’s only surviving example of Jacobean architecture. (It is not, as I thought when I first heard the name, a knock-off Chuck E. Cheese helmed by friendly cartoon swine.) The rabble-rousers of the Virginia Rebellion expelled the home’s original loyalist owner in 1676, and the manor now blasphemously carries the name of the uprising’s leader, Nathaniel Bacon.

If great views and a long afternoon trip to the wilds of Surry don’t entice you to check out the ferry, perhaps something else will. 80s star Bruce Hornsby, a lifelong native of Williamsburg, also immortalized the crossing in the video for his musical tribute to the area, 1988’s “The Valley Road.” What more convincing do you need?

2. Charly’s Airport Restaurant

100 Marclay Road, Williamsburg, VA 23185
Open every day for lunch

Not far off Williamsburg’s inexplicable ring road, Route 199, is the town’s Municipal Airport. This friendly general aviation facility also hosts Charly’s, a tiny restaurant that serves up delicious homemade bread, sandwiches, and soups for aviators and laypeople alike.

Much of the allure of Charly’s comes from its proximity to an active runway: on any given day, numerous take-offs and landings are visible from their small patio or dining room. And with pilots stopping in to buy supplies or pay for fuel in the adjacent store, it’s also easy to imagine an itinerant life in the sky, sliding in over mountains to alight at similarly delightful restaurants the world over.

Yet, I doubt there are many other airport grub stops with similar baking acumen. The pies are not to be missed.

So much of Williamsburg is set in 1750. Charly’s is, in a sense, set in 1950. I could always imagine someone like my grandfather, himself a WWII pilot, settling in for his lunch favorites here. But, it’s also very much of the moment: local, homemade, and uniquely experiential. Don’t expect jello salad. 

Note: Photos above are courtesy Charly’s Airport Restaurant website.

3. Colonial Parkway

Runs between the Yorktown and Jamestown Visitor Centers

Arguably the most scenic road in the area, the Colonial Parkway spans the entire peninsula, taking its time to amble from Jamestown, through Colonial Williamsburg, on to Yorktown. It comprises 23 miles of largely unmarked pavement, running along the riverbanks and through the forests of the Historic Triangle. I may be biased, but it I believe it to be best experienced with a carful of friends at twilight, with the windows down, perhaps exceeding the speed limit ever so slightly.

And while the road flows along broad, river-like bends, it is also a starkly linear journey through time. It begins amid the inescapably brutal memories of the Jamestown Settlement, skirts into a tunnel below the aristocratic civility of Colonial Williamsburg, and emerges from the woods near the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, where modern American military power takes on an abruptly material form. In this 40-minute journey through 400 years, it is easy to forget that this road was actually conceived in the 1920s as a way to boost restoration efforts of the crumbling, forgotten ruins of these three towns.

Certainly, the Parkway dutifully manifests the official narrative of historical progression, but in recent times, has also been the site of much messier lore. Also running underneath Williamsburg is a deep aquifer of the mysterious and macabre, from the crypts and rituals of one of the New World’s oldest existing colleges to the bloody poltergeists of the Peyton-Randolph House (who are, by the way, much scarier during 1 AM unsanctioned visits than on official tours).

The Colonial Parkway’s ghosts are, in fact, derived from very recent history. In the late 1980s, the Parkway was plagued by a serial killer, who is believed to have brutally murdered at least 8 people in the dark of night along the road. Many of the victims were couples whose grisly killings happened in or near their cars. 30 years later, the murders are still unsolved, and the perpetrators – or perpetrators – are officially still at large.

Like the rest of this area, the Colonial Parkway is much more complicated than it seems. Even with a tragic and unsettling cloud still hanging over the road, it is a unique and irreplaceable facet of the Virginia Peninsula, and is well worth a drive.

4. Mermaid Books

421-A Prince George Street, Williamsburg, VA 23185
Open Monday-Saturday from 10 AM to 6 PM & Sunday from 12 PM to 5 PM

Especially in summer, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg’s main drag, Duke of Gloucester (DoG) Street, will no doubt become familiar with the air conditioning and free restroom access offered by the William & Mary bookstore. This Barnes and Noble outpost carries all the essentials, periodically hosts local authors, and includes a coffee shop purpose-built to be great study spot (or, during more recent Homecomings, my preferred perch during the desperate throes of 4:45 PM Friday conference calls).

Yet, “the Bookstore” lacks the magic of a lesser-known establishment just one block away on Prince George Street. Mermaid Books, founded in 1977 and now on its third owner, is an enchanted basement that bears little resemblance to the subterranean morgue of rental textbooks at the town’s other bookstore. According to a November 2016 article in Williamsburg Magazine, Mermaid’s original owner still occasionally pops in to work a shift.

Hatley Mason, the current steward of the storied shop, is a positively literary presence. His domain is chock-full of used books, maps, postcards, and magazines, all available for prices friendly to a leaner wallet. In a dark back hallway, there used to be a corner (shrine?) devoted to Edgar Allen Poe, complete with life-sized raven. At the register, your selections are recorded in a heavy, weathered ledger.

Descending into Mermaid Books feels like rediscovering a musty attic full of long-forgotten treasures, a feeling that is usually equal parts comforting and exhilarating. So close to the fray of fanny packs and field trips, this wonderful little store is a respite unlike any other in the heart of Williamsburg. I hope Mermaid stays right here for another 40 years and beyond, submerged just out of sight.

5. Jamestown Beach

Between Williamsburg and Jamestown, along the Colonial Parkway
GPS Coordinates: 37.223906, -76.695555

jamestown beach, college creek james river
Soaking up one of the last summer days at Jamestown Beach – where College Creek meets the James River.

Colloquially known as “Jamestown Beach,” this sandy strip at the outlet of College Creek into the James River is a perennial favorite of local families and students. There is a small parking lot across the road, plenty of shade, and space to set up blankets or umbrellas. On beautiful weekend days, it can be extremely popular.

As the closest beach of any kind to Williamsburg, this is an extremely appealing option for a quick dip or to soak up a few rays. However, don’t expect the boardwalk circus of Virginia Beach or even the much ampler facilities of Yorktown’s beach. Beachgoers seeking dining, shopping, or drinking options will have to return to the cosmopolitan splendor of Williamsburg proper.

It is also worth mentioning that, while this is public and well-used land, actually swimming or wading is officially discouraged. (So, even if I could offer tips on how to evasively execute late-night aquatic excursions with adventurous groups of revelers, I wouldn’t.) In the last decade, at least three people are known to have drowned at the spot. Strong rip currents and a sharp drop-off make swimming here, especially during certain tidal conditions, a very risky prospect. If you do choose to swim, definitely don’t do it alone or in the dark.

Yes, another treacherous and tragic barb in my recommendations, but one that should not deter you from your picnic or impromptu game of volleyball at this great spot. On the first day of warm weather, or during long afternoons as the late summer evaporates, my mind often drifts off to this little strip of sand, which appears in no (or few) local brochures. If you’re like me, that means it will feel almost like you’re the first to discover it.

6. Five Forks Cafe

4456 John Tyler Highway, Williamsburg, VA 23185
Closed Mondays; Breakfast: Tues. through Sun. 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Lunch: Tues. through Sun. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner: Tues. through Sat. 3pm to 9 pm

In an unassuming strip mall along Route 5, southwest of town, is what I consider to be Williamsburg’s best diner. This is a contentious assertion: for reasons not exhaustively understood, the town appears to have the highest per capita concentration of pancake-oriented dining establishments in the galaxy, and the competition is fierce.

Rumors swirl about various mafias and conspiracies laundering cash via pancakes (much like the even more entertaining and persistent theory that one – or all – of Williamsburg’s multiple Christmas-specific shops moonlights as a bordello), but the fact remains that there is a weekend morning wait at almost all of the area’s pancake houses. Five Forks is no exception – factor in a few extra minutes to hang out before a table opens up.

In my mind, Five Forks hits all the sweet spots of diner excellence: breakfast standards come fast and customized any way you could imagine them, service is unpretentious and efficient (plus, in some ways, a little exacting), and it feels like a true gathering place for locals. Plus, there are corn cakes. Try the corn cakes.

And as the Brunch-Industrial Complex is quickly establishing a worldwide stranglehold on weekend dining before 3 PM, Williamsburg seems to be remaining steadfast in its commitment to breakfast as a bounded and relevant construct.

Two honorable mentions for other great breakfast spots include Honey Butters Kitchen, Five Forks Cafe’s sister joint, where hush puppies served with the restaurant’s titular honey butter are the main attraction. Additionally, the Trellis, which reels in some of its high-end urges to offer up a simple and delightful breakfast offering on Saturdays during the DoG Street farmer’s market, serves unthinkably delightful buttermilk biscuits.

Note: all three photos above are courtesy the Five Forks Cafe website.

state route 5 virginia, charles city county grocery
If the Five Forks Cafe on Route 5 in Williamsburg isn’t earthy enough for you, keep driving east on 5 about five miles and you can get more earthy.

7. The College of William and Mary

1,200 acres, beginning at the western end of DoG Street, roughly bounded north by Richmond Road, and south by Jamestown Road

OK, here’s the cop-out. Of course, my journey of Williamsburg discovery began and ended at my alma mater. And as a visitor, you really should continue on past the iconic Wren Building, Sunken Gardens, and Crim Dell, back to the unspoiled woods where trails around Lake Matoaka wind for miles and miles, and where the ruins of an old amphitheater lie in slumber. Join the fray at the Daily Grind, and peruse the impressive showings at the Muscarelle Art Museum.

But I’ll keep it short: there’s so much more to this place than the stunning gardens near DoG Street, much of which is easily accessible from the usual photo spots.

daily grind coffee williamsburg
The Daily Grind coffee house at the College of William & Mary – warm-weather view, in contrast to the winter scene at top.

After some time on this campus, my sensation of Williamsburg exile largely subsided. Perhaps it was after I heard the passenger train heading north through town or when the woefully departed AirTran announced $68 tickets from Newport News Airport to LaGuardia.

When I arrived, Williamsburg felt wholly commodified and controlled, a banal backdrop of tri-cornered clichés, yet something else came to resonate with me. Beneath the manicured surface is something can’t be wrestled into a box, and the stories and legends of this place can’t be braided into one single reading of history.

Unearthing and accepting the messy, unkempt soul of Williamsburg was a challenge, but it was one that probably helped me extend the same courtesy to myself.

Note: Daily Grind photo courtesy of Wikipedia creative commons.

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