Imagine you were Rip Van Winkle in reverse. You’ve nodded off for 400 years rather than 20. Now, you wake up to find yourself on the deck of a wooden sailing ship off the coast of Virginia.
“Your first thought would be to look for a source of freshwater,” tells Steve Ormsby, administrator of The Watermen’s
Museum in Yorktown. “Then, it would have been protection, up a river, and at the same time finding deep water where you could tie up to the trees and row ashore. Your fellow passengers would have been tradesmen, merchants and craftsmen, skills needed to establish a settlement but not live in the wilderness. Still, you wouldn’t have gone hungry at first. Captain John Smith wrote in his journal that the oysters he found were the size of dinner plates.”
Fast forward to the historic triangle of Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown, which is among America’s first settlements and easy to reach by water. It’s a beautiful sail or motor from the Atlantic Ocean across the Chesapeake Bay to the James or York Rivers. Once here, explore ashore and offshore, too. Here’s a sampling of five top stops.
Located on the Yorktown waterfront, upriver from the Riverwalk Landing marina, dining and shopping area, this nonprofit museum is a treasure trove of nautical history. Exhibits narrate how local watermen helped defeat the British in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Yorktown with their local knowledge to help pilot the ships, as well
as the local watermen’s way of life as commercial fishermen.
“One of the focal points at the museum is the Windmill. Built in 1711, it was used to grind corn, but after that it stood as a waymark for ships sailing the York River,” says Ormsby. In April, the museum re-opened for the season with six new 10-foot by 10-foot kiosks in the Windmill Lot. These interactive displays feature ropemaking, pottery, candle making, boatbuilding and woodwork, sail making, and blacksmithing. The museum also runs an award-winning summer camp, with a pirate-themed environmental camp for kids in grades K to 5, and hands-on camps for those in grades 3 to 8 focused on boatbuilding, an archaeological beach dig and maritime trades.
Cast off from Yorktown’s Riverwalk Landing Pier on this 105-foot gaff-rigged schooner. There are three two-hour sightseeing cruises daily. Along the way, see the historic Victory Monument and Battlefield, working watermen plying their trade as they did years ago, and perhaps a modern naval ship or school of dolphins. The Alliance’s sails are set traditionally with block and tackle, and passengers are welcome to help. The crew provides narration
and sea stories along the way.
You’ll find many historical markers along Yorktown’s Riverwalk Landing, a mile-long pedestrian path from the Battlefield to the American Revolution Museum, making this
an educational and entertaining stroll. “Many of the markers involve the water, specifically the Battle of Yorktown and the Middle Passage,” says Gail Whittaker, public information officer for York County, VA.
“If you’re lucky, you might see an opening of the Coleman Bridge that crosses the river and joins Yorktown with Gloucester County. It is the largest double-swing-span bridge in the United States and the second largest in the world! The Naval Weapons Station Yorktown is just upriver from our waterfront. It’s awesome to see the bridge swing open as one of our marvelous Navy ships glides by.”
You might not find oysters the size of dinner plates, but you can fill your dish with fresh seafood in Colonial Williamsburg. Try Berret’s Seafood Restaurant & Taphouse Grill, located in Merchant’s Square. There’s she-crab soup for starters, seasonal specialties like lemon pepper-crusted grouper fillet and seared sea scallops, and signature entrees such as The Original Blue Plate: sauteed backfin crabcake, baked oysters Rockefeller and grilled shrimp. The oyster bar features shucked Victory Point
York River Oysters on the half shell.
There is likely nowhere better for colonial history buffs to spend a day indoors and outdoors than in the living history museum that is this settlement. Films and exhibits portray the lives of Virginia’s Native Americans, the first English settlers, and the initial arrival of West Africans, all three here in the early 17th century. The most fun is to climb on board replicas of the three ships on which the first English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607 — the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery — and imagine you’re onboard.
European settlers planted roots in the Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown over a century before the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 up north in Philadelphia. Yet, it’s the wealth of national history and its preservation that makes this area one of the best places to celebrate this summer holiday.
Riverwalk Landing & Historic Yorktown
8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Early birds start the day with a 5K walk or 8K run. The patriotic parade follows with the best viewing spots along Water and Main Streets. Bring your flags to wave and toe-tap to the Fifes & Drums corps beat. At 1 p.m., a hot dog eating contest is hosted by Toby’s Dog House in Jamestown, with a satellite location in Yorktown’s Water Street. Patriotic concerts start after dark, culminating in a firework display over the York River. Watch from the Yorktown Waterfront & Victory Monument at 803 Main Street or anchor out and see the sparklers reflected in the water.
9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Immerse yourself in all things independence during a day-long of activities. Stand at the Capitol West Balcony to hear Thomas Jefferson read the Declaration of Independence. A special military muster in Market Square, concert of celebration at the Play House Stage, historical reflections re-enacted throughout the day, free ice cream, and live music on the Lawn of the Art Museums culminate in the Lights of Freedom Fireworks Display at 9:20 p.m. The best places for viewing are the East Lawn of the Art Museum, the Palace Green and Market Square.
Riverwalk Landing Piers
The heart of Yorktown’s waterfront is within walking distance of historic sights, shops and dining. There are no individual slips here, but all piers are dedicated to transient and temporary stay boaters. Facilities include shore power in 30, 50 and 100 amp, pump-out and private key coded boater restrooms with showers. No fuel is available. The busiest times are May-June and September-October. To reserve docking, email email@example.com or call 757-890-3370.
York River Yacht Haven
Gloucester Point, VA
This Suntex Marinas property is located at the mouth of Sarah Creek, opposite Yorktown, in a 14-acre rural storm-protected area. The full-service facility boasts 280 slips accommodating boats up to 160’. Transients can enjoy amenities including fuel, laundry services, free Wi-Fi and a freshwater pool.
Along the James River, the marina at Kingsmill Resort offers a tranquil getaway with activities on-site. Enjoy everything from lush golf courses to upscale amenities and lodging at Cottages on the James or The Estate at Kingsmill’s private mansion. The marina offers annual slip leases for vessels up to 80’ depending on beam width.