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America’s living-history sites

Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Roll up your sleeves and loosen your belt — your next visit to a living-history site could involve some serious activity and a meal to remember.

Gone are the days when historic sites offered only tours with costumed interpreters. From New England to Virginia, Indiana and Wisconsin, America’s best living-history attractions are introducing interactive programs and opportunities that get their visitors involved in the site’s activities.

Take your group to one of these great interpretive history centers, and you can help prepare a frontier meal, hoist a ship’s sail or play games of chance in a historic tavern with Colonial revelers.

Plimoth Plantation
Plymouth, Massachusetts
Established to re-create the colony formed by the famous Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, Plimoth Plantation has all of the trappings of a top living-history site, including numerous Pilgrim and Native American buildings and an immersive interpretation program. Recently, the organization has also begun implementing culinary offerings that allow groups to experience history through dining.

“Last year, we created a new Colonial themed meal called Mayflower II Dinner and Brew,” said Janet Young, group sales manager for Plimoth Plantation. “You get to taste history. You discover what life was like aboard the Mayflower during the voyage of 1620, then you come to the plantation to participate in a family-style dinner that helps you form relationships.”

The meal pairs traditional 17th-century foods with beers produced by the Mayflower Brewing Co. This company was founded by a 12th-generation descendant of a Mayflower pilgrim and uses craft beer recipes that date back to the 1600s.

Another culinary experience, the 17th-Century Dinner Harvest, features fine seasonal foods prepared according to English traditions, accompanied by entertainment and costumed interpreters. Groups can also opt for Eat Like a Pilgrim, a meal served in one of the re-created Pilgrim houses at the site.

“They set the table as if you were in a Pilgrim’s house, and explain the meal to you as it would have occurred in the 17th century,” Young said. “They explain etiquette and table settings and talk about the historic foods that you’re going to be eating.”

In addition to meal activities, the Plimoth Plantation staff can arrange for behind-the-scenes tours and other interactive programming for tour groups.

Colonial Williamsburg
Williamsburg, Virginia
With dozens of historic or re-created Colonial buildings and a first-rate staff of costumed interpreters, Colonial Williamsburg has established itself as the grand dame of living-history sites in the United States. One of the organization’s strengths is the broad variety of interactive programs that it offers for groups.

Four restaurants in the historic area offer a variety of dining styles. Christiana Campbell’s is a seafood restaurant that re-creates the establishment that George Washington frequented during his time in the area. King’s Arms Tavern focuses more on beef, while Shields Tavern offers a variety of historic foods. Each of these taverns features troupes of costumed musicians and entertainers who make rounds through the dining room performing for guests.

Groups will find an even more interactive experience at Chowning’s Tavern, Williamsburg’s 18th-century pub.

“It’s a very exciting and lively night with 18th-century songs and games of chance,” said Perry Goodbar, vice president of hospitality sales for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “The costumed interpreters interact with you and help you understand how to play the games.”

Beyond meals, group leaders can arrange for a number of other historical encounters for their travelers. The city’s famous fife-and-drum corps parades down the main thoroughfare every afternoon, and group leaders can arrange for a fife-and-drum escort to walk their members to a dinner or reception on the property. Colonial Williamsburg also has a team of well-versed actors who interpret the roles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Madison. These actors are available for small-group presentations and question-and-answer sessions with visitors.  —

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.