We spent several wintery Sunday mornings planning out our road trip + camping for Spring Break this year and initially we tossed around destinations like Charlestown, SC and Asheville, NC. We wanted to avoid cold weather if possible but didn’t want to spend days and days driving to our destination. Ultimately we paired up Colonial Williamsburg camping with a weekend stop in Washington, DC for this year’s Spring Break road trip.
We had five days for our trip this year and wanted to make the most of our time away from home and so decided to make the trip down to Williamsburg in a single day. Google Maps put it at about a 4.5 hour drive but everything in the Vanagon takes longer so we actually ended up taking about 8.5 hours to get from home to Williamsburg.
I wish that Google or Apple maps would allow you to control for slower than expected average speeds on their trip ETA formulas. We didn’t hit much traffic but did stop several times for breaks on the way down to Virginia, still it took us almost double the estimated time.
That’s a long day in the car but our kids are seasoned road-trippers and didn’t really start to melt down until the last 30 minutes or so.
Chickahominy Riverfront Park
We grabbed dinner at Huzzah a touristy but reasonably-priced and family-friendly restaurant that Kel found online. Family-friendly as the place was, Jack still managed to bring down a hush over the entire restaurant as he smashed a plate on the floor for no particular reason. Still, the staff was very helpful, saw that we sort of had our hands full with Jack and really quickly brought out the kids’ dinner orders.
After eating, we headed to Chickahominy Riverfront Park, a small county-run campground just outside of downtown Williamsburg (with a pool and driving range). The reviews for this campground were kind of mixed on TripAdvisor but most of the negatives had to do with horse flies — too early in season to be a problem — and customer service when he place got busy–also too early in the season to be a problem.
I typically like to get to the campground during daylight hours so I can check out our site and position the van in a good spot but we rolled in after dark. The camp office was closed and we had to drive around in the dark for a bit to find our site.
The campground was mostly empty which can sometimes feel a bit creepy, especially when rolling in at night but I think I was too tired to sweat it and was really glad I managed to park the Vanagon on really flat spot. We popped the top, had a quick snack and a nightcap and went to bed.
We awoke the next morning to see that we were only a few feet from the James River. Overcast and chilly out, but still really a cool location. Unfortunately, the ranger drove by a few minutes after we awoke and told us we’d have to move because pop-top campers were not allowed in the spot we were in. Seemed strange to me, especially since there were about 100 sites at the campground and only four were taken. But whatever. I’m not going to argue with the guy as he’s just doing his job.
We moved to different site about 75 yards away, just as scenic but a bit closer to the showers and bathroom which makes it easier on our kids (and me, as I have to ride Jack over there on the back of the Xtracycle). After a quick breakfast and coffee, we showered and headed into Colonial Williamsburg.
Williamsburg was a blast. We bought the multi-day tickets at our local AAA office before we left home and saved some money on the sort of pricey admission. There are dozens of different historical presentations and re-enactments to check out but, of course, the highlight for Jay was the guns and ammunition and other weaponry. He also enjoyed the re-enactment of real cases at the courthouse. Make sure to pick up and review the daily schedule/calendar available at the Vistor’s Center, you’ll miss out on a whole lot of activities/events if you don’t have the daily schedule.
There was a lot of walking involved which didn’t work out so well for Jack so my wife and I took turns with the boys; one of us sitting with Jack while the other toured the historic area on foot with Jay. There was a lot for both kids to explore and fortunately there was a very well-operated shuttle service that ran continuolusy around the historic area. For part of the day, we would take turns just riding the shuttle around the area with Jack. He loves busses and it was a great way to keep him occupied doing something he enjoyed while one of us did activities with our older son.
If you’re visiting Williamsburg you will absolutely be exposed to the elements for most of the visit. As such, I would definitely try to stay clear of Williamsburg if it’s too hot or too cold outside. Much of what Jack found engaging was being outdoors and walking through the gardens and backyards of the historic houses. I could see the trip being a nightmare if the weather weren’t any good. There are things to do indoors but most of the spaces are cramped and some of the demonstrations could be hit or miss for kids. So, plan on being outside for a lot of the time.
We packed in a lot of our own food, as usual. We do this not simply to avoid paying for over-priced tourist food but we can bring in some slightly healthier snacks and drinks (Trader Joe’s nuts are a recent favorite pick). There were concession stands disguised as Ye Olde Apothecary and other touristy crap like that but we mostly stayed clear of those. An area called “Merchant Square” has a wide variety of shops and restaurants, all touristy but better options than what you’ll find in the heart of the colonial area. We ate lunch at a restaurant there and weren’t disappointed.
After a full day in Colonial Williamsburg we stopped at a Trader Joe’s on the way back to the campground for dinner provisions. The area surrounding Colonial Williamsburg is shockingly overdeveloped. Shopping centers are built up on top of each other, turning most of the surround area into a giant maze of interconnected parking lot that take you from one retail location to another with a lot of hotels mixed in. If shopping is your thing, you’ll probably really enjoy the retail that abounds in the area. Frankly, I spent much of my time trying to figure out how the local economy in the area works– who shops at all these places, who works there, where do the workers live? It just seemed like the scale of the retail is a bit out of whack but perhaps the area attacks larger crowds in the summer than we saw during Spring Break.
Having a nice, tranquil campground on the James River just outside the perimeter of the retail zone to return to at the end of the day was refreshing and helped to feel like we had the best of both worlds: nature and commerce.
The grilled cheeses that I made on the Coleman griddle with fancy bread and cheese from Trader Joe’s were a huge hit for dinner. And the wine selection at Trader Joes is just astounding and so well-priced that our al fresco dinner was really enjoyed by all. By the time we’d cleaned up it was time for bed.
A Change of Plans
Our second day at Williamsburg the temps climbed into the 80s and it was beautiful. The change in the weather though meant that there was a huge storm system rolling into the area that evening. We had been planning on heading closer to Jamestown and camping at the highly-recommended Chippokes Plantation State Park but instead we decided not to risk dining and camping out in a storm and looked for a nearby hotel instead.
We were really grateful for our iPhones that day. To be able to check the weather, cancel our campsite (and get a refund) and book a hotel (Clarion Historic District) in under 15 minutes all from a bench at the Williamsburg Visitor’s Center is pretty much a miracle and something that travelers shouldn’t take for granted as it would have been unthinkable to improvise arrangements like that so easily 10 years ago.
Once we had the accommodations for the night taken care of, we drove the Colonial Parkway to Jamestown. Jamestown is a bit confusing as there is a National Park as well as a smaller museum not part of the National Park. We didn’t get to the museum.
Instead, I spent the morning taking a short bike ride with Jack around the island while my wife took our older son to the archeological site of the former settlement. We used our Access Pass and the visit was free. After a quick picnic lunch of salami and cheese and some other easy provisions we took the Colonial Parkway back up to the Williamsburg and found our hotel.
The hotel was less than a half mile from the historic section of Williamsburg. After checking in a bit after lunch, I took Jack on a very long bike ride around the dirt roads of Colonial Williamsburg. The ride was fantastic and highly recommend spending at least some time on a bicycle if visiting Williamsburg. There are a few climbs but nothing too difficult and you get to really do a lot more exploring than you could possibly do on foot (and go places where no car can go).
We were rightly cautious about not wanting to camp that night at Chippokes Plantation that evening. While were gorging ourselves on burritos at a local Chipotle for dinner, a huge storm system rolled into the area with high winds and hail. Dining out and staying at a hotel that evening turned out to be a good call.
Cherry Blossoms IN DC
The next morning we headed up north to Washington DC. We hit an insane amount of traffic on the way into the city, perhaps because it was Cherry Blossom Festival weekend. The Vanagon did great in the stop and go traffic and the kids were able to keep it together for the drive.
When we visit DC we always stay at the Omni Shoreham hotel up near the National Zoo. We thought about camping at Greenbelt Park this year but the kids (and mom and dad) really enjoy the routine that we’ve developed with riding out bicycles down from the hotel to the National Mall so we decided to splurge on the hotel for the night.
We made it to the Omni just around lunch time, got checked in and grabbed a great lunch across the street at Open City (nice wines by the glass options here, btw) before riding our bicycles down to the mall where we (and thousands and thousands of other visitors) enjoyed the amazing spring weather and views of the Cherry Blossoms.
Later in the afternoon, we rode over to the museums. My wife took our younger son into the transportation display at the National Museum American History (this particular exhibit, which has been around for a long time, is probably one of the best in all of the museums for younger kids). I took our older son over to the National Gallery to look at a few paintings unfortunately the Gallery closes at 5pm while the rest of the museums stay opened much later. So we got chased out just a short while after we entered.
The rest of the weekend in DC was beautiful. Great weather, good eating out, mostly well-behaved kids. It was a great way to wrap up spring break. The next morning we headed back up to New Jersey by way of Eastern Shore Maryland. Google maps was showing massive traffic north of Baltimore and indicated the Eastern Shore route would only take an extra 20 minutes. Of course, in the Vanagon it took much longer anyway but it was scenic and when you’re in the Vanagon there’s no such thing as a schedule. Which is just about right for Spring Break.
Tips for Visiting Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Washington, DC
- Chickahominy Riverfront Park is a good campground, especially if you’re looking to escape the rampant commercialism of downtown Williamsburg. Note though that you should tell them when booking the site if you’ve got a pop top on your Vanagon because it will mean you’re excluded from certain sites.
- Definitely keep an eye on the forecast when you’re headed to Colonial Williamsburg, there aren’t many places to escape the elements.
- If the weather is cooperative, absolutely make time for a bicycle ride around Colonial Williamsburg. You’ll see more than you can on foot and get to see places you can’t go by car.
- Jamestown National Historic Site was a good bargain for us because our Access Pass got us in for free. Not sure how I would have felt about it if we paid full price for admission.
- To obtain the AAA discount on Williamsburg tickets you have to buy the tickets ahead of time either online through AAA’s website or at a local AAA storefront.
- Colonial Parkway has sections that are just stunningly beautiful. A great drive, even better if you’re in a Vanagon.