Vivacious is not a word that comes to mind when you think of Williamsburg, right? Think again. Changes are afoot as top executives of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation rethink the destination’s image in an effort to appeal to a broader range of visitors. For example, now visitors can download a free app to help navigate the historic area. Guests will also discover innovative programming—ox cart ride, anyone?—designed to tell America’s story to new generations.
Changes are also taking place at one of the historic area’s finest hotels, the Williamsburg Inn, which recently underwent a major renovation. Originally opened in l937, the elegant hotel was conceived by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who oversaw the original design, construction, and furnishing with his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
The hotel has seen some upgrades over the years, but this new iteration incorporates a “vivacious approach,” according to Cheryl T. Griggs, director of interior design for Colonial Williamsburg Company. “We wanted to give the property a fresher, more inviting look,” she explained, noting that the updated décor still honors the Rockefellers’ standards for quality and sophistication.
New dining concepts in the hotel’s restaurants were also unveiled, featuring bold flavors and new menu offerings. Peter and I headed up to the Williamsburg Inn recently to learn more about the property’s transformation. It was a quick trip, but long enough for us to feel the new energy that’s spreading through Colonial Williamsburg.
Golf is not my thing, but even I was impressed at the beautiful greens that undulate behind the Williamsburg Inn. In fact, the Gold Course just reopened following a complete renovation of all its greens, fairways, roughs, and bunkers. Peter and I admired the landscape as we walked from the Inn to the spa after dropping our bags at reception. We arrived early so we could relax and enjoy the property’s sumptuous spa and pools.
The Spa at Colonial Williamsburg offers a variety of treatments, many with a connection to our nation’s history. For example, you can enjoy an African Traditional Bath and Strengthening Massage, starting with a dip in herb-scented water followed by a nourishing shea butter massage. Another treatment is the Colonial Orange and Ginger Scrub and Massage, which promises overall well being. The spa was fully booked the day of our visit, but I took advantage of the steam room and whirlpool—both detoxifying and relaxing—before heading to the gorgeous pool to join Peter for some sunning and swimming.
Our room at the Inn was spacious and comfortable with a cozy seating area and a huge marble bathroom. After getting settled, we headed off to the lobby to meet Cheryl for a tour highlighting the property’s renovation. She pointed out subtle changes—new color palette and carpeting—in the lobby and noted that many furnishings are original, including the chandeliers and beautiful inlaid tables. The architectural style of the hotel remains intact as well, which Cheryl described as English Regency, comparable to American Federal. Think gilded mirrors, elegant swags, and eagle motifs.
We strolled along beautiful paths to the Queen’s Terrace, which is popular for weddings and overlooks the golf course. The dining areas have also been redone, including the Rockefeller Room, where we would be having dinner. I loved the plush serpentine banquettes that snake through the center of the Rockefeller Room.
Behind the Inn is the newly expanded outdoor Social Terrace with an open-air bar, where we met Executive Chef Travis Brust, who’s been hard at work creating new menus for the restaurants. One of the changes he’s implementing is adding spices to certain dishes since the spice trade was an integral part of our nation’s young history. “An element of spice makes it nice,” he said with a grin.
The chef shared a few signature appetizers with us, including Roasted Shishito Peppers, which were seasoned with a housemade mix of cumin, coriander, clove, cinnamon, and curry and served with citrus yogurt sauce. The peppers had just the right amount of heat. We also tried Warm Cheese Bread, which is like a cheese curd but velvety and soft, served with honey. Yum! Figs with prosciutto was another delicious appetizer, as was a curry crab salad. Peter and I tried two signature cocktails, a Manhattan and a Negroni, both barrel-aged in small batches. The oak barrel’s toasty-caramel flavors added an amazing dimension to each drink.
Our dinner was also revelatory. After the tasty amuse-bouche (“mouth amuser”)—a Tangier Island oyster bathed in a lemon-champagne sauce—our appetizers arrived. Peter had a beautiful Virginia crab cake—no Maryland crabs allowed—accompanied by gorgeous roasted carrots, one of Peter’s favorite veggies. I was drawn to the decadent slow-roasted pork belly served with popcorn grits and pepper jam—like bacon on steroids! Our wine choice was a lovely French rhone, which paired well with the different courses.
A plum cardamom sorbet served as the intermezzo, and then our main courses arrived. Peter opted for the duck breast dusted in chocolate and served with parsnip purée and greens. My main was dubbed The Rockefeller and featured both filet mignon and Carolina shrimp served alongside a medley of potato, asparagus, and bacon dotted with a cheese sauce. (My doctor would not be happy with my menu choices, but who’s telling?) We even managed to squeeze in dessert. Mine was a pecan financier, which is like an ultra-rich tea cake, and Peter ordered the Earl Grey custard served with rosemary shortbread. I’m not proud to say it, but we waddled a bit when we headed back to our room.
And waiting on the pillow of our turned-down bed was a lovely peach cordial and a selection of chocolates. Oh well, you only live once, right?
The next morning, I awoke early, feeling guilty for indulging so much the night before. I put on my running shows and headed out for a run through the historic area. On Duke of Gloucester Street, a few early-bird tourists were strolling about, but the historic area was mostly quiet and peaceful.
Colonial Williamsburg is such a gem. It’s the world’s largest living history museum and has so much to teach us about how our young nation began. As I ran past taverns and shops, gardens and homes, I realized how important this attraction is to the local economy and the people who live in Williamsburg. I hope the historic area finds its footing in our rapidly changing world. Meanwhile, I know a lovely place to stay next time you’re up that way.
Visit www.history.org for more information.