If you’re looking for a very merry holiday getaway, you don’t have to go far. Williamsburg, Va., is just a few hours away by car, and it’s the ideal escape for those seeking festive, old-fashioned charm. With each historic home, restaurant and shop window decked out in authentic, all-natural Christmas decorations, the holiday season marks the busiest time of year for the city, which draws as many as 200,000 people from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
To walk through the historic area of Williamsburg is to be transported to Colonial America. To enter the Williamsburg Inn is to step back to a time where couples still dressed for dinner and refinements such as finger bowls weren’t a novelty but a necessity. The inn, which opened in 1937, was designed to the specifications of Williamsburg’s patrons, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Abby. A major renovation in 2001 modernized the inn without sacrificing its famous understated luxury and Southern charm— the Regency period-style furnishings in the inn’s lobby are still arranged to Mrs. Rockefeller’s preference, for example. My room was a luscious (and large) home away from home. It even had its own little boxwood Christmas tree.
My first adventure at the inn was getting lost while trying to get to an appointment at the new Spa of Colonial Williamsburg. The inn is a warren of hallways and stairways that invite pleasant wandering. One random corridor leads to a gorgeous sitting room; around another corner, there’s a great little reading nook. In one lounge, travelers can scribble a note about their stay on gilt cards and hang them from the boughs of a Christmas tree. And every room and hall is filled with the heady scent of blooming paperwhites coupled with red amaryllis and Christmas greens in china bowls.
A re-created Colonial America might sound like Disney-esque kitsch to some, but Williamsburg takes its role as an educational destination and preservation district seriously. So while the spa was built in 2007, history played a role in every aspect of its development. “The challenge for us was how we could work a spa with the concept of a historic area,” explained Ed Allmann, director of marketing. “The [Williamsburg] Foundation’s mission is ‘so the future may learn from the past’ and everything must echo that mission.”
After extensive research, the spa settled on a theme of “five centuries of wellness,” which, in practice, means it emphasizes herbal treatments germane to the Tidewater area. Most high-end spas offer treatments using these same products, but these are treatments with a two-hour, century-inspired twist. You’ll be wrapped in steaming linens and massaged with the essential oils used during the 17th century: lavender, juniper and rosemary. Angelica, pennyroyal, sage, ginger and oranges— items used by apothecaries of the time— are introduced as your 18th-century herbal rub and scrub down. The 19th-century treatment consists of some of the same properties of the past, but introduces clary sage and sea salts.
Wanting to cover as many years as possible in a short period of time, I opted for the 17th-century hot stone massage (a modern interpretation of an ancient healing ritual) and the 21st-century facial. The massage began with a cleansing ritual wherein a porcelain container of sage-scented oil was opened and the aroma wafted over me. Then my service provider used herbal oils and hot stones to massage my body. Warm stones were placed in my palms and under my feet before she wrapped me in warm, damp linen and then in something akin to plastic wrap. While toxins were (hopefully) leaching out of my skin, I received a cranial facial massage. After that luxury, I rinsed off in the shower of my private room, and then had yet another stone massage. Finally, in a completely gelatinous state, I was left to pull myself together and stumble back to the inn for dinner.
The Regency Room at the inn is a restaurant with old traditions— men in ties, finger bowls with rose petals, a palate-cleansing sorbet— that are holding strong against the increasing casual dining experience (in which BlackBerrys are brought to the table). My keeper for the night was Joseph O’Callahan, formerly of the Colonial Williamsburg Co. Joe and his family were among the approximately 100 families who live in the historic area of Colonial Williamsburg. When I relayed my delicious spa experience, he responded, “We decided if we were going to do this, we needed to do it perfectly to fit into our history. The 18th century was pretty big on healing methodologies.”
To start the meal, I ordered the salmon tartare, the lobster bisque and a sublime dish of porcini-dusted scallops. My main entrée was a pan-roasted cod that arrived just as the pianist started to play. A few couples took to the dance floor. “Williamsburg really invented the holiday getaway,” Joe said, watching the dancers spin across the floor. “People naturally gravitate to this area in the winter for the holiday decorations, and it has just grown. There’s something special about being here at Christmastime.”
Williamsburg’s tradition of using natural elements to decorate its streets and homes is a modern interpretation of what might have been in the 18th century— there are no ribbons or bows because that would be so Victorian. Walking through the historic area on an unseasonably warm day, I spotted the usual suspects— various incarnations of apples, oranges and pineapples nestled in boxwoods or attached to evergreen swags— but also things one would never expect, such as oyster shells, tobacco leaves, bird feathers and dried coxcomb. There were whimsical touches, too, like the pub whose wreath was ringed with pewter beer steins filled with fluffy natural cotton to simulate foam, and the printing house that had a wreath of newsprint twirled into rosettes and surrounded by dried herbs and flowers.
To complement the decorations, there are festivities and events throughout the season, from musical performances and 18th-century plays to special re-enactments and a dance at the Governor’s Palace (see sidebar). And for those who need less holiday and more history, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum are perfect places to explore on cold, dreary winter days.
Early on my second day in Williamsburg, I found my way back to the spa, where I sipped on a cup of apple mint tea and snacked on a few almonds while paging through copies of 18th-century literature about using sage and rosemary to cure headaches and making beautifying masks from items found in the Colonial pantry or apothecary: juniper, rosemary, angelica and sage. My 21st-century facial began with something decidedly un-modern: Toilet de Flora vanilla-lavender salt scrub footbath in a copper pan— copper being considered to have an antifungal property at that time— which was followed by a decidedly contemporary skin manipulation treatment. The ultrasonic exfoliation combined with an oxygen treatment left my face feeling refined and hydrated.
Following the treatment, I went downstairs to the “wet lounge.” I bypassed the women’s plunge pool and chose 15 minutes in the steam room, after which I rubbed down with a chilled towel from an ice bucket. A glass of fruit-infused water was a perfect end to the experience.
That night while dining at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, I had another uniquely Williamsburg experience: listening to a serpent player fill the room with his deep bass renditions of traditional holiday tunes. (A serpent is a 16th-century instrument carved of wood that’s the great-granddaddy of the tuba.)
Unfortunately, modernity and all its responsibilities tugged at my sleeve, though before embarking on the drive home, there was one more stop. I swung into Market Square, an ideal spot to pick up last-minute Christmas gifts.
There I found all the trappings required to re-create a Williamsburg-inspired holiday at home, such as ropes of pine, fresh and dried fruits (apples, oranges, pomegranates, figs, pineapples, etc.), holly and juniper berries, along with more unusual items, such as clam shells, seed pods and sea gull feathers, all used to make wreathes and to spruce up evergreen swags.
There’s even an instructional DVD that shows how to make a hanging window wreath using magnolia leaves and clove-spiked oranges. Still, even with the DVD, it’s hard to believe you could re-create the charm and beauty of Christmas in Williamsburg anywhere else.
Grand Illumination: Colonial Williamsburg’s 74th annual holiday season kickoff event includes music, window display lighting and an “18th-century-style” fireworks display. Dec. 7. Fireworks at the Palace Green, Magazine and Capitol Building begin at 6:15 p.m. Entertainment on multiple stages in the historic area begins at 4:45 p.m., then fireworks until 7:30 p.m. Free.
Shields Tavern Holiday Feast: Spend some quality time with Colonial interpreters over an opulent supper and mulled cider, eggnog and wassail punch.
Dec. 19 to Dec. 31. $55 per person.
Thomas Jefferson Wine Dinner: Become a Williamsburg VIP as you wine and dine with Mr. Jefferson, who will share stories of his European travels.
Dec. 19. 5 to 8 p.m. $120 per person.
Kids’ Holiday Memories Weekend: Features caroling, dancing, storytelling, puppet shows and a complicated Colonial card game called “Loo,” which involves rounds, bets, tricks and … well, they’ll explain the rest. Weekends of Dec. 13, 20 and 27. $15 for children 6 and up; $7 for children under 6.
An Evening of Dance at the Palace: Practice your country dances, reels and minuets amidst the candlelit Governor’s Palace. Dec. 18. 7 to 8:30 p.m. $15 per person.
Fifes and Drums March: A traditional militia field musicians’ march from the Capitol Building to the Palace Green. Dec. 24. 6:30 p.m. Free.
[ To reserve tickets for these events, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit http://www.History.org/Christmas. ]
The Williamsburg Inn is located in Williamsburg, Va., approximately 4 hours away from Baltimore. 757-220-7978, http://www.colonialwilliamsburgresorts.com. Rates $319- $799. Golf and spa packages available.