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Stay & Play | Williamsburg

From fairways to foundries, doglegs to democracy, golf and early America go together like fife and drum

By: James A. Frank

Appeared in Summer 2014 LINKS

Congress should pass a law that every American school child—and probably most adults, as well—visit Colonial Williamsburg. The capital of the Virginia Colony, restored with stunning accuracy to how it was just before the Revolution, is a living, breathing museum bursting with the latest technology circa 1770. Tinsmiths, scullery maids, apothecaries, peruke makers, printers, tavern keepers, and politicians—loyalists as well as rebels—do their thing exactly as it was done some 250 years ago in the Tidewater region of southeastern Virginia, a few hours south of what is now but wasn’t yet then the nation’s capital.

“The Birthplace of America” offers a very different, and thoroughly enjoyable, type of family entertainment. Instead of cartoon characters it has “real” characters, like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. And rather than thrill rides there is the thrill of storming the Governor’s Palace or hearing the Declaration of Independence read for the first time. As for interactivity, it’s possible to have a public audience with George Washington, serve on a jury in a witch trial, and learn how to do drop-spindle spinning. Plus dress up in period costume, ride in horse-drawn carriages, and talk to ghosts and pirates.

And play golf. The Golden Horseshoe Golf Club—which is under the aegis of the same non-profit foundation that runs the village, museums, hotels, and everything else—has its own place in history. The famed Gold Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones and renovated by his son Rees in 1998, just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Old man Jones brilliantly used the thick stands of trees and rolling terrain to create angled fairways and greens, incorporate sharp elevation changes, and challenge every kind of golfer from any of the five tee-box options. It’s been a regular on best-course lists forever, yet unlike most resort courses, the Gold has a private-club feel, its low-key atmosphere as revolutionary as anything across the street.

Just up the hill is the Green Course, which Rees designed in 1991, giving Golden Horseshoe the distinction of being one of golf’s few father-son co-productions. Built on ground similar to the Gold, the Green is more modern in design and stretches a little longer. There’s also a nine-hole course, called Spotswood after the
Colonial governor who is responsible for the legend of the “Golden Horseshoe” (part of the fun of Williamsburg is uncovering the stories behind many of the attractions); the short course is a good warm-up for the bigger ones and perfect for family golf.

Speaking of uncovering history, ask someone in the Gold Course pro shop why there’s a replica of the Ryder Cup displayed among the shirts and sweaters. Hint: It has nothing to do with the matches but is about the trophy itself.

Another historic fact: Colonial Williamsburg began its revived life in the 1920s thanks to the generosity of the Rockefeller family. The restored town got so popular that lodging was required, and in 1937, the Williamsburg Inn was opened. The most elegant of the property’s hotels, the Inn was built to John D. Rockefeller’s high standards of “comfort, convenience, and charm.” It was renovated in 2001 and the number of rooms actually reduced so the 62 that remain are large and lovely, filled with period touches married to modern luxury. The Regency Room restaurant in the Inn is an elegant dining experience, while the Gold Course is right out back.

The village offers other lodging and eating options for any taste or budget—six hotels and 11 restaurants along with indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, even lawn bowling.

The newest addition is The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, which opened in 2006. While the outside is a building of Georgian Revival style, the inside has all the latest spa and fitness amenities, such as a range of treatments, hair and makeup salons, a fully stocked gym, and a restaurant serving spa cuisine.

The wonder of Williamsburg is the easy interplay of old and new. It somehow makes perfect sense to watch a blacksmith pound a glowing bar of iron into a delicate serving fork, then work out on an elliptical trainer. Or discuss with the village doctor the use of Peruvian tree bark to treat fever before treating yourself to a gourmet repast.

Golf fits in, too, of course, because the game has its own rich history. Just don’t forget that we Colonials need to thank the British for bringing the game to our shores just before we decided to cut the empirical shackles. We won that match, too.    

Booking History

Colonial Williamsburg features:

  • 6 hotels with more than 1,000 rooms total
  • 11 restaurants, gourmet to grilles, historic taverns, and cafes
  • History comes alive on 300 acres with 88 original buildings, 225 period rooms, 500 reconstructed buildings
  • 3 museums with 67,000 pieces of American and British antiques and art, 5,000 examples of folk art
  • Ongoing tours and programs, as well as educational programs on history and citizenship for students and teachers
  • 20,000-square-foot spa
  • 45 holes of golf at Golden Horseshoe Golf Club
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