My daughter, Isabelle, loves great stories -- especially the ones that are full of gloom. Her favorite movie scene is from Cinderella, when the main character's stepsisters rip apart her lovely pink dress just before the ball, followed closely by one from The Little Mermaid, when Ariel despairs after her father destroys all the knick-knacks the young mermaid collected from the forbidden human world.

Of course, a Disney vacation might seem perfect for such a 4-year-old, but I was convinced it would be too pleasant for her dramatic tastes. There's not nearly enough turmoil.

History, on the other hand, has plenty of it, which is why I was excited to take my family on a $500 getaway to what's often described as Virginia's "living museum" of historic sites surrounding Williamsburg, the former Colonial capital; especially on the eve of the nearby Jamestown colony's 400th anniversary.

The settlement's saga has enough intrigue for a lifetime of angst-filled tales. In fact, Hollywood has already pilfered the story twice in recent years, with Disney's Pocahontas and last year with Terrence Malick's The New World.

For the most part, my hunch was right: Isabelle loved the Cliffs Notes versions of the story I gave her about the young Pocahontas "saving" Capt. John Smith, the many skirmishes between the settlers and the Algonquian Indians and what little girls from either clan would do to play. As an added bonus, she and my other daughter, Cora, almost 2, got to see, taste and even touch the many accoutrements of those times.

Of course, the little ones got impatient on occasion, but many of the newer activities opening in anticipation of the commemoration extravaganza, which runs May 11-13, captured their excitement. That's the real litmus test for any family vacation, but my wife and I also were awed by the opportunity to stand at the site of the church where settlers passed some of the first legislation in the New World, or to walk around on replicas of Smith's three ships.

There's an irresistible aspect to history tourism: The chance to say you stood in a place where something really important happened, whether it be the small Virginia island that played host to America's birth, the tiny hall in Philadelphia where the colonies declared their independence from Britain, or a small fort in San Antonio where a desperate commander drew a line in the sand.

Heading South

Driving to Williamsburg, I did my best to quiet the girls with Raffi songs and hilariously abridged stories about Smith and Pocahontas: the Indians were about to "make him break" (thankfully, my daughters don't know what kill means), and at the last second, the young girl intervened to save his life.

Isabelle wanted this one over and over, meaning she would soon begin to act it out in dramatic fashion, but first she needed to ask a few tough questions.

Were the Indians bad? No, I told her, they were just scared someone would take their house away. Who would take their house away? Some of Capt. Smith's friends. Why? Because they weren't very nice. Why?

When I ran out of answers for Jamestown, she went back to Ariel and Cinderella for the rest of the drive.

By the time we got to our hotel -- a two-room suite in Williamsburg, a hub for visitors to any of the area's historical attractions -- we were beat. Full of snacks we had brought from home, we took the girls for a brief swim, planned a marathon Friday and hit the sack. The next morning, to save money and make better use of a short weekend, we ate the complimentary breakfast at the hotel and then split up. Kira and Cora explored shopping in the area, and I went with Isabelle to meander around Colonial Williamsburg.

Interpreters

Now, I'll admit that a few things about historical "interpreters" have always bothered me. First, there's kind of a cornball aspect to the costumes, half-hearted accents and buttery greetings that always make me embarrassed, like I am watching a terrible play but can't leave because my friends are in it. Second, although I will concede that the actors know the basic facts about the Colonial era, is that really history? They seem more like walking almanacs that can't answer the most important questions about our past.

I had read that Williamsburg had slave interpreters, and I really didn't know how to prepare. Slaves comprised at least half of Virginia's population in Colonial times, but would the mock-up city -- complete with interactive trade shops, a period post office and the chance to watch revolutionary-era debates in the Virginia House of Burgesses -- be able to do justice to their lives? And if it couldn't, should it by trying?

These questions went unanswered as Isabelle and I explored the historic area, where I saw only one black person out of all the interpreters, and he was sitting with a notebook of what appeared to be instructions about his acting part, which he claimed were figures for his business.

Thinking she would like to explore a blacksmith shop, or a wig-making parlor, or watch seamstresses at work, I took her to each stop and it was all I could do to keep her from breaking something. I was also disappointed at many turns to find yet another gift shop filled with expensive quills or other "Colonial" trinkets. And people kept suggesting we check out the lambs on a small farm, which got us both excited, but we zig-zagged the town looking for them and never had any luck.

Still, we each enjoyed a few things. I liked sitting in an audience while an interpreter playing George Washington answered questions, and Isabelle stopped to dance at the feet of a few musicians.