WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Outside the window, the heavy, steady rhythm of strong horses pulling a carriage sounds in the thick, mid-summer air: clip-clop, clip-clop. Later, the martial sounds of a fife-and-drum corps draw one outside to see what the commotion is all about.
This is the world of Colonial Williamsburg. Not the only one, mind you. Living history programs are making the historic district more than a quaint vacation getaway. You can learn a lot here. But after all the brain food, sometimes you just want good food and a relaxing place to rest your head.
There are several ways to enjoy Colonial Williamsburg. At the top of the list is the elegant Williamsburg Inn, with its fine restaurant and sculptured golf course. Opened in 1937, the inn was the nation's first air-conditioned hotel and was a favorite of John D. Rockefeller Jr.
For a change of pace, though, the Colonial Houses offer another level of intimacy. These 27 guest homes give visitors a unique way to experience Colonial Williamsburg. They are converted taverns, slave quarters, kitchens and main houses. Some have single rooms, while others have suites or entire houses for families or large groups.
Each guest house takes its place alongside the working shops and other private residences in the historic district. Beautiful gardens and courtyards give visitors a peaceful break from the activity along Duke of Gloucester Street. The idea is to give guests a taste and feel of the 18th century.
Furnishings include armoires, comfortable canopy beds and stately grandfather clocks that take the mind back to another time. An old fire bucket can be found hanging near the front door of some houses. Working fireplaces add a cozy feel to long winter nights. There's no modern art or faux Picasso prints on the walls. Instead, the Colonial Houses opt for reproductions of prints and maps of the era.
Wall-to-wall carpet gives way to throw-rugs, floor cloths and rough-hewn, wooden floors. Don't look for the state-of-the-art, encoded computer key cards you find at the Sheraton or the Hilton. In Colonial Williamsburg, an old-fashioned key works just fine to open doors.
The Market Square Tavern was the first to provide overnight accommodations in Colonial Williamsburg, starting more than 60 years ago. You can go back even further in the tavern's history. Thomas Jefferson rented rooms here while studying law.
Each of the Colonial Houses has its own, documented history. The Moody House's Kitchen on Francis Street dates to about 1750. John Tyler, 10th president of the United States, once lived at Nicholas-Tyler home. More recently, Cary Grant stayed in the Quarter during the filming of "The Howards of Virginia."
Guests of the Colonial Houses can dine in any of the historic district's restaurants and taverns, including the Williamsburg Inn. If you want to stay in, there is always room service.
One rainy night, I decided to stay dry and try room service. It was an excellent decision. The food is prepared at the Williamsburg Inn. Never mind that the heavens had opened and there was thunder and lightning. Nothing keeps room service delivery from its appointed rounds.
The meal -- grilled petite tenderloin with seasonal vegetables and whipped potatoes -- was as satisfying as any sit-down dinner at the inn. An extensive list of wines and liqueurs provided enough choices to satisfy discerning palates. True night owls might be a bit disappointed that such feasts cannot be enjoyed at midnight. Room service closes at 11 p.m.
While Colonial Williamsburg is filled with galleries, museums, living history programs and shops, there is plenty to see outside the historic district. Milestones of American history took place on the James River peninsula.
Yorktown, site of the British surrender ending the Revolutionary War, is a short drive away. Jamestown, where extensive excavations provide glimpses of the settlement's early years, can be reached in a few minutes. The slave quarters at nearby Carter's Grove plantation give visitors a chance to see how blacks lived in the Virginia colony.
Anybody thinking about visiting Colonial Williamsburg should call ahead to find out about package deals that include Jamestown and Yorktown. If you want to spend the holidays in the historic district, you'd better make reservations now. Peak season runs from November through the end of the year. Every room gets booked, including the 77 spaces available through Colonial Houses. Rates at the houses run from $100 to $425 per night and vary by room and time of year.
In addition to this year's millennium celebration, the 64th "Grand Illumination" will take place at dusk on Sunday, Dec. 5. The day's events include performances by a fife-and-drum corps, caroling and fireworks displays outside the Capitol, the Governor's Palace and the Courthouse.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Take Interstate 95 south from Baltimore toward Richmond, Va. Pick up Interstate 295 outside Richmond, then Interstate 64 and on to Williamsburg. Get off at Exit 238 and follow the signs to Colonial Williamsburg. Travel time is about 3 hours.
Information: Call 800-HISTORY