With so much to see and do and so little time in which to do it, we felt that we could only spend 1 day visiting the James River plantations between Williamsburg and Richmond. With so many historical homes to pick from, it was very difficult to choose. We finally decided on three, including the Shirley Plantation, the Berkeley Plantation, and Westover.
Since the Shirley Plantation, settled in 1613, is the oldest plantation in Virginia and the oldest family-owned business in North America, dating back to 1638, we decided to visit it first. Edward Hill I added Shirley to his nearby holdings in 1656. The present mansion was begun in 1723, when Elizabeth Hill, great-granddaughter of the first Hill, married John Carter, eldest son of Robert "King" Carter. Completed in 1738, the mansion is largely in its original state and is owned and lived in by direct descendants of Edward Hill I. No wonder it impressed us with its magnificently restored condition. The family has occupied the home for 11 generations.
We parked the rental car in the more than ample parking area and walked toward the house, stopping on the way to purchase tickets at the gift shop, located in what used to be the laundry building in the 18th century. No one sees the inside of the home without a costumed interpreter as his or her guide. Because the family still lives in the top two floors of the home, the guided tour is of the main floor only and features original 18th-century hand-carved woodwork, family portraits, and silver. The square-rigged, "flying" staircase rises 3 stories with no visible means of support. We heard some captivating Hill Carter family history during the guided tour of the "Great House." Afterwards, we began our own self-guided grounds tour, where we explored nine of the original 18th-century dependencies, including the Old Kitchen, Laundry, Ice House/Granary, Tool Barn, Smokehouse, Stable, Root Cellar, Pump House, and Dovecote. Before leaving, we took time to relax and enjoy the view of the James River from below the branches of the 350-year-old Oak tree.
Operating season: Year-round. Open daily 9am to 5pm. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas days.
Location: 18 miles east of Richmond, 35 miles west of Williamsburg on Scenic Virginia Highway 5. Take Route 608 (Shirley Plantation Road) for a 1.5-mile drive to the plantation.