The fence surrounding the perimeter was tall, but I could see the peaks of thatched roofs looming above it. The gate creaked open, and suddenly, here we were, time-traveled back nearly 400 years into a world of candlesticks, open hearths, and dirt floors. "Home, sweet home," said our guide. I gulped.
My daughters, Lila, age 13, and Stella, 9, have long been obsessed with olden days (Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, represent!). The rich history of early America pulls on our psyche, yes, but frankly, it's also about the fashion: Stella loves the bonnets. We'd already visited every history reenactment site within a 50-mile radius, so we were thrilled to learn that Plimoth Plantation, a reproduction of a colonial village just down the road from Plymouth Rock and a two-hour drive from our home, offers overnight stays -- in costume, no less! My husband, Chris, and I were interested in the educational aspect. A guide would be with us every step of the way, helping us put everything we did in historical context. True, Lila would have to put down her iPod, but once she got over her digital withdrawal, I knew she too would enjoy herself.
Which is how our family, plus two friends for the girls, came to arrive at Plimoth on a gorgeous day in early fall (it could hardly have felt more Pilgrim-y).
First, we explored the village on our own in modern-day clothing, observing and asking questions now and again as reenactors went about their chores. They're almost eerie in their devotion to their work; you cannot get them to step out of character no matter how you try (not that we tried hard). Their performance is especially convincing because of the setting, re-created down to the very last detail.
Our time travel began in earnest a short time later, as we met our main guide, Vicki, in the visitor center and donned colonial garb. The outfits were made primarily of wool, with linen undergarments that doubled as nightgowns if one chose to wear them. When you're used to wearing stretchy, sleek, contemporary clothing, 17th-century outfits can feel bulky and, let's face it, kind of dowdy ... right up until the moment when the coifs (Stella's beloved "bonnets"!) were tied onto our heads.
Then something happened. "Whoa, I actually look like a Pilgrim," said Lila, startled -- and despite her purple-streaked hair, she was right. When her friend Giselle's "Maroon 5" T-shirt was replaced with a waistcoat, and Stella's friend Maeve traded skinny jeans for a petticoat, our transformation felt complete.
By the time we returned to the village, the tourists were gone; it was after hours, and the place was ours to explore in character. We weren't just wandering around, though. We had work to do: tending animals, gathering herbs and vegetables, and cooking a meal, with help from our guides. I watched as my girls sliced sorrel with a sharp Pilgrim-era knife, tempted goats with fresh leaves and gentle coos, and yanked carrots out by their leafy green tops.
As we wended our way along the quiet village's crooked paths, our baskets overflowing with our harvest, the sun began its descent, and a soft darkness began to fall. There was no city noise here, no light from streetlamps or office buildings. Having grown up in the country, I thought I knew this kind of stillness, but it takes on a new layer of silence when there is no ambient hum of running water, gas, or electricity.
I also thought I knew messiness. Leaving home that morning, I'd been uneasy about the unfolded laundry, the dust bunnies, and the mildew in the bathtub grout that would go untended a while longer. But that soon seemed a sterile environment compared to our new domicile. The house was snug and cozy, but it had a dirt floor, which has a way of making the entire thing feel, well, dirty. The bedstead was outfitted with a heavy mattress filled with straw and two sturdy pillows. ("They have sharp things in them," complained Stella, resting her head on one.) Ye olde yoga mats and the sleeping bags we had brought lessened the realism, sure, but they improved our chances of actually sleeping -- especially for the kids, who, in keeping with the custom of the time, bedded down on the floor.
But first came supper and cooking over an open hearth. The only light came from the fire and a few candles; the room had the cozy feel of a power outage. The dark stillness of
a temporary blackout may be welcome in our age of constant buzzing, beeping, and flashing, but one misses technology a little bit when trying to get a hot meal on the table. A vision of the pizza ordered by phone the night before flashed through my mind as I shredded chicken for the stewlike pottage bubbling in its cauldron. I'm a decent chef, but this kind of cooking had me flummoxed. Luckily our guides did the lion's share of the work, and an hour or so later we "laid the board" with a beautiful dinner chock-full of very fresh, very local ingredients. "This is actually super tasty," announced the normally finicky Stella, as she reached happily for seconds.
Coifs are one thing, chamber pots are another. Authenticity notwithstanding, some conveniences are simply too good to forgo, so we were glad to learn that the pots were for show and modern plumbing was just beyond the perimeter fence. When nature called, we made a quick trip to 2013. But my moment by the hearth, skirts swishing around my feet, amid the aromas of the pottage and the sounds of the kids playing quietly in the candlelight -- that was all 1627. I wouldn't want to live there, but it was a beautiful place to visit. As Lila put it, before inserting her earbuds for the ride home: "I really liked the food and the fashion, but for everything else, I like the twenty-first century better."
If you go...In addition to overnights at the Colonial Education Site, where we stayed, Plimoth Plantation offers sleepovers on the Mayflower II, a reproduction of the original vessel. Luckily for you, the boat won't be filled to capacity, as it was for the pilgrims, and while you can sample period foods, you'll also have access to a 21st- century meal--the best of both worlds. The $1,200 fee for either program covers up to ten people and includes an educator to walk you through the experience. plimoth.org/learn/programs- kids-scouts-families/ family-overnights
Want to get historical with your family? The programs listed here all offer overnights, no time machine required.
Washburn Norlands Living History Center Livermore, ME Wake up in an old-fashioned farmer's cottage, do the chores, attend school, and even play a few games, circa 1870. norlands.org/plan-visit-family.html
Historic Trails West Casper, WY
Experience history on the road, via covered wagon or pony express. cook over an open fire, sleep in an indian lodge, and learn about the various cultures that coexisted on the open range in the 19th century (multiday trips available). historictrailswest.com
Civil War Adventure Camp Petersburg, VA
Live 1860s life as a newly enlisted army private, musket and all, through the family- oriented rally camp program. civilwaradventurecamp.org
Genesee Country Village & Museum Mumford, NY
After a one-day orientation in carpentry, animal husbandry, hearth cooking, and other skills, you'll tend a rural 1800s farmstead for a weekend. Availability is limited. gcv.org/historic-village/pioneer-experience
Freelance writer Naomi Shulman and her family live in western Massachusetts.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.