A Trip To Massachusetts’ Plimoth Plantation

Step Back in Time to Savor a Slice of Living History Pilgrim-style.

“The people we know as the Pilgrims have become so surrounded with legends that we tend to forget they were real people. Against great odds, they courageously made the famous 1620 voyage and founded the first New England colony, but they were still ordinary English men and women, not super heroes. If we really want to understand them, we must try to look behind the legends and see them as they saw themselves.” — from “The Pilgrims as People: Understanding the Plymouth Colonists,” by James Baker

Plymouth, Mass. – Squinting at the visitor, Stephen Hopkins stroked his beard and weighed the question.

“How often do I bathe?” said the grizzled colonist. “Aye, in the summer I bathe quite frequently. “At least four or five times,” he added, with a confident nod.

Plimoth plantation walkingLaughter echoed against the rough wooden beams of the colony fort, where Hopkins fielded inquiries about what brought him from Hampshire, England, to the coastal farming community of Plimoth Plantation, a re-creation of the original Plymouth Colony.

“It were the land,” he explained in a gruff English accent, fiercely tapping a walking stick to punctuate his words.

Like many who fled Europe for America in the 1600s, Hopkins was seeking what he couldn’t find at home — freedom from religious controversies and economic problems, a new opportunity.

Hopkins tells his story with gusto and gripping detail: How he and his wife weathered a treacherous ocean journey in 1620, arriving in New England with one more child than they’d left home with – Oceanus, an infant born at sea.

He speaks candidly about the deprivations of the first winter; tentative relations forged with local Wampanoag Indians, and the struggle to carve a niche in a new land.

Listening to his tale, it’s hard not to believe it’s 1627, as the costumed “interpreter” playing Hopkins would have you believe. Hard to remember that you drove a motorhome to get here, not a horse and carriage.

But that’s part of the fun of visiting Plimoth Plantation, a self- guided living history museum that offers an interactive way to experience daily life in the first permanent English settlement in New England.

The People of Plimoth

Visiting the plantation by RV offers a unique opportunity to meld the past and present — whether you’re just passing through or staying at many of the nearby camping sites, be it the Cape Cod/Boston KOA, private RV campgrounds or Myles Standish State Park. Plimoth Plantation is located two and one half miles south of downtown Plymouth on Route 3A. It’s a good starting point to explore the area.

There’s ample room for your motorhome in the spacious parking lot as you explore the modest houses, barns and gardens of Pilgrim Village — painstaking reproductions of the original Plymouth Colony.

The sprawling site also features a visitor center, crafts center, a traditional Wampanoag home-site, barn and walking trails.

Bring comfortable shoes and expect a hike. Terrain is often rough, sandy and unpaved. And although handicapped-accessible paths are available, those with strollers and wheelchairs may still find it challenging. The plantation draws about 400,000 visitors each year. Each season brings an ebb and flow of tourists, but you can usually avoid crowds right after school starts in September.

Plimoth shipsThough the Pilgrim Village is one-third the size of the original settlement, it offers a tangible history lesson. Everything within the site — from cooking implements to thick thatched roofs — has been carefully researched to reflect objects the pilgrims actually used.

For a different perspective, follow the Eel River boardwalk to see the re-created home of a Wampanoag family. While costumed Native Nations interpreters don’t role-play specific characters, they’re happy to field questions from a 20th-century perspective.

Above all, give yourself time — the museum suggests three hours. The experience will be as educational as you make it. The key is curiosity, your willingness to jump into the interactive spirit of things and ask a few questions of the exceptional interpreters.

You may find yourself chatting with goodwives airing out mattresses on a fence, helping a young colonist pull weeds from a cornfield or discussing the finer points of framing a home using crude timbers and no power tools.

Feel free to probe the colony’s tough beginnings — nearly half the population perished the first year — or share the gossip of the day. Learn about religious beliefs, home medicine remedies or a recipe for bluefish stew. You might even wind up mixing daub with your feet to help mend a wall.

At Plimoth Plantation, it’s all about the people and the place.

“Each interpreter takes on the role of someone who actually lived in Plimoth Colony in 1627,” said Jennifer Monac, public relations manager for the plantation.

“The reason we chose that year is that they had been there for seven years and had to do a full inventory of what was in the colony, so they could send it back to their company in England,” she said.

That census offered a blueprint to help re-create the colony as today’s museum. Journals and other writings helped flesh out the pilgrims as people — details closely studied by the costumed interpreters who play them with engaging authenticity.

“We have a core staff who’ve been here for years and really love what they do,” Monac said. “Most don’t consider themselves actors. They’re historians.”

Plimoth kids talkingThe Pilgrim’s Path

For another helping of history, hop in your RV and drive three miles back into town to check out the Plymouth Waterfront. To avoid congestion, you may want to try parking on side streets.

There, you’ll find the Mayflower II, the re-creation of a late 16th-century English merchant ship about the same size as the original Mayflower. Crafted in Brixham, England, of the same Devon oak as the original ship, this reproduction was sailed here in 1957 as an international goodwill project. Exploring the ship’s cramped chambers sharpens your appreciation for what the 66-day voyage must have been like.

Knowledgeable guides help complete the picture. Tickets may be purchased on-site or at the Visitor Information Center, in downtown Plymouth.

You can’t come this far without actually visiting Plymouth Rock. Look for the well-marked canopy and curious crowds. The historic bit of geology now lies mostly buried in a protected bed of sand, although historians point out that what remains of it has actually been moved several times. Still, it’s an amusing oddity that almost always inspires some onlooker to blurt out, “THAT’S Plymouth Rock?”

True history buffs will find so much more, including the Pilgrim Hall Museum, First Parish Church, the Old Court House, America’s First Grist Mill, Brewster Gardens, and Cole’s Hill, a secret burial ground where Pilgrims planted corn over their graves so Native Americans wouldn’t know how many had died. Consider taking a trolley ride (an all-day pass) to catch some 40 historic town sites, or try the “Dead of Night Ghost Tours,” a 90-minute twilight lantern tour through haunted, historical areas of Plymouth.

Don't ForgetThe sparkling water of Cape Cod Bay offers its own allure. From the Plymouth Waterfront, you can catch harbor cruises, deep-sea fishing, whale watching or lobster excursions, and narrated boat rides to colorful Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod.

Quaint shops and restaurants are sprinkled throughout downtown Plymouth. Seafood is fresh and abundant. Cast a line off the docks, jetty or beach and you might snag a bass, bluefish or cod.

And a pleasant, park-like waterfront makes it easy to grab an ice cream cone, sit back and watch the world go by.

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