Photo by sugargliding CC BY NC
Travel is usually an adventurous journey through which we explore the world around us—both present and past. The stories and human legacy found in museums, ancient architecture, preserved buildings and even just the streets present a fascinating glimpse into a bygone life. At these four U.S. destinations, you can step into another era as easily as checking into a hotel.
Great Diamond Island, Portland, Maine
During World War I, a soldier would return to the crowded barracks of Fort McKinley on this tiny island off the coast of Maine, after working at the underwater minefield or shipping guns off to the Western Front in France. Even before this, in the 1800s, the island was an artistic retreat visited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Today, visitors sleep in the same rooms—albeit (thankfully) enlarged and refurbished—in this fort built during the 1890s as one of the most well-defended coastal forts in the country.
After World War II, Fort McKinley was decommissioned and sold to private interests. In 1984, revitalization efforts began to transform the entire island into a resort community, building by building, from the officers’ homes, which are now condos, to the barracks, which became the Inn at Diamond Cove. When the restoration of the inn was 95 percent complete, a fire burned down the entire project except for the historic brick walls with their sturdy military construction. Rebuilding began, and the inn opened in 2015—defying all odds after transforming itself twice, and winning a Maine Preservation Honor award.
The car-free Great Diamond Island can be reached via a short ferry ride from Portland, or by personal boat that can be docked at the marina. The island boasts several beaches, hiking trails, a history museum, a general store, a fitness center and a yoga studio. The inn offers 44 rooms and suites with terraces, two restaurants, an outdoor pool, and most importantly, peace and serenity.
Manteo, North Carolina
The coastal Outer Banks of North Carolina are irresistible—at once wind-swept and wild, as well as rich in a long history of human civilization that has still not fully tamed the barrier islands. Among the inlets and dunes lies the site of the first successful manned airplane flight by the Wright Brothers, in Kill Devil Hills; and the first European settlement in America, the famed “Lost Colony” established in 1587 at Roanoke.
Manteo (pictured at top) is a small port village a few miles from Roanoke, named after a Native American chief who was an ally to the first English colonists. The town is established along a waterfront that is also home to the reconstructed Elizabeth II, the ship that brought those first brave souls. Manteo’s historic preservation is rare, with the oldest family-owned movie theater in the country (the Pioneer), picturesque lighthouses and Roanoke Island Festival Park, with real-life recreations of everyday life in an early American colony.
Visitors can stay in cottages that are listed on the Manteo Historic Home Registry, such as the Neva Midgett House; or even a boat in the harbor, the Starry Banner. This award-winning vintage yacht was “privately commissioned by Tiffany Yachts to cruise the Atlantic coast, and is now moored in Manteo harbor for guest stays,” according to the profile.
This amazingly restored 1770s town was an important stop on the way west for many early pioneers in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of whom stopped at the county courthouse while traveling the famed Shenandoah Valley to record deeds and do business. Documents signed by Thomas Jefferson himself are kept safely in its vault. George Washington and Patrick Henry, among others, either appeared in Fincastle or sent their agents to lay claim to tracts of wilderness lands. Another man of great fame, William Clark, returned here after his epic journey with Meriwether Lewis to marry a local girl.
Surrounded by the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains, the entire town of Fincastle is a recognized historic district. It has been described as a virtual museum of 18th and 19th century American architecture, with some dwellings dating back to the late 1770s. All in all, there are about 100 historic buildings including the courthouse, a blacksmith shop, a jail, churches, and many beautiful homes—including an original log cabin depicting pioneer life, outfitted with furnishings and tools of the time.
Visitors can stay in bed-and-breakfasts such as Fincastle Gallery, located in the 19th century home of furniture maker Jake Cress; or Fincastle Vineyard B&B, a “newer” establishment located in a 1926 farmhouse that is now a family-owned and operated farm winery.
Shaker Village, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky
Photo by Carl Wycoff CC BY
This reconstructed 3,000-acre farm and village occupies land and buildings that were once home to one of the largest Shaker communities in the country. Nearly 500 Shakers lived here at its peak in the 1820s, and the community thrived well past the mid-19th century. Today you can visit this incredibly unique place of living history that occupies 34 of the actual, surviving historic buildings. An hour outside Lexington, this Shaker Village is Kentucky’s largest National Historic Landmark and home to the country’s largest private collection of original 19th century buildings.
Besides their spirituality, the Shakers are recognized for their iconic architecture and skilled craftsmanship. The village does a great job of both documenting their history in many exhibits with original items from the community and demonstrating the crafts that Shakers were known for, such as quilting, furniture making and weaving.
There’s a restaurant that sources much of its down-home cooking from the working farm, and overnight visitors can stay in a guest room in one of the original buildings. Day passes are also available if you don’t have time to stay overnight.
Shelley Seale is a travel and lifestyle writer and author based in Austin, Texas.