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Returning to America's revolutionary roots

Historic sites offer vacations, July Fourth celebrations

By Amy Cox
CNN

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Musicians in Revolutionary garb parade past Boston's Faneuil Hall, the site of many historic speeches and fiery town meetings.
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(CNN) -- Whether it's because fireworks have lost their fizzle or beaches seem ho-hum, some travelers are turning to Revolutionary War-era sites to celebrate America's birthday and savor a unique summer vacation.

"You discover things you never knew," said Carlee Brown of Crescent City, Florida, on a recent visit to the Freedom Trail, which traces 16 sites significant to the Revolution in Boston National Historical Park. "It's outside of what you're used to, your everyday life. You really get a sense of what happened if you're there. You can see history as well as be entertained."

Fellow Boston visitor Ned Whittington of Hanover, New Hampshire, agreed. He says he has taken his family to the area about every other year for the past decade.

"It's important for them to understand their history and [their] country's history," he said.

Boston National Historical Park is one of about 20 sites (including houses, buildings and battlefields) maintained by the National Park Service that focus on the Revolutionary period (from around 1774 to 1783). Individual states oversee the majority of other Revolution-era destinations, said Gerry Gaumer, an NPS spokesman in Washington, D.C.

After four years of a travel industry slump, attendance is on a steady rebound at most national parks, including places focusing on the Revolution, NPS statistics show. At Boston National Historical Park, for example, attendance so far in 2004 is up more than 90,000 visitors for the same time period in 2003.

Gaumer attributes this to a renewed sense of patriotism among Americans and the desire for a personal connection with the country's history.

"There is a sense of actually being a part of it when you start visiting the sites," he said. "You can watch a movie and you can read a book, but when you walk along the fields where American patriots fought for their freedom, stand in the place where [British Gen. Charles] Cornwallis surrendered, or visit the room at Independence Hall where George Washington presided over the Continental Congress -- you're connecting with history differently."

Star-spangled alternatives

On and around Independence Day -- the holiday established to commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 -- opportunities for a star-spangled day abound at many Revolution-era destinations. (Gallery: Some Fourth of July celebrations)

George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Virginia, will offer outdoor concerts and free cake to celebrate the nation's birthday, along with its permanent exhibits on the first U.S. president. At King's Mountain National Military Park in South Carolina, where American patriots defeated American loyalists in a 1780 battle, visitors can see up-close how the common Revolution-era soldier lived when volunteers re-enact the life of a typical soldier.

Musicians playing traditional fifes and drums will be on hand at Fort Stanwix National Monument in upstate New York. Park rangers in period clothing will demonstrate weapons of the Revolutionary War.

In Boston, where colonists agitated early and famously against the British throne, hundreds of thousands flock to the annual Independence Day concert on the Esplanade, which climaxes with the Boston Pops playing patriotic tunes as pyrotechnics crackle overhead.

Visitors can also join a mock debate similar to the one that culminated in the Boston Tea Party. And, similar to the event in 1776, the Declaration of Independence will be read from the Old State House balcony.

But traveling far and wide to visit a well-known historical site is not necessary to make the most of July Fourth, said Kari Thomas, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents and an agent in Pennsylvania.

She recommends finding events in your hometown or areas you're visiting to discover a unique holiday opportunity, such as an ice cream social at an old church or an Independence Day concert in a small-town square.

Those types of events "make it different than the usual 'in-and-out of this museum and that amusement park' kind of thing," she said. "It makes it more special."

Bringing the past alive

As part of an effort to entertain as well as educate, Donald Watson leads tours for the Freedom Trail Foundation in the character and costume of James Otis, considered Boston's first patriot because of his early involvement with colonial opposition to British measures. In his six years as a guide, Watson has seen attendance and interest grow in historical vacations, especially around Independence Day.

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Old Salem is a restoration of a town established in 1766 and site of the nation's third ever Fourth of July celebration.

"Around July Fourth, there is a need to come together ... of seeing who we are as a country," he said. "I think it's really just getting back into the roots of patriotism that we lose a lot of times."

An important part of his job is to act as an ambassador of history for those who snoozed through school lessons but are ready to learn.

"Here, you're getting [history] right in your face," he said. "When you bring it to life like this, it gives you a much better sense of what was happening, much better than sitting in a classroom, perhaps."

Williamsburg, Yorktown and the myriad of other places that played key roles in the nation's development continue to draw visitors because they let people interact with history, rather than merely read about an exhibit on a museum wall, said Thomas, the travel agent.

"Rather than just focusing on dates and places, these sites are bringing people to life, [showing] this is what they would have worn, these are letters home, this is what happened on that day from the eyes of someone who was there," she said.

Connecting with American history -- especially events surrounding the nation's birth -- will always be popular, the National Park Service's Gaumer said.

"America is still a young country," he said. "Compared to some European countries, for example, we're still young enough that we can look back on and say we are part of the beginning."


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