WHY GO: Millionaires and Billionaires have been escaping to Northern New Jersey since the Gilded Age, bringing their horses and golf clubs (you know, the kind that sit on hundreds of acres) with them. Both the US Golf Association and US Equestrian Team Foundation are headquartered in Somerset County NJ where rich people of the Daddy Warbucks variety have died and left lavish gardens and Green farms –beaucoup land – for the rest of us to enjoy.
What towns are in Somerset County New Jersey? Somerville, of course. But also, Bernardsville, Far Hills, Bedminster, Gladstone, and Hillsborough NJ.
On this horsey, flowery, golfy getaway, discover an authentic Main Street with a nerd-magnet arcade, comic shop, and board games tournaments. You can also stay in a hundred year old luxury inn, so that, despite the fact that your bank account has a few less zeros than the typical homeowner here, you’ll feel, for a moment or two, like one of them.
The Getaway Mavens included Somerset County on our “12 Romantic New Jersey Getaways” roundup here. Check it out for more lovey-dovey spots in the Garden State.
Things to Do in Somerset County NJ
VISIT/WALK/BIKE: Duke Farms, Hillsborough
JB Duke purchased and developed this property to showcase his interest in horticulture, agriculture and hydropower. After his daughter, the socialite, Doris Duke, died in 1993, she left her Somerset County NJ land to the people.
Ardent gardeners might remember Duke’s “Gardens of the World” conservatory – an acre of plantings under glass. The exhibit is gone now. But it’s been replaced by 2,750 acres encompassing bike and walking paths, a renovated Orchid Range (more hothouse orchids than at Longwood Gardens), stone bridges, water features, statuary, and repurposed buildings.
Green initiatives are in evidence everywhere. Bug-shaped electric maintenance vehicles produce zero emissions. Over 2 ½ acres of solar panels provide 100% of the property’s power. Wastewater Wetlands treat effluent from the Farm Barn and Cottages. The geothermal-heated Platinum LEED Farm Barn Orientation Center (the former dairy barn) uses rainwater capture on the roof to flush toilets.
The classy-rustic fieldstone structure sports wooden beams, poured concrete floor, touch-screen interactive exhibits, classrooms for agricultural regeneration, wildlife preservation courses, and other “native” gardening instruction. Fill your water bottle – for free- at the Brita “Hydration Station.” Bathrooms welcome all-genders. Grab a bite at the Café Farm Market.
On any given day, you’ll see walkers, bikers, skateboarders, Moms pushing strollers, and photographers along 18 miles of trails that wind around woodlands, 10 lakes, meadows, fields of crops, and community gardens (422 at the moment) planted by nearby apartment dwellers.
On weekends, it “looks like Central Park,” says a staff member. “People feel like this is their home.” Shuttle from Visitor’s Center to Orchid House available for people with disabilities. Rent bicycles, $5 for 2 hours includes helmets. Open Thurs-Tues Nov – March 8:30-4:30pm. April to early Nov. 8:30-6 , free.
VISIT: United States Golf Association (USGA) Museum, Far Hills, Somerset County NJ
Planning a visit to the USGA Museum of Golf while in Northern NJ should be “par for the course.” There is just no better place to learn about golf’s intersection with American history, how it got its foothold in American life, and about its champions than at the USGA Headquarters and Museum, housed in a mansion built in 1919 by a Wall Street stockbroker who escaped here on weekends.
Golf enthusiasts have most likely known about this place since the Museum opened in 1936. (In fact, it predated the Baseball HOF in Cooperstown NY by 2 years). But even if your golf knowledge is sub-par, the exhibits are a great study of the sport loved by plumbers and Presidents alike.
In 1972, this Far Hills NJ campus became USGA Headquarters, placing the nearly 270 Museum and USGA staff under the same roof. In 2015, a new wing dedicated to Jack Nicklaus, opened to the public. Palmer and his wife were the first to enter the new space.
Visitors can access information about Nicklaus from touch screens around the room. “When you go to the Met,” says Adam Barr, USGA Museum Director, “you don’t have Picasso telling you about his methods. But here’s Jack explaining things in his own words.”
Golf’s 600 Year Old History
Yes, there’s a Golf Hall of Fame in Florida. But this Museum is the “prime progenitor of golf history in the world,” according to Barr. And it has a deep history, indeed.
Six hundred years ago, golf originated in Scotland as a winter game. “During the summer, the land was used to grow hay.” In our Colonial era, Dr. Benjamin Rush deemed golf a “healthy” outdoor sport.
The “handsome, outgoing and friendly” Arnold Palmer may have “electrified” the sport of golf, but it was Robert T. Jones, considered the closest thing to a “Patron Saint” of the sport, who dominated it in the age of Babe Ruth and Seabiscuit.
Always an amateur, never a pro, Jones nevertheless founded the Masters in Augusta Georgia in 1934.
The USGA Golf Museum’s Hall of Champions memorializes the accomplishments of winners of all USGA championships since the very first one in 1895.
Palmer Vs. Nicklaus
The sunlit, oval hall is at the center of a wrap-around gallery laid out like a multi-media timeline. Engaging exhibits showcase Golf’s Golden Age (1919-1930), information on how public golf courses proliferated during the 1930’s thanks to the New Deal’s WPA, and “Golf’s Greatest Rivalry” – Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus – played out for the first time on TV, bringing golf right into America’s living room.
Perhaps the most spine tingling artifact, however, is the golf club that Alan Shepard smuggled onto Apollo 14, and swung on the moon. When you’re done examining the exhibits, try your skills on the putting green out back. It’s just five extra bucks to rent a vintage putter and a few balls. Open Tues-Sun 10-5, $10 adults, $3.50 kids.
WANDER: Leonard J. Buck Garden Far Hills
There’s no need to envy the wealthy owner of this hollowed out gorge, a “glacial relic” deemed the perfect 12 acres for rock gardens, footbridges, benches, and a protective gazebo. Actually, there’s no need to begrudge Mr. Leonard Buck his private garden at all.
That’s because his widow, Helen, donated it to the Somerset County Park Commission in 1976. In 1983, this hidden gem, a lyrical place strewn with Technicolor plantings, was open for the public to enjoy.
Not only can you stroll down into the “bowl” to ogle the landscape, but you can avail yourself of educational programs like “The Secret Life Of Trees” and “Magical Mystery Monarch.” Start in the former Carriage House, now the Visitor’s Center, for a quick orientation. And then commence on the graveled path down into “Moggy Hollow.”
Rock Garden In Bloom
Stand on a “bench” – a hard basalt ledge – for a fantastic overview of the ponds, meadows, and rock outcroppings that compose this rare attraction. Depending on the time of year, keep your eyes open for Blue Bells, Twisted Trillium, and Azaleas in a meadow that “comes to life” over Mother’s Day weekend.
Ponds are edged with oodles of Marsh Marigold. Two 120-foot tall Dawn Redwood Trees (named “Tree of the Century” by the Arnold Arboretum, and thought to be extinct), with Fir-like needles that fall each autumn like leaves, pierce the sky.
The Garden publishes a weekly “Bloom List” online, a great resource for those who can’t make it here. Organizations like The Garden Club of America, the Hearty Plant Society, and even the British Pteridological Society (ferns) have found the Leonard J. Buck Garden to be an invaluable resource.
But honestly, most people visit for its resplendent beauty alone. Open Mon-Fri 10-4, Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5, May-Aug Wed 8-8.
DISCOVER: Downtown Somerville
With Yestercades 80’s style arcade, Comic Fortress, and Only Game In Town for the Dungeons and Dragons set, Somerville, the County Seat of Somerset NJ, could be construed as a mecca for nerds. But the same can be said about Somerville for train and car geeks, stylish guys, and even foodies. One of the oldest and largest “Classic Cruisers” Car Show in the country, in fact, takes place in Somerville’s downtown.
An “emotional reaction to the Bridgewater Mall,” Somerville residents were ahead of the Main Street movement when they instituted a downtown “Special Improvement District” 30 years ago.
So now they, and you the visitor, can reap the rewards of an authentic downtown experience, with pedestrian-only Division St. a thrumming community entertainment hub (movies in the summer, events all year long).
Rather than Brooklynish “twee” stores, Somerville’s lamppost and American flag lined streets feature one of a kind shops and services.
There’s a real laundromat, nail salons, pizzerias, restaurants with names like “Hansel and Griddle,” package stores, galleries, toy and game stores, candy supply store, an old fashioned arcade and yes, some upscale boutiques and designers with Kardashian-cred. Among my favorite indie establishments…
SHOP: Candyland Crafts
Nope, this is not another Dylan’s Candy Bar, but it might just be the supplier for those who make the candy that Dylan’s sells. A “Candymaking Supply” warehouse, you’ll find hundreds of chocolate molds ($2.50), vividly colored chocolate bits, baking, and decorating tools: everything you need to make candy or decorate cakes. Barry Krinsky bought this place last year and is slowly turning it into a center for both professional development and joie de vive.
Take a 2 hour Cake Decorating Class with a professional baker, try your hand at artisanal chocolate making with a French chocolatier, or just have fun with the girls for “Cupcakes and Cocktails,” ($50). There’s a slew of classes and programs, perfect for families, Mother/Daughters, Girlfriends and more (sign up on Facebook).
This high-end exclusive men’s wear boutique “brings SoHo to Somerville.” There is nothing like this funky, cool, men’s designer establishment anywhere else in New Jersey, which is why people travel to shop here. Prices are not outrageous. You can pick up a handcrafted Brooklyn t-shirt for $34.
SHOP/PLAY: Only Game in Town
Hear this, gamers: there’s not a video or electronic game in sight. This place is for those who love board games and competition, with tournaments held all week long. Pair with Comic Fortress and Yestercades for a full-on geek out retro weekend.
SHOP: Main St. Somerville
Other stores worth exploring – Three Hearts Home for handmade cards, wedding gifts, honey, mini-terrariums. The Hungry Hound Dog Bakery for that spoiled pet. From the Hive for all things bees and what comes out of them. Big Little Railroad Shop for the model train enthusiast (also, science kits for kids). And, Discover Wines, as many restaurants in town are BYOB. If possible, peek into Jean-Ralph Thurin Haute Couture. This is the Kardashian connection, as one of the K-girls picked up a dress here.
TOUR: Jacobus Vanderveer House and Museum, Bedminster
In 1772, Brooklyn was getting crowded. So, like many New York City folk then and ever since, wealthy Dutch farmer, Jacobus Vanderveer, bought cheap land in New Jersey and built this home.
This historic site has a twofold mission – to tell the story of the Vanderveer Family, and also that of General Henry Knox, George Washington’s “right hand man,” who commandeered this home as his headquarters during the Revolutionary War.
As Washington’s Commander of Artillery, Knox was responsible for establishing the Continental Army’s first professional school for officer’s training, the Pluckemin Cantonment, just down the road.
A chair owned by Henry Knox is on display in the hallway. Upstairs the “Knox Bedroom” is decorated for an “educated urban New Englander,” as Knox owned a bookstore in Boston.
Wide pitted floors and wood beams above are original to the home. Other reproduced architectural elements are derived from renderings of a wealthy Dutch farmhouse of the day, for example, the Delft tiles with Biblical themes framing the fireplace, and a powder blue parlor, with what would have been a family portrait over the fireplace. It’s been replaced, for visitor’s purposes, with a painting of Knox training his troops.
The whole interior is beautifully appointed. Those in charge took great care in bringing this house back to life.
Heritage visitors and history buffs can take advantage of a cozy history center/library stocked with numerous books about George Washington and Henry Knox. Open 2nd Sunday of each month and by appointment. FYI – you cannot park on the main highway. Pass the house, take your first right, then turn right into the park and drive to parking lot at end in front of the house.
VISIT: United States Equestrian Team Foundation Headquarters Gladstone
Stopping at the gate to be buzzed through just adds to the US Equestrian Team Foundation’s elite allure. The magnificent terrazzo and brick stables, built in 1917 as part of adjacent Hamilton Farm, serves as USET offices and high-end horse hotel. It’s worth a quick tour even for those not particularly interested in competitive horsemanship.
From April until November, this place bustles with horses and riders in training and competition for all disciplines of the sport. These include Dressage, Show Jumping, Eventing, Reining, Driving, Endurance, Vaulting, and even Para Dressage for the Para Olympics.
A self-guided or guided tour here isn’t complete without a climb to the second floor Trophy Room. Its tempered glass dance floor provides evidence of pre-Depression riches.
Get a load of First, Second and Third Place “rosettes” from a time when the US Equestrian Team was known as the U.S. (Army) Cavalry Team (1912-1948). Intercom at gate, just press button to call the office. Open Mon-Fri 8:30-4:30, free.
Restaurants in Somerset County NJ
EAT: Bernards Inn
See below under “Where to Stay.”
EAT/Somerville: Locals Recommend
Local residents frequent services in town, and during breaks, Jury Pools fill area restaurants. There are 45 to choose from, and everyone seems to have his or her favorites. Most agree on Alfonso’s for “family Italian,” Verve – a consistent award-winning upscale eatery, Tapestre for craft beer and paired small plates, Martino’s Cuban restaurant, Shumi – a “quintessential hole in the wall and one of the best sushi spots in the State (a favorite of former Governor Christine Todd Whitman), Division Street Café – one of the “Top 10 Empanada Restaurants” in New Jersey, and Project PUB – a venue for pop-up breweries
Where to Stay in Somerset County NJ
STAY: Bernards Inn
Built in 1907, the 20-room Bernards Inn has been a central player in this small town for over 100 years. Run more like a country inn – with room décor a page right out of George Washington’s look-book- and a terrific restaurant, Bernards Inn is perfect for the history buff who shuns cookie cutter hotels for a more authentic stay.
And if you’re a history buff with a Tesla, you’re doubly in luck. The Bernards Inn parking lot has a dedicated electric car-charging station.
A few caveats, however. This is an old hotel with all that implies. Floors slope. All guest rooms are on the second and third floors, and there are no elevators. A bellman will help lug your luggage up the stairs, but you will have to walk up yourself.
Rooms do not have thermostats so, if the temperature is not to your liking, you must call the front desk to change it. And the Bernardsville Train Station (commuter) is right across the street, with trains running round the clock. If track noise bothers you, it could be an issue.
Since Bernards Inn opened in 1907, it’s gone through a succession of ownerships and mixed-uses (town jail, post office, shops, speakeasy), but has always been at heart an inn and restaurant.
First Impressions of Bernards Inn
Taking up a whole corner of downtown, Bernard’s Inn impresses even before you walk in. In season, you’ll pass by patrons dining on the street-front patio as you make your way inside a small but antique-filled lobby, brightened by a huge floral arrangement that is changed every two weeks.
Check in is personal and friendly, with a bellman dispatched quickly to help with luggage.
Rooms at Bernards Inn
Room 6/7 is a large two-room suite with a sitting area and cozy bedroom. The floral drapery, carved four-poster bed, and other Federal style furniture would make our Founding Fathers feel right at home.
As befits a luxury inn, there’s a flat screen TV, and joy oh joy, several electric outlets right on top of the bedside table. I didn’t have to fish around for them behind the bed or curtains.
Bathrooms are small but immaculate and bright – with white subway tile and pedestal sink. And, as a reminder that this is a luxury inn, there’s turndown service at night. It’s always nice to have a mass of pillows removed and bedding ready to slip into.
Dining at Bernards Inn
Chefs forage almost every day at the Inn’s farm. This gives you an indication of how fresh the food is here, even for breakfast. In the morning, soft jazz plays in the casual sun-lit dining room.
My waitress actually asked if I prefer “milk or cream” with my coffee. (“Skim milk?” “Yes of course!” “Yay!). She then welcomed my request to throw some onions and pepper into my “well-done” hash browns.
Her can-do attitude turned a basic 2-egg hash-browns bacon and toast breakfast into a positive experience that set the tone for the day.
For lunch or dinner, you can choose your ambience. Want a drink and small bite? The hexagonal bar, rimmed with 22 chairs and high top tables, offers the most casual experience.
A refined, quiet, and formal dining room in back opens when busy and for special occasions. However, I preferred the bright 20’s vibe black and white tiled space within view of the bar’s mixologists.
For dinner, try one of the seasonal signatures with a hearty entree. From Scallops ($34) to 40-Day Dry Aged Ribeye ($60), cuisine is spectacular and expertly prepared. Rooms from $200-$350 per night include parking and wi-fi. The Bed and Breakfast package is most popular.