Remember those books from childhood where the end of each chapter was a prompt that directed to you the next chapter, based on your answer? One book could have many possible endings. Spending the day at Duke Farms in Hillsborough NJ is like that but in real life. Read on to learn more about this heiress’ estate turned nature preserve, just an hour away.
History of the Property
In 1893, James Buchanan Duke started acquiring land near the Raritan River and began work on the property. Duke sounds familiar because he is ‘that’ Duke – after which Duke University is named. James was a wealthy industrialist who made his fortune by founding Duke Power and the American Tobacco Company. His plans for the 2,740-acre property were to design it in homage to his home state of North Carolina. At the completion of the work, Duke Farms had nine man-made lakes, 18 miles of roads, and 45 buildings, among other built structures on the property. When James died in 1925, his daughter Doris inherited the property at the age of 12.
Doris was a fixture in newspapers and tabloids during her life. In addition to being incredibly wealthy, she did a little bit of everything: she was a socialite; a wartime correspondent during WWII; and a champion surfer in Hawaii, to name a few. Doris was also a prolific philanthropist. She supported a diverse range of causes, including child welfare, social work, HBCUs, and AIDS research.
She took an interest in environmental stewardship and worked throughout her adult life with various experts to use her resources to further those efforts. In addition to the generous funding at her disposal, Doris also had Duke Farms, which became the place for her ideas to be put in motion. Duke Farms was her primary residence and she was deeply invested in what happened on the property. When Doris died in 1993, her will created the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF), which now runs Duke Farms.
The modern version of Duke Farms was reopened to the public in 2012 after extensive renovations. The goal of the shift to a publicly accessible property was to create a place where the public could learn about environmental stewardship. The Foundation had to transition the property from a private residence to a place where the public could visit, which meant a large amount of work behind the scenes to create the infrastructures that support visitors.
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Some of the biggest changes were converting the Farm Barn into the Orientation Center; adding amenities such as parking, restrooms, and a cafe; and ensuring that the property was ADA compliant. Several of the buildings are LEED Silver-rated, which is in accordance with the organization’s goal of environmental stewardship. Many other changes geared toward sustainability are invisible to visitors, such as a greywater reuse system and solar panels.
We are the lucky beneficiaries of Doris’ largesse. Visiting Duke Farms is free and there is so much to see and do, you would need several visits to feel like you’d seen it all. There are 1,000 acres to visit, 18 miles of walking paths, 12 miles of bike paths, regular educational programming, several dozen species of animals, and tons of native flora.
Not to mention sculptures, ruins of old buildings, and greenhouses stocked with gorgeous orchids, Doris’ favorite.
Duke Farms is open Tuesday through Sunday. Free reservations are required for Saturday visits. Download the Duke Farms app before you go so you are up to speed on what programming may be available during your visit. Some recent topics have included native plant species and pollinators. There is a farmers market in the parking lot on Sundays featuring local growers and makers.
Choose Your Own Adventure
With so much to see and do, it’s almost overwhelming to organize a visit. Here are some suggested themes to help you plan your trip.
- – Bike ride – Bicycling is not only welcomed at Duke Farms, it is encouraged. Visitors can bring their own bikes or rent gear from the on-site bike rental facility. There are an adult and kid-sized bikes to rent, as well as helmets. The wide, flat trails are great for a family bike ride, especially if one of your pedalers has just graduated from training wheels.
- – Bridgerton-style – If you’re still hung up on Bridgerton, the gracious and traditionally styled grounds of Duke Farms might sate your hunger until the next season is released. Bring a picnic and take in the gorgeous scenery: you will feel like you’re promenading on Primrose Hill. Cottage-core attire is optional.
- – Orchids galore – Doris Duke loved orchids and even helped create a new kind of orchid, which is registered by Duke Farms. It’s called Phalaenopsis Doris and is now a mass-market, common orchid. The Orchid Range is a series of many greenhouses that are full of growing activity. There are orchids, of course, but also several other plants on display. Some of the greenhouses are home to educational displays or horticultural experiments.
- – Art and architecture – With dramatic ruins and enormous outdoor sculptures throughout, there is plenty to look at. The buildings were designed with a strong Tudor influence, but maybe the ruins make you see something else?
- – Interactive activities – technically, these are designed for kids, but you will feel like a kid again as you explore! Check out the Duke Farms website before you go to get printables for things like a scavenger hunt, a fact sheet about the animals who live at Duke Farms, and other goodies. There is also a geocaching challenge on site.
Of course, there’s always simply enjoying the space or walking the trails. What you do while you’re exploring is up to you; simply taking in the silence or enjoying a book might be at the top of your list. Photography, wildlife viewing, and taking in all there is to see are truly refreshing. As you wander through the older-than-old trees, it’s hard to believe you’re only an hour’s drive from busy Hudson County.
What to Eat
BYO Picnics are welcome at Duke Farms. Guests are reminded to take out what they bring in, and alcohol is prohibited.
The on-site Farm Fresh Café is open from 9AM to 4PM and has all kinds of locally-grown, seasonal goodies. From morning coffee and pastries to a tasty lunch, you’ll find it here. Don’t skip the grilled cheese sandwich! Breakfast is available from 9AM – 11:30AM, and lunch, coffee, and snack items are available until 4 PM. Many of the ingredients used are grown on-site at Duke Farms.
The Sunday Farmers Market runs until October 31.
What To Do
Nearby Somerville is a charming place to spend the rest of your day. The historic courthouse and church are at the center of the downtown area and are surrounded by shops, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.
Elysium Antiques | 25 W. Main Street
There are a handful of antique and thrift stores in Somerville but it was the skeleton in the window that drew us in. Elysium Antiques is chock-full of treasures you didn’t know you needed. The shop is set up in the same style as an antique mall, where several sellers have booths that they stock, while the store manages and sells the items. Some gems on our visit included: boxes of records; an incredible array of vintage Pyrex; beads upon beads for crafting; and all kinds of fun vintage barware. The store offers free appraisal days once a month, so if you’re considering offloading that ‘treasure’ from Nana’s basement, this might be a great place to start.
The Hungry Hound | 93 W. Main Street
Dog-mom Penny Miller started the Hungry Hound in 2003 after trying to find healthier alternatives for store-bought snacks for her dogs. The bakery offers an incredible variety of treats, cookies, bully sticks, and even cakes for your four-legged roommate. The ‘barkery’ treats available by the pound include such delicacies as Nana’s No-Nonsense Health Bones, Otis’ Oatmeal Cookies, and Pudge’s Parmesan Twists.
Somerville Provisions | 14 Division Street
You’ll probably do a double-take when you see ‘House of Jerky’ written on one of the charming blue-trimmed windows at Somerville Provisions. This gourmet housewares and dry goods shop is also home to over 50 types of jerky. Somehow, the combination works. There’s a great selection of bar accessories and mixers, hot sauces, dips, and other goodies. Pick something up here for your next dinner party host or upgrade your own kitchen supply.
Spotted Leaf Plant Co. | 46 E. Main Street
Talk about a pandemic pivot. Owners Matt and Sam got married in a perfectly on-trend at-home wedding in March 2020. They wanted to transform the space, their sunroom, into something tropical and fun but without a ton of work. Their efforts were so successful that they launched the Spotted Leaf Plant Co., which started off as a pop-up appearing at local farmers markets, but now has its own shop. Customers can pick up a plant, a pot, and some knowledge while enjoying the modern and airy space. There are special events such as a Paint and Sip series, and the space can be rented out for something custom.
Third Child Wellness Boutique | 15b Division Street
Third Child Wellness Boutique recently opened its physical shop, after appearing at local farmers markets and other events since the brand’s inception in 2018. The duo behind the brand is a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who designed their own line of skincare and repair products. Everything in the shop is handmade in small batches, using high-quality ingredients. All of the products sold by the Third Child Wellness Boutique are free of parabens, perfumes, phthalates, SLS, and petrolatum. And, they smell divine. The team plans to open the space up to parties and other special events where attendees can create their own scent blends to be added to any of the products.
Yestercade | 29 Division Street
This isn’t a shopping spot, per se, but it’s too fun to omit from this list. Relive all of your childhood dreams of arcade domination with vintage games, air hockey, and pool tables. Pricing is available by the hour, or purchase a day pass that allows you to pop in and out.
Bliss Coffee Lounge | 14 E. Main Street
There’s more than coffee at this artfully decorated spot. The staff are knowledgeable about the variety of coffees; maybe this is your chance to try something new with one of Bliss’s tasting flights. Once you’ve made your pick, have some fun with your foam and order a custom latte foam art. It’s made from an image of your choosing, directly from your phone. Teas are treated the same way, with flights available. As for food, brunch and lunch are also available. There’s even a whole section on the menu for avocado toasts, so you can get that square on your millennial bingo card. Be sure to check the specials before you order. Both food and drink specials appear and have included such delights as an iced Nutella latte.
Blue Sheep Bakeshop | 9 Division Street
This award-winning treat shop has a tiny storefront that packs a punch. Don’t let the small size fool you: decadence awaits within. Cakes, cupcakes, cookies, macarons, dessert bars, and ice cream are on the menu here. And if that wasn’t enough to satisfy your sweet tooth, there are also stuffed cookies, ice cream sandwiches, ice cream cakes, and ice cream sundaes. The flavors are a mix of classic and creative, and the cake designs are stunning.
Oink and Moo BBQ | 63 W. Main Street
If there’s something BBQ-related that isn’t on the menu or available in the market at Oink and Moo, it probably doesn’t exist. Owners Josh and Kevin took all of their favorite styles and preparation of BBQ from across the South and made it into one menu. This includes meat and sides, so you’ll find a variety of items such as tacos, smoked ribs, collard greens, and cornbread. In addition to the delicious food, there is a market offering what Josh and Kevin have decided are the best of the best in BBQ gear. This includes house-made spice rubs, so you can recreate the experience at home.
Turf Surf and Earth | 46 E. Main Street
(Photo credit: @turfsurfandearth)
Following along with the ‘choose your own adventure’ theme, Turf Surf and Earth is the ultimate in customizable menu options. Chef Byron Salazar, the chef, and the owner has a passion for healthy but still delicious foods. Many of the menu options are plant-based, with the goal of showing omnivores how tasty it can be. There is plenty of vegan and gluten-free options throughout both the brunch and lunch/dinner menus. Brunch is served every day starting at 9 am and includes all of your favorites like French toast, breakfast burritos, and traditional egg-based entrees. The lunch/dinner menu is ‘Build Your Own’ style: diners first pick a protein (this is where the ‘surf, turf, and earth’ comes in); second, pick a serving style (ie: in a taco, on a bun, over rice, etc); and finally, choose the toppings. The toppings and sauces are totally customizable so the sky’s the limit. There is a kid’s menu available for lunch and dinner.
Sunrise Luncheonette | 2 E. Main Street
Sunrise Luncheonette is the epitome of ‘don’t mess with a classic’. This no-frills cafe directly across from the courthouse serves breakfast and lunch classics at affordable prices.
Village Brewing Company | 34 W. Main Street
Life can be simple: good food, good beer, and good company can make for a memorable night. Village Brewing Company feels the same way. With an industrial-chic vibe and a menu of American classics, you’re going to have fun there. Many of the beers on the menu are made in-house, and others are from nearby New Jersey breweries. Order a sampler to pick your favorite. The menu keeps it fresh by keeping it seasonal, and there are vegan and gluten-free options.