Getaways Without a Car—Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate

By Eleanor Foa Dienstag

Most New Yorkers don’t own cars and many of us don’t know how to drive. But even dyed-in-the-wool, non-driving New Yorkers like to get away to the country or beach once in a while. Here is a weekend trip that I’ve enjoyed and that I’m certain you, your family and friends will, too.

The Rockefeller Estate (Kykuit)

A unique day trip for those who love touring historic houses, magnificent gardens and modern art. Fall is an ideal time to take a train ride up the Hudson via Metro North to Kykuit (rhymes with ‘pie-cut’), the hilltop home built by John D. Rockefeller in 1909, last inhabited by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his family, and now a National Trust Historic site. You have a choice of six tours.

•    House and Inner Garden Tour, (2 ¼ hours) offered throughout the day, most popular with first-time visitors, includes main floor of house, art galleries, gardens close to house, golf room and coach barn.

•    The Grand Tour,  (3 hours) daily at 9:45 and 1:45, adds a visit to the 2nd floor of Kykuit, with it balcony and vista of the Hudson.

•    Modern Art Tour, (2 ½ hours) Saturdays at 12:45, highlights Nelson Rockefeller’s art and sculpture collection, plus a tour of the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, with stained-glass windows by Chagall and Matisse.

•    Timesaver Tour, (1 ¾ hours) weekdays at 2:35 pm, includes the house, inner garden, west terrace but not the art galleries and coach barn.

•    Selected Highlights Tour, (2 ¼ hours) weekdays at 1 pm, includes the house and most of the gardens.

I’ve taken the House and Inner Garden Tour, and was struck, in this day of McMansions, by the relative modesty of the house, especially compared to the vast sweep of its gardens and estate. The room are fairly small and there is no ballroom, for example, because the Rockefellers, strict Baptists, allowed no dancing or drinking in the house. But they wisely purchased thousands of acres, including the Palisades on the opposite bank of the Hudson, to preserve their knockout view. Kykuit is worth several trips, one for the house and one for the gardens. I suggest rising early to catch a train at Grand Central Station where you take the Hudson Line to Tarrytown, then a taxi to the Visitors Center at Philipsburg Manor. (Sit on the left side of the train going up and the right going down for the best Hudson River views.) The train ride and taxi should take about 45 minutes.

Blue Hill At Stone Barns: Three-Star Restaurant

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is down the road from Kykuit on a manicured 80-acre Rockefeller farm whose Norman-style stone barns, silos and courtyard have been elegantly transformed into a Center for Food and Agriculture. The outstanding, three-star restaurant is the crown jewel of this farm-and-educational complex. It offers new American cuisine at its finest, in the tradition of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. Its mantra is fresh farm-to-table organic produce, beautifully prepared, based on the bounty of the season. Chef-owner Dan Barber also operates Blue Hill in Greenwich Village, one of Manhattan’s top restaurants, with a Zagat food rating of 26.

The restaurant’s stone-and-wood décor is a visual experience that can best be described as country-Soho-stunning. Even the stone coffee pots from France are a visual treat. Spending several hours eating in the airy, quiet, high-ceilinged dining room (whose steel beams are painted brown to resemble wood beams), gazing out at rolling countryside or across a large room dominated by a mural-sized meadow-and-trees photograph, is a rare pleasure. Perhaps because the atmosphere is so different from New York’s loud, crowded restaurants, the experience feels special, a bit like dining at a great restaurant in Provence or the Napa Valley.

But it’s the food, either grown at Stone Barns or by local Hudson Valley farmers, that is worth the trip. Menus change according to season and if, like me, you happen upon “pea season” in early summer, consider yourself blessed. I’ve enjoyed two “lunches” (so filling, forget about dinner), and can attest to the kitchen’s sublime pea soup, ethereal “meatloaf,” a tone poem to organic beef, its baby vegetables, eggplant puree, assortment of breads (including a killer chocolate challah), and fantastic desserts. This is not  a traditional Sunday brunch. It is a $45 prix fixe, three-course meal of serious food. As The Guide Michelin would say, definitely worth a detour. The waiters enjoy telling you how each dish is prepared. The wine list is reasonable and each course is as beautiful to look at as it is to eat.

Blue Hill attracts a mix of country-club suburbanites, New York foodies and celebrities of all stripes. Last Easter, friends spotted Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton enjoying Sunday lunch. They ate undisturbed. It’s that kind of place. Which is why, unfortunately, reservations must be made one month in advance. (Lunch is served from 11:30 am  to 2 pm.)

I have yet to try dinner but the Tasting Menus range from $65 to $95 per person (for three to five courses,  plus two desserts), and look irresistible. Dinner reservations are even harder to come by and must be made two months in advance. The restaurant is open Friday and Saturday evenings from 5 PM – 11 PM; Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday from 5 PM – 10 PM. There is also a handsome bar and bar menu. For reservations call 914-366-9600.

A less-expensive option for visitors to Kykuit is to tour Blue Hill’s grounds (including the Visitor Center for a self-guiding map, the silos, stone barns, organic greenhouse, herb garden, free-range sheep, turkey and hens), then grab a bite and spread out at the long outdoor picnic table outside The Café at Stone Barns. The Café offers light snacks made with ingredients from the same organic farm  — salads, sandwiches, fresh fruit, fresh eggs, cookies — at reasonable prices.

For more information on Blue Hill’s menus, mission, history and staff, go to: www.bluehillstonebarns.com. There is a link on their site to Metro North’s railroad schedule.

For more information on trains from Grand Central Station go to:
www.mta.nyc.ny.us (click on Metro North, then click on One Day Getaways, then click on The Rockefeller Estate, Kykuit). Also visit: www.hudsonvalley.org

Although taxis are always at the Tarrytown Station, for those wishing to set up their own itinerary, especially if they plan to dine at night,  recommended taxi service is Knapp McCarthy, 914-631-TAXI. For those who want to ride in style, try Dominick’s Limousine Service in Sleepy Hollow, 914-366-0929 or 877-436-6546.

Eleanor Foa Dienstag (www.eleanorfoa.com), journalist and author, writes frequently about travel and food.

About Eleanor Foa Dienstag (112 Articles)
Eleanor Foa Dienstag is a journalist and photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Observer, Ms., McCall's,Travel & Leisure, Frequent Flyer, and many other websites and publications. Eleanor is the author of two nonfiction books: a memoir, "Whither Thou Goest: The Story of An Uprooted Wife," acclaimed by Business Week for its insights into corporate life; and "In Good Company: 125 Years At The Heinz Table," a unique view of a quintessential American company. Both books were promoted with national radio and television appearances. Eleanor served as staff speechwriter to the Chairman and CEO of American Express. In 1983, she founded Eleanor Foa Associates (www.eleanorfoa.com). It provides a wide variety of corporate services, including annual reports, executive speeches, corporate histories and marketing materials for profit and not-for-profit organizations. Eleanor is past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), received speechwriting awards from IABC, and was awarded literary residencies at Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She resides in Manhattan.