I remember an article in the paper several years ago that talked about rich Hamptonites trucking in ton after ton of dirt to make their flat-as-a-pancake properties (formally potato fields) look like the rolling hills of New Jersey horse country.
This is not the first time the captains of industry have been attracted to New Jersey’s Somerset Hills; in the late 1800’s some of America’s wealthiest families became enamored with the soft, undulating hills and open expanses of farmland. Thanks to the newly built railroad and close proximity to New York City, they began to establish country estates in the area. (For more history on the architecture and landscape of these homes, look for the books The Somerset Hills, Vol. 1 and 2. It’s comprehensive and includes many fantastic images.)
One of the largest estates, Natirar, was built in 1912 by Walter Graeme Ladd and his wife, Kate Macy Ladd. The couple situated their 40-room Tudor mansion on a hilltop, providing them with breathtaking views over their 1000 acres. Natirar was owned in the 1980’s and 1990’s by Hassan II, the King of Morocco. In 2003 the King’s heirs sold the home and remaining 411 acres to Somerset County to create a public park.
What does any of this have to do with food? It turns out, quite a bit. Somerset County leased 90 hilltop acres of the park to Virgin Group founder, Sir Richard Branson, and his business partner Brian Wojtowicz, a New Jersey developer. Upon completion of Phase II (scheduled for the summer of 2010), their $90 million dollar project, The Virgin Spa at Natirar, will include 76 guestrooms, an eco-spa, fitness center, social pavilions, outdoor swimming pools, and tennis courts.
And the food? That can be found in the aptly named Ninety Acres Culinary Center. Located in the former carriage house and garage, it includes a restaurant, bar lounge, cooking school, wine school, and farm. That’s right – an organic, sustainable farm, providing the bulk of the ingredients for Chef David Felton’s dishes. Farm to table restaurants are all the rage right now, but very few can say they actually harvest and raise the ingredients themselves. Consider Ninety Acres New Jersey’s version of Stone Barns.
Ninety Acres is Phase I of the project and it officially opened on December 1st. I grew up about 20 minutes from Natirar and decided to check it out while I was running errands over Christmas break. As you can see, it had just snowed and I imagined the park would be very pretty. It was! But to really get the lay of the land, I’ll need to go back when the snow has melted, the animals are on pasture, and the gardens are starting to grow. For now, enjoy the pictures of the spectacular park and look for more posts in the upcoming months.