Saturday morning, as my wife and I ate breakfast, she handed me a blue folder and said, “Surprise!” I am not a morning person, so I needed a moment to process what I had been given. “Tim’s Saturday Birthday Trip!” was emblazoned on the outside of the folder. Within were six envelopes, each with a different destination. My wife had given me a great present: a day-long road trip. The rules were simple: get in the car, open an envelope, and proceed to the destination listed within. Once we had arrived at our destination, I was allowed to open the next envelope and discover our next stop.
This post will be a little different than my other writings. Today, there will be no historical overview and no lengthy introduction. Rather, I hope to capture in my writing the same sense of adventure that I experienced today. Without further adieu… let’s begin:
What better way to start a birthday weekend than with a surprise road trip! Envelope 1: The Clean Plate Kitchen
Our first destination: lunch at The Clean Plate Kitchen in Clinton, NJ. The Clean Kitchen serves food made with ingredients from local farms. In addition, the menu is very accommodating to people with dietary restrictions. For instance, every dish on the menu can be made gluten free. There are also a number of vegetarian and vegan options.
The interior decor was cool… both of my grandmothers would have loved the decorative plates that adorned the walls.
However, on a beautiful August day, we chose to eat outside. The restaurant is located in the back of a large, historic building that is filled with small shops. It reminds me more of something you would see in New Orleans than something typically found in New Jersey.
The view from our table – the Raritan River runs beside the restaurant. The food was delicious- my wife went with the “You’re Bacon Me Crazy” wrap (bacon, eggs, mixed greens, avocado salsa, and tomato). I had a cheeseburger on a brioche bun with a side of french fried plantains. Envelope 2: Downtown Clinton, NJ
We left my Accord parked near the restaurant and wandered through historic Clinton, NJ. Clinton was formally established in 1829, but had been settled long before that.
The Red Mill dates to 1810. It was built along the banks of the Raritan River so that the river’s current would power the wool mill. It is now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of agriculture and daily life in this section of New Jersey.
Across the river is the Stone Mill. The Stone Mill was built in 1836. It is now the home of the Hunterdon Art Museum.
To enter the town, we drove across the Main Street Bridge. Built in 1870, this is one of the oldest bridges I have ever driven (or walked) across. Made of cast iron, it is also one of the oldest metal truss bridges in the country (you can learn more about the Main Street Bridge on this website).
You can cross the 148-year old bridge by either driving or walking. To say it feels rickety is an understatement: the bridge noticeably shakes every time a car drives across it.
The view from the middle of the bridge is terrific. Envelope 3: Mount Salem Vineyards
Destination #3: a wine tasting.
Forget the NJ Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, the strip malls, the McMansions… THIS is the New Jersey I know: rural two lane roads, forests, and farmland. The drive to Mount Salem Vineyard was comprised of a series of county roads that snaked through the countryside: hairpin turns, S-curves, and 50-mph speed limits… I had a lot of fun.
Mount Salem Vineyards, established in 2005, is one of a growing number of vineyards in New Jersey. I learned that this section of NJ is very favorable for cultivating grapes – the climate is similar to grape-growing regions in Austria and France.
These casks are for aging the wine. Mount Salem is a small vineyard, producing only 1,000 cases of wine per year.
All the wine-making happens in a two-story barn. The tasting room, on the second floor, will be closed in a few weeks. The vineyard has so little space that when new wine is produced in the fall, the tasting room is instead used for winemaking. We enjoyed the wines that the wine cellar master provided for us (and I’d highly recommend their Riesling). Envelope 4: Beneduce Vineyards
Our fourth stop was for a second wine tasting at Beneduce Vineyards.
Beneduce is a much larger vineyard than Mount Salem, producing a greater variety of wines and far more of them.
The tasting room at Beneduce can host several hundred people. The casks in the background are not for decoration – each oak barrel contains wine that is being aged. Once the wine’s taste reaches its peak, it will be bottled and sold.
The tasting room is also the site of wine production. These stainless steel metal drums are also used to age the wine. If you’re curious about aging wine, this website provides a great overview as to why some wines are best aged in wooden casks, and others are better done in these metal drums.
We were provided with a meat and cheese tray to pair with our wines. From left: cow’s milk cheese, bread (with olive oil in the cup), salami, a flower (which was edible and best paired with a glass of pinot noir), a fig, and sheep’s milk cheese.
NJ winemakers have collaborated to create a passport book – visit a vineyard and get a stamp in your book (over 40 different vineyards are participating).
The grounds are open to the public to visit. We ambled through the vineyard after our tasting was finished. Envelope 5: Duke Farms
Our second-to-last destination: Duke Farms.
Originally built as a private estate by Gilded Age industrialist James Buchanan Duke, Duke Farms is now a 1,000 acre nature preserve and conservatory. This building was originally the Farm Barn – it now serves as the visitor center. Does James’ last name sound familiar? In 1924, he gave a $40 million endowment to Trinity College in North Carolina (which would be worth over a half billion dollars today). The college renamed itself Duke University in his honor.
This is the Hay Barn, built in 1905. It burned down in 1915, leaving only the stonework remaining.
James Buchanan Duke’s daughter, Doris, inherited the estate upon her father’s death. She made the estate her permanent home. She transformed the remains of the Hay Barn into a sculpture garden.
Built in 1900, the Lord & Burnham Conservatory is now home to the Orchid Range, which specializes in subtropical and tropical plants native to the United States.
Despite being far smaller than Longwood Gardens or the Como Conservatory, the Orchid Range was still a worthwhile visit. The varied colors and shapes of the orchids caught our attention.
Indulge me as I share a photo of an orchid that caught my eye…
The greenhouses are used to cultivate orchids that are displayed in the Orchid Range.
Wandering through the park, we came across this: the foundation of an unbuilt mansion. James Buchanan Duke had originally planned to build a large mansion on the estate. He abandoned the building after his tobacco company, American Tobacco Company, was broken into several smaller companies by court order (it was found to be an illegal monopoly). James spent much of his remaining years in Europe.
The trails through the park are either paved or covered in gravel, and are all easily marked. Despite wandering for an hour through Duke Farms, we probably saw only about 10% of it. We will definitely have to come back! Envelope 6: Yestercades
Our final destination for the trip: Yestercades, a vintage video game arcade, in Somerville, NJ.
Knowing of my love of all things 80’s, my wife gave me another opportunity to relive my childhood at a vintage arcade.
Asteroids! Double Dragon! Super Mario Bros! Paperboy! Outrun! Spy Hunter! Pole Position! Pac Man! Ms. Pac Man! Pinball! Air Hockey! I was surrounded in 80’s nostalgia.
We had fun playing pinball, too. You do not feed the machines with quarters or tokens. Instead, when you enter Yestercades, you receive a wristband. As you leave, the cashier scans your wristband and sees how long you were in the arcade. You are charged for the duration of time you spend in the arcade.
I absolutely loved the working Atari 2600 video game system, complete with late 70’s color television.
A glass display case near the entrance had many of the toys I grew up with… A Nintendo Entertainment System, hand-held video games, a slinky, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots…
… and raise your hand if you had a Speak And Spell. It’s the mark of being an 80’s kid.
After the arcade, we went to dinner at Alfonso’s Family Trattoria & Gourmet Pizza, a local Italian restaurant, and then wandered around downtown Somerville for a bit.
As we headed back to the car, we saw a sign for Carols’ Creative Chocolatez, billing itself as the “Best Chocolates in New Jersey.” We decided to stop in and test their claim…
…and yes, the chocolates were excellent. While we can’t say for sure if they are the “best in New Jersey,” Carol (who was behind the counter) is certainly talented. Everything you see in this case is something she made from chocolate… including the paintings.
Back home, at the end of a great night. DH continues to roll along. I took the Accord for an oil change and tire rotation earlier in the week, and the mechanic at the Honda dealer reported that the car was in good shape.
I hope you enjoyed following along with the fun adventure that my wife created for my birthday weekend, exploring a section of New Jersey that I had never visited before today. Through six envelopes, I was able to enjoy delicious food, walk around a historic town, enjoy two wine tastings, explore a country estate, and play 80’s video games until my heart was content. If you choose to visit any of these places, you should know that it can be a very affordable way to spend a day. A wine tasting at Beneduce is $5 for 5 wines. Duke Farms is completely free of charge to the public. Yestercades charges $8 for an hour of as many 80’s video games as you can possibly play. If you are visiting New Jersey, grab a map, lace up your hiking shoes, cleanse your palette, and set off for this very cool section of my home state.
Thanks for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead!
‘Til next time.