The month of May brings Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. With vacation budgets shrinking, many folks are opting to use their free time for day trips or long weekend jaunts. They’re on the lookout for close-to-home destinations, easily accessible by car, that offer all the qualities of a great vacation: a little bit of history, cultural options, outdoor fun, shopping — and great places to sleep and eat. From Massachusetts to New Jersey, we’ve scouted out nearby areas that fit the bill. So pack the car and the kids, and roll out for summer fun!
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A mooving experience: Caring for cows — and admiring the green pastures they graze in — are some of the pleasures found at Hull-O Farms
Photograph courtesy of Hull-O Farms
HULL-O FARMS Greene County
This working farm offers families a hands-on opportunity to get back to the land.
By Greg Ryan
I’m closing in on the Thruway’s Exit 21 — the turnoff I need to reach my destination, Hull-O Farms in Durham, Greene County — when the default jingle on my Verizon sounds off. I recognize the number: It’s Sherry Hull, the co-owner of Hull-O, with whom I’ve spoken once or twice in preparation for our interview. I don’t hazard the safety and legal risks inherent in cell-phone conversation at 65 miles per hour, so I allow the call to go to voicemail instead. I figure it’s a reminder about directions or a heads-up she’s running a few minutes late.
But no: “Hi Greg, it’s Sherry from Hull-O. If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind stopping by a store and picking us up a gallon of milk? If it’s not too much trouble. Thanks.”
Now, I haven’t worked in magazines for long, but this was definitely a first. Pick up milk for an interviewee? I might be miffed under different circumstances, especially considering — irony of ironies — that Hull-O keeps several milking cows. But coming from Sherry, the request felt warm, welcoming, inclusive. I could tell she saw me less like a walking tape recorder and more like an actual human being. I was happy to do it. When I arrived at the farm a half-hour later, gallon of whole milk in hand, Sherry met me with a cold glass of water and a plate of blueberry muffins, a (delicious) sign of her gratitude.
Other guests at Hull-O might expect similar neighborly treatment. Sherry and husband Frank (or Miss Sherry and Farmer Frank, as visitors call them) and their 300-acre farm are part of a growing agritourism industry, offering vacationers the chance to return to our region’s agrarian roots by living out the simple life on a farm for a few days. Visitors, most of whom are families with young children, stay in one of the Hulls’ three guest houses for a minimum of two nights. Once there, they can settle in and nuzzle up to farm animals; enjoy home-cooked, field-fresh meals; and assist the Hulls with the day-to-day tasks involved in running a farm.
If you’re thinking Hull-O is some Disney-fied ranch, complete with community theater actors playing farmhands and a gift shop selling souvenir pitchforks, think again. “We really are a working farm,” Sherry says. I can attest to that: This is real country, folks. Besides the vacation resort, the family raises livestock, operates a meat business, keeps a pheasant preserve, and sells hay. Seven generations of Hulls have tilled the land in Durham; Frank has been at it since he was as tall as a nanny goat. “I was raising cattle at eight,” he says, “and buying and selling at 15.”
These days, however, family farms need to fight like a maniacal rooster just to break even. Hull-O is no exception. By 1994, the Hulls knew their homestead would be the next Durham Valley farm to perish unless they could bring in more revenue. Frank’s grandmother had run a boarding house on the farm in the 1930s and 1940s. In a bid to acquire the extra funds they needed, Sherry and Frank decided to reenter the lodging business. “The first people called and asked me what the price was, and I had no idea,” Sherry laughs. “I had to tell them I’d call them back so I could figure it out.”
Guests at the farm can become friends with a variety of cuddly creatures
Now the couple has hosting city slickers down to a science. The three guest houses (with two to four bedrooms each) all have their own ambience. The daily itinerary varies by the family — “We let guests participate at whatever level they want,” Frank says — but generally follows a similar schedule. Visitors make their way to the main farmhouse around 8 a.m., where the adults kick-start their synapses with a cup of coffee. Then it’s out to the field for chores: feeding the baby animals and hand-milking the cows and goats under Farmer Frank’s supervision. Parents will know that a grange full of farm animals — cows; goats; chickens; horses; lambs; turkeys; ducklings; bunnies; kittens; puppies; and a 14-year-old, 60-pound pot-bellied pig named Curly — all ready and waiting to be petted and imitated, is just short of paradise to a four-year-old kid. The favorite seems to be the baby chicks, which wobble about in the farmhouse foyer. “I have some children who return just for those chicks,” Sherry says.
Following Miss Sherry’s homemade breakfast and chicken-egg collecting with Farmer Frank, families are free to do what they want. They can continue assisting Frank with chores around the farm or do a little country-style relaxin’ by themselves. A four-acre pond is available for swimming or fishing; after Labor Day, a 12-acre corn maze awaits kids looking for a puzzle to crack.
Day-trip options exist off-site as well. You’d never know it from the pastoral view, but the Zoom Flume Waterpark is just two miles down the road. Howe Caverns, a Schoharie County underground tourist spot popular among families, is only 45 minutes up Route 145.
There’s more feeding to be done at 4 p.m., and Sherry serves dinner around six. And oh, what a dinner it is. Frank advises guests to “bring your clothes, your appetite, and your camera,” and of the three, I’d say the second is by far the most important. Clad in a white apron, Sherry cooks the entire feast herself in a standard one-stove kitchen, sometimes for 30 people. And talk about local ingredients? Those vegetables and grass-fed meats traveled around 100 feet from the backyard to your plate. Frequently served dishes include German pot roast with potato latkes; and a spinach salad with fresh strawberries, shaved almonds, and raspberry vinaigrette. After dinner, there’s usually a sunset tractor ride and a bonfire with s’mores. Then it’s back to the guest house to hit the hay.
Hull-O isn’t the only farm vacation resort in the area. Apple Pond Farm and Renewable Energy Education Center, located in Callicoon Center, Sullivan County, also offers the chance to frolic among farm animals, participate in daily chores, and generally lead an idyllic lifestyle by staying in the three-bedroom guesthouse. One difference between the two farms is the clientele. Apple Pond is less family-focused, and the daily schedule more open — even when compared to Hull-O’s already flexible itinerary. “We really engage guests as much as they want,” says Dick Riseling, co-owner of the farm along with his partner, Sonja Hedlund. Riseling and Hedlund emphasize environmentally friendly, organic farming. Much of the property functions on wind, photovoltaic, solar thermal, and geothermal energy, and the farmers are happy to educate guests about the benefits and methods behind their renewable energy systems.
Whether you visit Hull-O or Apple Pond, you will have a no-frills, back-to-basics getaway. At Hull-O, there are no phones in the guest houses; although there are televisions, the Hulls find their guests don’t often switch them on. Instead, they play board games or tend to the animals out in the field. A farm vacation offers something Club Med cannot: true, quality alone time with the family. “It’s very special to watch a family work together,” Sherry says. “Where else can you milk a cow these days?” Hard to argue with that. Nor should you want to, lest you risk that wonderful muffin greeting.
Hull-O Farms (Open May-October)
Apple Pond Farm (Open year-round)
Callicoon Center; 845-482-4764
Next stop: Hershey Park, Pennsylvania