The sign along Montauk Highway in Great River announcing Bayard Cutting Arboretum is easy to miss. Unlike a conventional park, an arboretum is not a place for reunions and picnics, soccer games or walking the dog. Instead, Bayard Arboretum offers visitors a place to see thousands of unusual plants, shrubs and trees. Bayard's visitors also can tour a beautifully preserved historic mansion.
William Bayard Cutting, a wealthy financier from Manhattan, purchased 1,000 acres of land along the Connetquot River in 1884 for a summer retreat.
"He was a great plant collector," says Nelson Sterner, Bayard's executive director. Many of the original trees are still standing, including a towering 130-year-old European weeping beech that has become an icon of the property.
"As a child visiting, it was very magical here," says Candace Hays, 61, a Smithtown native back for a visit on a recent day. "We'd play under that tree and pretend it was a fairy castle."
These days, Bayard's 691 acres is home to 14 different gardens, including a pinetum, woodland garden and holly walk, plus plots devoted to dahlias, vegetables and perennials.
A walk through the pinetum offers excellent examples of Spanish firs and a Sargent's weeping hemlock that dates to the 1900s, which Sterner says may be the largest of its kind in the United States.
Built in 1886, the house has 65 rooms, 33 of which are regularly available to the public. You'll see pristine examples of 17th century French, Italian and English architecture. Docent-led tours are available twice daily on the weekend and by special arrangement during the week.
While Cutting died in 1912, his wife continued to live in the house until her death in 1949. Shortly after, the estate was given to the state.
Guided tours begin on the first floor at what was actually the rear entrance, where a horse and carriage would bring luggage and staff to the servants' hallways. The tour continues through the first-floor formal areas, servants' quarters, family bedrooms -- and a newly reopened annex of four rooms hosts art exhibits.
"The annex was yesteryear's answer to today's man cave," says Sterner. "It had a billiard room, a pipe organ and other games."
Privately owned and operated on-site, The Hidden Oak Café is an inexpensive spot for lunch. Sandwiches (think roast beef and Brie), salads and soups are mostly priced under $10, with caramel, apple and walnut pies, cookies and scones on offer for dessert.
Grab a seat by a window or on the expansive porch with a view of the Connetquot River. On a good day, you may see members of the Dowling College scull team on the river.
"Being here is like taking a time out from life," says Diane Guido, 49, of West Islip, who visits once or twice a year, often joined by her mom and sisters for a meal.
There are seats and benches throughout the arboretum. Visitors also are welcome to plop down on the grass to enjoy a book or a nap.
"I could stay here forever," says Darlene Faith, Sayville, 66, who, on a sunny Tuesday, had taken up residence in one of the many Adirondack chairs on the great lawn. "But life goes on, and you have to get up. When you're here, you feel like home." Mr. Cutting, as even today's staffers refer to him, would have approved.
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 440 Montauk Hwy., Great River
INFO 631-581-1002, bayardcuttingarboretum.com
ADMISSION $8 per carload weekends only ($8 guided tour)
Annual fall festival, Oct. 5-6, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
ADMISSION $15 per car
The arboretum's annual fundraising event is two days of activities around the property including music, dahlia garden tours and demonstrations of crafts such as weaving and spinning wool. For kids, there are games and face-painting, among other activities.