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June 26, 2013

Taking a Tour of Millbrook, New York

The bucolic town has county roads, unspoiled land, a slower pace—and a community that wants to keep it that way.

It’s a blindingly sunny day in Millbrook, the kind that tells of impending summer, and Alicia Adams is in a pasture with her alpacas. Though freshly sheared, most of the animals are huddled under a cluster of trees, searching for shade.

“We name all of them,” she says, pointing to the tags around their necks. “This one is Barbie.” Alicia turns toward the barn, with its nearby chicken coop. “We also have chickens. I’ve sold the eggs to Mark Strausman before,” she says, referring to the chef of the super fashionable Fred’s at Barneys restaurant in Manhattan.

Alicia and her husband, Daniel, are originally from Germany, but they’ve been living in Millbrook, New York, for eight years. Daniel was a founding partner and CFO of then-Berlin-based hospitality company Design Hotels, which went public in 1999. Six years later, he and Alicia wanted a new project. It was an encounter with pet alpacas while on vacation in Australia that sparked the idea of starting an alpaca farm, and Daniel’s search for the right location to raise the animals quickly led him to the United States and even more quickly to Millbrook. “Everybody we spoke to brought up Millbrook,” he says. A visit confirmed what they had heard about the area’s unspoiled land, scenic country roads, equestrian activities and family-friendly community with a sizable international crowd, so he and Alicia sold their house in Munich, packed up the kids and moved into a rental just south of the village of Millbrook.

Tucked into Dutchess County 90 miles north of New York City, Millbrook is every bit the quintessential American small town where everyone knows one another, but its roughly 1,500 inhabitants are anything but provincial. It is one of the state’s most affluent areas and boasts a unique community of multigenerational families who have inhabited the area for centuries and savvy but low-key weekenders looking for true respite. The list of residents reads like a who’s who of global influencers and tastemakers—Hermès president and CEO Robert Chavez; fashion entrepreneur and documentary filmmaker Cathryn Collins and her husband, Manhattan plastic surgeon Gerald Imber; Katie Couric; Liam Neeson; society photographer Mary Hilliard; Tom Ford Beauty president Caroline Geerlings—except that in Millbrook, it’s the amount of acreage and number of cows you own, not what you do in the city, that counts.

The Adamses spent two years at their rented farm before making the move permanent, purchasing 80 acres with an 18th-century home and enough room for their now-200-plus alpacas. Making friends was surprisingly easy—especially given the lengthy distance between houses; through family friends, the couple was introduced to Millbrook’s vibrant dinner party scene, a weekend tradition every bit as casual, inclusive and multigenerational as it is international and full of Manhattan power players. “It is like a family,” says Alicia. “You get to know people very quickly, and everyone is welcome everywhere.” It was at these dinner parties that people began to encourage Alicia to sell the scarves, blankets and sweaters she was designing from the shorn wool of her alpacas, a hobby that eventually led to her full-fledged knitwear company, which she began in a 19th-century hog barn next to their house.

When Massimo Ferragamo moved to New York in the early 1980s to helm the U.S. division of his family’s company, he wanted a country home for weekends, and when a friend invited him to Millbrook for a shooting outing, he was sold. “It reminded me of Tuscany,” he says. “I was amazed at how much land there was and that it was still so close to the city.”

Their 1930s house is warm and lived-in, and Massimo, his wife, Chiara, and their two sons spend most of their weekend evenings in the smallest room, a TV area with worn upholstered chairs. Elsewhere there are photos of Massimo’s hunting trips and a large, open kitchen overlooking the 170 acres that house their two cows, two horses and myriad geese.

And most importantly, Massimo also built a soccer field, which is used every Saturday (except in the winter, when a neighbor hosts the games at his indoor field). “I knew I had to find property where I could fit a field,” Massimo says. “I started asking around about who would want to play, and it turns out everyone does.” The teams usually consist of town police officers, groundskeepers and neighbors, including avid footballer Frédéric Fekkai, a close friend of the Ferragamos’ since he and his wife, Shirin von Wulffen, moved to the area nearly a decade ago—all wear coordinating jerseys, some with the “Salvatore Ferragamo” logo emblazoned on the back. Chiara rides over on an ATV to chat with the players’ wives, sons and daughters watching from the sidelines. This particular Saturday, Massimo has invited former French footballer Youri Djorkaeff to join; the FIFA World Cup 2006 Champion T-shirt that Massimo is sporting makes it clear that he is taking the game seriously.

A few miles north, Parker Gentry Thorne is saddling up her horse for polo, another Millbrook pastime, which was introduced to the area in the ’80s and revived by a group of players (including Gentry Thorne) about a decade ago. A native Southerner with Kennedyish good looks, she first came to Millbrook while working as an associate publisher for a fish-and-game magazine in Manhattan. She is Millbrook’s unofficial team captain of its sporting life: She is joint master of the 100-year-old Millbrook Hunt, plays mid-goal on the polo field and can be found riding, shooting, hunting, golfing or playing tennis on any given Sunday. “Millbrook is all about sports and fun. It’s integral to being here,” she says.

Gentry was previously married to Oakleigh Thorne, a billionaire businessman and fellow polo player whose family is one of Millbrook’s founders, having settled in the area in the mid-1700s. Their country estate, Thorndale, was built in the late 18th century and is still occupied by the family more than 200 years later. Charlotte Rotunno, a former dressmaker and Millbrook’s oldest living resident at age 107, remembers fitting early residents of the town, like Clarisse Coudert, Condé Montrose Nast’s first wife. “When I opened my shop in the ’20s, I went to the Thorne women first,” says Rotunno, great-aunt to Departures associate editor Anthony Rotunno. That the Thorne family is still active in the community is telling of the town’s sense of tradition even as a younger, savvier and more global crowd moves in.

Still, old Millbrook’s legacy continues to be challenged by Manhattanites eager to find yet another weekend decampment. The area has come to be known by some as the “low-key Hamptons”—a title its residents are quick to brush off. “Millbrook couldn’t be further from the Hamptons,” says interior designer and social maven Nina Griscom. “It’s very inconspicuous consumption—no one has a huge staff, everyone cooks meals themselves. It’s very informal.”

Griscom should know the difference, having been a Southampton resident for most of her life. After going through a divorce in 2002, the former model was looking for a change of pace and scenery, which she found on a 15-acre former turkey farm south of Millbrook. “It was the best decision I made,” she says. She and her husband, real estate executive Leonel Piraino, spend their weekends biking, hosting impromptu dinner parties and attending Friday-night polo matches—a social event seemingly counter-opposed to the Hamptons version of the sport. “No one dresses up. If you wear heels, people know you’re not from here,” says Griscom.

Though the number of weekenders moving to Millbrook has grown in the last decade (they now account for about 15 percent of the area’s population), the buzz seems to be contained for now. “It’s very attractive for a weekender, but only for the right person,” says George Whalen III, president of Bank of Millbrook and George T. Whalen Real Estate. A fourth-generation Millbrook resident, Whalen says that while he does see ex-Hamptonites coming to the area, they quickly adapt to Millbrook’s pace of daily life. “They respect the heritage, and there’s a lot of interaction between the residents and weekenders,” he says.

One of Millbrook’s biggest draws is the land preservation that has kept the area mostly free of commercial developments; there are no strip malls, no residential subdivisions and no Starbucks on Franklin Avenue, the town’s main street. In the past 28 years, the Dutchess Land Conservancy, a private, nonprofit land-conservation organization, has preserved more than 30,000 acres. When 200 acres that bordered the Millbrook School, a private college-prep boarding school north of the town, came on the market, the school, fearful of developers, worked with neighbors to purchase the land to keep it open for equestrian use. “Appreciating the natural beauty of the outdoors is a fundamental element of the Millbrook way of life,” says Drew Casertano, the school’s headmaster. The school is one of the town’s largest businesses and has spent more than $45 million in the past 20 years on its campus, including $12 million on its new Math and Science Center, a gold-level LEED-certified building—one of the first in New York at a high school level.

That sense of environmental preservation seems to have pervaded all facets of life in Millbrook. Owners Nigel and Julia Widdowson transformed a building next to an old train depot into the Red Devon, a solar-powered restaurant and café that sources nearly 90 percent of its produce and livestock locally, including from their Red Devon cows. Next door, interior designer Selina van der Geest has been busy updating nearby homes with her brand of “relaxed European” interiors, mixing antiques with reclaimed local materials.

Chef Mark Strausman had been sourcing ingredients from nearby Hudson Valley farmers for Agriturismo, his seasonal, weekend-only restaurant in Millbrook, but he closed its doors this past spring—perhaps one of the strongest signs of the area’s resistance to a Hamptons-esque transformation. “There are a lot of dinner parties; people like to stay at home. Millbrook will never have a big restaurant scene,” says Strausman. “It’s just not that type of place.”

Note: Charlotte Rotunno, a subject in this story on Millbrook, New York, and the great-aunt to Departures associate editor Anthony Rotunno, passed away on June 26, 2013. At 107 years old, she was the oldest living resident of Millbrook and spent her entire life there. Rotunno was a milliner and a dressmaker and owned a shop on Franklin Avenue for more than 60 years, making dresses for the town’s more notable residents, such as Clarisse Coudert (Condé Montrose Nast’s first wife) and Mrs. Oakleigh Thorne. “It was one big family; they all took care of each other,” she had said of life in Millbrook. “I loved every minute of it.”

 

The Millbrook Tip Sheet

Here’s the rub: Renting houses or staying with friends in the area is de rigueur. The hotel scene is almost nonexistent. There are a few B&Bs, though, including the Millbrook Inn (from $210; 3 Gifford Rd.; 845-605-1120; themillbrookinn.com) and the Millbrook Country House ($ from $175; 3244 Sharon Tpk.; 845-677-9570; millbrookcountryhouse.com).

The dining scene is small but gaining notoriety for its focus on Hudson Valley–sourced ingredients. The Red Devon (108 Hunns Lake Rd., Bangall; 845-868-3175; reddevonrestaurant.com) is a hub for both late-morning coffee and Saturday-night cocktails and dinner. In downtown Millbrook, Babette’s Kitchen (3293 Franklin Ave.; 845-677-8602; babetteskitchen.com) offers freshly baked pastries as well as a dinner menu that changes according to the day’s farm picks, and former Manhattan chef Michel Jean’s Stissing House (7801 S. Main St., Pine Plains; 518-398-8800; stissinghouse.com) is a popular post-polo hangout on Friday nights.

Shops in and around Millbrook tend to be small and home-decor–focused, like Selina van der Geest’s NL-GB (108 Hunns Lake Rd., Bangall; nlgb.com). Hammertown Barn (3201 Rte. 199, Pine Plains; hammertown.com) was one of the first boutiques to sell Alicia Adams’s alpaca knits.

Mashomack Fish & Game Preserve Club (7435 Rte. 82, Pine Plains; mashomackclub.com) is also private, though the polo fields are open to anyone during that season (usually June through September). Millbrook Golf & Tennis Club (103 Rte. 343; 845-677-3135; millbrookgt.com) is a short drive from Millbrook’s village.

The Millbrook School (131 Millbrook School Rd.; millbrook.org), picture-postcard perfect, is a coeducational, college-prep boarding school. Its Trevor Zoo is open for public visits and for budding zoologists of high school age as well by appointment to groups.

Alicia and Daniel Adams host appointment-only tours of their alpaca farm seasonally (6532 Rte. 82, Stanfordville; 845-868-3366; aliciaadamsalpaca.com).

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.