The description promised “…panoramic views of Long Island Sound….seaside acres of sweeping lawns…stately trees and spectacular gardens.” I’m a sucker for any place that promises sea, sand and cooling breezes in hottest summer. Top that with a chance to stretch not only legs but my imagination, wondering while wandering what life was like in days long past, as well as be surrounded by sweet-scented air in brilliant-colored gardens, what can I say– it was a lure impossible to resist.
Moments after parking in Harkness Memorial State Park I strolled across a wide expanse of shorn lawn, tanned dry by the late summer sun. I was on the lookout for Eolia, an Italianate-style mansion. A flash of sparkling green caught my eye. Soon the hint of a roofline peeked through trees, sunlight reflecting on burnished, emerald-green Spanish-tiles. Built near Waterford, Connecticut, the mansion was completed in 1906 and later bought by Mary and Edward Harkness. According to an article on ConnecticutHistory.org, through investments in Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller’s source of wealth, Mr. Harkness, like other wealthy people of the time, “felt the need to summer in the countryside, away from the major cities where they made their living.”
To the right of a small courtyard a magnificent tree caught my attention. Growing up in a village in Germany, surrounded by meadows, farmland and forests, daring tomboys like me had ample opportunities to climb, hide and, as is often the case, tumble from many a tree. For me, times spent doing such stunts are long gone but trees have not lost their appeal. This one tantalized. “Come. Climb. Touch” it seemed to whisper. Standing in front of the ancient, immense elm tree I couldn’t help but admire its solid, knotted and twisted gray trunk, thick gnarled roots, with branches that reach to the sky or hang low to the ground. On closer inspection I realized that the size is deceiving; although grand, the elder statesman is surrounded by several younger attendants. No matter; it’s a tree made for hiding. Or, in my case, being cradled in its embrace.
At Harkness Memorial Park however, grand trees are not the only things to like. Plenty more sights awaited.
After moments spent reliving fond childhood memories I returned to what I assumed was Eolia. In the courtyard a young man unloaded a golf-cart, darting in and out the building. When he emerged I asked, “Is this the mansion?”
“No. They kept the cars in here. Upstairs, where you see the balcony, the servants lived.” Pointing to the building’s right wing he said “The racquet ball court was over there on top and on the bottom a bowling alley.”
Traffic had crawled along the interstate causing me to arrive moments too late for an official tour; I was glad for the brief description.
Monarch butterflies fluttered in the air, sampling nectar from an abundance of blossoms as I meandered through the cutting garden. Enduring the pain -summer-time congestion on Interstate 95 – seemed well worth the effort. Craning my neck to gaze up the Water Tower, the story of Rapunzel came to mind. A thick mass of ivy, like her golden tresses, cascaded down its sides–solid twine for any bold prince to grasp while attempting a rescue.
Emerging through hedges, I finally found Eolia. I also discovered that, fairy tales do seem to come true here.
Situated on top a slight swell, the mansion is flanked by gardens and a lawn that gently rolls towards the sound. A wedding ceremony just ended. While guests milled about and strolled through the gardens, the bride, groom and attendants posed for photographers hard at work to capture the “happily ever after” moment. Some visitors watched, sheltered beneath umbrellas or shade trees, while others picnicked, napped, read, or watched sailboats drift by and ferries crisscrossing the water.
As the sun lowered on the horizon, like worrisome clouds, nagging thoughts began to intrude. There was traffic to face, bridges to cross and, borrowing from the words of Robert Frost, “Promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.”
And that’s the problem with idyllic retreats, sooner or later you have to wake and return to reality. But even if just for brief moments, allow yourself to be seduced by the enchantments of Harkness Memorial Park. You may find the experience, captivating.
A few Tips:
The Park is open year round. However, Mansion tours are available weekends and holidays only, Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Currently, cash only is accepted to access the park.
- State residence fee is $10
- Out-of-state fee is $15
The closest ATM machine is at a Henny Penny Convenience store/gas station about 3 miles from the park entrance on Great Neck Road
Expect congestion along I-95 whenever there is brilliant weather or during holidays.
Finally: Bring a picnic and blanket, and in the words of Pretty Woman‘s Julia Roberts, “cop a squat” and enjoy the views.