Paradise in the Hills

Sydney, January 2017.

Sydney is a freshman at Newburgh Free Academy where her English Language Arts teacher is Virginia McCurdy. She is one of three top-scoring high school students in this year’s Writing about Place.  Her fellow ninth graders wrote about Mount Beacon and Plum Point.

You also may enjoy middle school writing about Black Rock Forest, Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site, and Bull Pond; elementary school students’ poems. THV welcomes submissions from students and teachers.

Sometimes, if the weather is just right, if it’s sunny with a slight breeze and there aren’t too many clouds in the sky, you can find my mother sitting on a lawn chair reading. She’ll have her sunglasses on, her legs crossed, and she’ll be reading Nora Roberts or Janet Evanovich or the newest Harlan Coben. But whatever she looks like or whatever she’s reading won’t matter as much to her as where she is. She’ll most definitely be at the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, taking in the breathtaking view of rolling hills and the glistening Hudson River.

My mom has loved Vanderbilt for as long as I can remember. The place is her haven; a place she says she can run away to. One of my earliest memories of Vanderbilt is my mom driving me, my best friend Shaylea, and her mom through the property. She showed us the extremely steep hills near the end of the estate, and told us she considers the spot right at the top to be one of her favorite places on Earth. I remember saying those hills would be perfect to go sledding down. (I now know that would be the last thing I’d ever do if I tried it.)

So many memories have been made on the lands at Vanderbilt. They’re not just my memories, ones that were made all the way back in the late nineteenth century. Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt purchased the land in 1896. They built the mansion and Frederick continued the profitable railroad legacy of his father, William Vanderbilt, and his grandfather, the infamous Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Sydney (right) and her sister in the garden at Vanderbilt National Historic Site.

The mansion itself is probably the most lavish and luxurious place I have ever seen. The exterior is covered in ornate detailing and carvings with beautiful Corinthian columns.

The inside is just as amazing — full of old European furniture and gorgeous architecture. It has 54 rooms, but my favorite is Fredrick’s study because of the wall of books.

When I’m inside, all I can think about was what it must have been like to call that place home. To wake up and see the Hudson River in all its glory right in your backyard, to take a stroll through the gardens at sunset, it must have been absolutely stunning.

Never has there been a more serene place in all the Hudson Valley than the gardens at the Vanderbilt Mansion. The red brick and the wrought-iron details combined with the seemingly endless rows of flowers and bushes make for one of the grandest gardens imaginable. The gardens even include a reflecting pool and lifelike statues. Wherever you look, you see beauty beyond compare.

All the way on the other side of the grounds you can walk straight down to the Hudson. A short walk down the paved path and you come across the hills that greatly impressed me that first time I went to Vanderbilt. I have made it my own tradition to walk down the hills to the river rather than take the path around them. Sometimes I feel like I’m close to falling down, but it’s always worth it. (I frequently have to refrain from spinning around and singing The Sound of Music on my way down.) But my absolute favorite place on the whole estate is right next to the river, at a place called Bard Rock.

Sydney and a friend at Bard Rock.

The first time I walked all the way down to Bard Rock was on a bright summer afternoon. There was something utterly amazing to me about being that close to the river. I could feel the mist on my face. When I’m standing there on the rocks looking at the opposite side of the Hudson, I feel completely at peace.

I could sit there for hours listening to the water crash onto the rocks, feeling the wind blow through my hair. I love that spot so much; just like my mother loves the view from the top of the hills. That is one of my favorite places on Earth. (Listen to a four-minute audio description.)

The grounds at Vanderbilt have been home to so many adventures and experiences.

Words don’t even express how thankful I am that my mother has shared it with me. I have so many memories there: picnicking behind the visitor’s center, playing Frisbee with my friends, touring the elaborate mansion, running down the hills, recreating the poses of the statues in the gardens with my sister Kayleigh, and so many more.

But probably my favorite memory is my most recent visit when I walked down to the river. I sat down on a rock that jutted out to the water. As I sat there staring at the tapestry of fall colors that covered the mountains on the opposite shore, I began writing this very essay. It was then that I really understood how much Vanderbilt meant to me. My mother loves every square foot of land on that estate. And because of her, I do too.

Summer events at Vanderbilt Mansion

Sundays,  May 21, June 18, July 16, August 20, September 17, and October 15, 1-4 p.m., trained interpreters from the Vanderbilt Garden Association will offer guided tours of the Formal Gardens. Details: Cecily Frazier, 845-876-7462 or email

Each summer, the Mansion hosts free concerts on the lawn.  Check the calendar, June through August, for details.

Sunday, June 18, 11:30 am-1:30 pm, The Great American Father’s Day Cookout. Bring your chairs and blankets and enjoy an old fashioned picnic with catered food, lawn games, a gift for dad, and an extra special surprise for dessert! $15/adults, $10/children under 12. Reservations required.

Sunday, September 10, High Tea in the Vanderbilt Formal Gardens. Enjoy Harney and Sons teas, scones, cupcakes, cookies and tea sandwiches. Live music from Botticelli Chamber Players and guest speaker, Michael Harney. $50. Tickets here.


  1. Shelly Starkey says:

    You have expressed your thoughts so eloquently on behalf of so many of us who feel the exact same way as you. I remember the first time that my father took me to the Vanderbilt Mansion when I was just a young girl. It left such an impression upon me that I have returned more times than I can count in the decades that have followed my first visit. We are so blessed to live in this beautiful Hudson Valley filled with treasures for us to explore. May future generations appreciate all of the wonders that abound here at our home in the Hudson Valley.