When people head out from New York and surrounding environs in search of weekend retreats, invariably they end up in western Connecticut, the Hudson River Valley, the Catskills and other upstate New York areas, the Jersey Shore, and the Hamptons.

As places where New Yorkers traditionally vacation, purchase second homes, celebrity watch and more, it’s understandable that these locales are top of the list.

But what about a place as close to Manhattan as any of the aforementioned hotspots that offers almost everything we find endearing about our destinations of choice for second and vacation homes – historic villages and towns, amazing countryside, outdoor activities, farmhouses, farm markets, artists, country restaurants – but doesn’t have the buzz or the name recognition, at least not yet.

There is an area within the New York Metropolitan region that is still overlooked by the masses. Where residents are already starting Friday night dinner in their stone farmhouses while weekenders are stuck in traffic on the way to Litchfield, or Rhinebeck, or East Hampton. Even places farther a field like Bucks and Pike Counties in Pennsylvania and Sullivan County in New York get more press. Well let me introduce you to the formerly depressed backwater turned beautiful and convenient countryside of Warren County, New Jersey.

Interestingly, Warren is surrounded by counties which consistently rank among the wealthiest in America: Hunterdon, Somerset and Morris. These are counties full of investors, a highly educated workforce, an abundance of so called McMansions, and quite a bit of disposable income. And to be sure, some of Warren’s eastern border towns have picked up developments and transplants from these ever more unaffordable neighboring areas. But for the most part, it’s the locals who know about or consider living in or visiting Warren County and even then, the western and northern reaches are still quite rural and untouched. For most of its history, Warren County has either been a mystery to those who have never seen it or a place to avoid to those who had heard of its largest town, Phillipsburg–a poor industrial city that had fallen on hard times.

A Pleasant Surprise

Four years ago, my partner Mark and I stumbled across the village of Finesville in southern Warren County completely by accident. Living in suburban Morristown New Jersey, we were contemplating a second home purchase in the country and saw a house in Bucks County Pennsylvania on a real estate Website that interested us. Always up for a weekend drive, we decided to find it. With map in hand, we took what looked like the most direct route to Upper Bucks County and found ourselves following the Musconetcong River, along Warren County’s southern border, past a collection of about fifty small but magnificent 18th and 19th century stone and clapboard buildings, known as Finesville, just before we crossed into Pennsylvania.

Although Warren County was barely on my radar screen, as a Real Estate Agent specializing in historic homes and neighborhoods — www.gerrykasper.com —, I was flabbergasted that there was a hamlet of this size and quality in Northern New Jersey of which I was unaware. Even more amazing, Mark grew up in eastern Warren County and we had attended an auction only three miles away from Finesville so I had some knowledge of the area.

With its roots in the mid 18th century, Finesville began as a collection of taverns, shops and a mill along the Musconetcong River run by the Fine and Siegel Families of Germany. The village was fairly prosperous for most of its history but declined during the twentieth century. Today, locals have bought and restored many of its buildings and, indicative of its burgeoning upscale nature, two vineyards, a winery, an antique store, and an alpaca farm have set up shop in the hamlet. Some of the restorations have been so impressive that two Finesville homes were recently featured in national home and garden magazines.

At the time we discovered it, a c.1825 stone Georgian colonial was for sale in the village. The exterior was in some disrepair, the stucco was cracking and peeling, and the original front doors were gone. But the setting in this pristine and unusual village was beautiful and the price, at $135,000, was irresistible. Once inside, we realized this was our dream house in the country. The interior was almost completely intact with a walk-in fireplace, cupboard stairs, beamed ceilings, wide plank floors, and original windows—a jewel box of a house that just needed some sprucing up. And so we bought and restored this house and received the Warren County Historic Preservation Award for our efforts. Even better, because of Warren County’s proximity to work, we were able to sell our primary house in Morristown and move to the country permanently.

The Villages and Countryside

Warren County is full of hidden and beautiful villages and towns like Finesville and since arriving, several of them have tempted us to consider moving again.

As testament to Warren County’s less than stellar reputation, the sign welcoming visitors into its county seat describes Victorian Belvidere as “New Jersey’s best kept secret”. Belvidere is a sleepy town located off the beaten path and layed out around a New England-style Village Green. Each September, the town celebrates Victorian Days, highlighting the prevalent 19th century architecture that lines its streets and forms the basis of the town’s small commercial district. Most of the grand homes have already been restored and there is a great sense of pride in this small close-knit community. Its location directly on the Delaware and Pequest Rivers also makes it a good base for outdoor activities.

Northern Warren County offers a scene that rivals the most beautiful in New England. Hope is a one-traffic light crossroads town, founded in the 18th century by a group of Moravians who left an impressive collection of stone dwellings now restored and converted to businesses and residences. One of which is a former gristmill turned into an inn and conference center. Stone and clapboard homes surrounded by cows and sheep dot a landscape that is reminiscent of the Litchfield Hills. With little commercial development, the pace in Hope is decidedly slow but that just adds to its appeal.

North of Hope lies the slightly larger village of Blairstown with its recently restored collection of shops and restaurants, currently under consideration for the National Register of Historic Places. Main Street is bookended by a prestigious prep school and the town’s venerable feed store. This is a walking village, good for an hour’s stroll with weekend guests and a poke around the stores and quiet streets.

Just west of Hope and Blairstown, outdoor activities exist in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area which includes part of the Appalachian Trail, Millbrook, a recreated 19th century village, and Peters Valley, an artists colony which offers regular shows and exhibits.

On the eastern edge of Warren, Hackettstown still retains its 19th century feel with impressive multi-colored Victorian homes, antique stores along Main Street and Centenary College in its midst.

Phillipsburg – An Industrial Town Reborn

As beautiful as Warren County’s countryside is, it’s the city that we originally tried to avoid that has captured our imagination and may eventually tear us away from Finesville. The county’s largest town is a small, formerly industrial city and transportation hub along the Delaware River that had been neglected for years. Think Hoboken New Jersey or Hudson New York before gentrification. Thankfully that neglect, as in most of Warren County, has kept much of its historic fabric intact and over the past 20 years, building owners have been peeling off old aluminum siding to reveal stunning architecture.

The town actively encourages restoration and business development — businesses in Phillipsburg charge only 3% sales tax with some of that money going to revitalization projects. Progress had been slow, but now there are several highly regarded restaurants in the restored downtown as well as antique shops and several specialty stores. Train rides along the Delaware River start downtown and are popular in the summer as well as for Halloween and the winter holidays. On Thanksgiving, Phillipsburg High School plays its rival Easton Pennsylvania in their annual football game. P’burg, as it is known by locals, is extremely convenient as Routes 78 and 22 run just outside of town as does the express bus to Manhattan, which stops at the Phillipsburg Mall.

There are several plans to transform Phillipsburg including the redevelopment of its underutilized waterfront into a residential neighborhood, with construction set to start in 2006, and the repurposing of a vacant industrial park into a new commerce center. Rumor has it that a bed and breakfast is slated to open in an historic stone tavern near the Delaware River bridge. Phillipsburg was named as the location for the New Jersey Transportation and Heritage Museum. Sadly, legislation to provide the funding to make it happen has been stalled and appears unlikely. However, the town is committed to building its own museum and has plans already in the works.

Just over the river, Easton Pennsylvania offers more restaurants, the Crayola Factory museum, a very popular local grocery store (a branch of which may hopefully pop up in Warren County), a thriving artists community, the State Theater, and the historic College Hill neighborhood. Even more exciting, there are several luxury condominium developments currently under construction or planned in existing historic Easton properties, such as the former Easton Hotel, which will bring wealthy people within walking distance of downtown Phillipsburg.

Phillipsburg has great bones and incredible architecture. South Main Street near the Delaware River Bridge is mostly restored and ready to become the next Cold Spring or South Norwalk or New Paltz. And prices are still a relative bargain. A couple of years ago, we purchased two historic properties on Phillipsburg’s Main Street: an 1887 firehouse for $60,000 and a 19th century Georgian-style colonial for $90,000.

As the town continues to revitalize, we are considering a move into the colonial as our permanent home so we can wake up on Saturday mornings and walk to our favorite breakfast spot down the street. Although, we’ll probably keep the Finesville house as our place in the country.