About 75 miles east of Manhattan, Long Island divides into two water-bound, 40-mile long, scenic strips: The North Fork, with its rural vineyards, farms and marinas, and The South Fork, better known as “The Hamptons.”
The Hamptons endures as the (seasonal) home to a thriving population of contemporary artists and writers, celebrities and scions, moguls and models, farmers and fishermen, trendsetters and tradespeople plus an ample assortment of success-stories, talents, wannabes and has-beens.
Some stay put in their oh-so-private oceanfront mansion resorts and modernist architectural marvels hidden behind tall dunes and higher hedges. Most meet and mingle while shopping at organic farm stands or in chic boutiques, playing on the golf course or tennis courts, attending polo matches, performances, art and antique shows and charity events or when dining out and sunning on the beach. Silky sand beaches stretch from Westhampton to Montauk. Two of them, Cooper’s Beach (Southampton) and Main Beach (East Hampton), repeatedly rank on Dr. Beach’s list of Top 10 Beaches in America. In Montauk, the broad stretch of beach is famous for sunning, surfing and surfcasting.
Like the beaches, which are exquisite whether operated by the town (residential permits often required), county or state, Hampton restaurants are exceptional. Numerous top-trained Manhattan chefs and restaurateurs moved east lured by abundant fish and seafood, local duck, seasonal produce, local wines, artisanal ingredients and a clientele that appreciates it all. Great food is served in fine dining rooms as well as in lower cost, casual eateries.
I’ve been spending time driving with the top down, sailing, cruising and staying in the Hamptons since I was a teen and writing about it for decades. I revisited just after this season’s Memorial Day launch to recommend what follows.
The westernmost Hampton is favored for its long waterfront and its quaint Main Street where the August calendar at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center features Megan Mullaly, John Pinette and Wynton Marsalis. At pizzeterria brunetti, “Pop”(Michael Brunetti) and “Sonny” (Jason Brunetti) top amazing, house-made whole-wheat dough with fresh mozzarella, burrata, sausage or local clams before sliding it into the wood-fired oven. Nearby, Starr Boggs (chef/owner/namesake) enjoys a well-deserved reputation for incorporating seasonal and local ingredients into delicious dishes.
The stretch of Dune Road – with its tennis and condo clubs, beach shacks and mansions-on-stilts – leads to Bee Hive Bungalows (a low-key vacation rental complex with eight simple studios and pedestrian beach access) and Cupsogue Beach County Park ($15 parking).
Spiffy shops stud Job’s Lane and shaded, estate-lined streets lead to extravagant oceanfront manses on Gin Lane. Among golfers, the town is best known for Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, a 300-acre, links-style, top 100 and U.S. Open course. History buffs know it’s adjacent to the 250-acre Shinnecock Indian Reservation.
The Southampton Inn is a sprawling, brick-fronted, 90-room hotel with cheery, updated rooms, a restaurant (Oso), a lushly landscaped pool in a garden setting and an hourly shuttle to Cooper Beach (parking $40).
The hotel is a short stroll from the cinema, shops, museum and some terrific restaurants. The Driver’s Seat is a long popular, casual eatery and Little Red has earned a full roster of fans, many of whom also frequent its stylish sibling: Red Bar.
Locals have coffee, eggs and sandwiches at the Candy Kitchen and spend hours at lunch or dinner next door at Bobby Van’s. Few who pass The Bridgehampton Historical Society, across the street, realize that it houses priceless pieces of colonial furniture made by the multigenerational Dominy dynasty who settled in East Hampton about 1760. (On Mondays, the Pizza Place, has a Jam Jazz from 7-9 p.m.)
Wainscott is home to The Enclave Inn, where 20 simply furnished and smallish hotel rooms occupy a wooded complex clustered around a pool (the six cabins have patios). Nearby, Georgica is a popular restaurant and late night lounge where a generous surf and turf combo adds to live music (on Thursdays) and special Sunday Suppers serve kids under 12 free.
Historic windmills, white clapboard homes and a town pond are just a few reasons why East Hampton has been ranked among America’s most beautiful villages. In colonial times, the wide and gracious spaces between homes were used as a common pasture so settlers built picket fences to keep out the cattle. The Mulford Farmhouse, one of the East Hampton Historical Society properties, is the best-preserved 17th-century English colonial house in town.
Settlers originally called the town Maidstone after their British birthplace and the place name remains omnipresent: there’s the prestigious Maidstone Club, the luxe boutique hotel c/o The Maidstone and the name of the spacious corner room (#12) at The Baker House 1650. This meticulously refurbished B&B sits sumptuously between the town pond and its private, infinity pool and above its own small, subterranean spa.
Guild Hall, the town’s cultural center, offers exhibits and performances at the John Drew Theater. Plus, there’s a first run movie house, fine art galleries and clothing boutiques dedicated to designs by Michael Kors, James Perse, Lilly Pulitzer, Elie Tahari and John Varvatos.
The restaurants are exceptional. Few are favored more than Nick & Toni’s. The Palm serves lobster and steak, Rowdy Hall is fun for a burger and beer, CittaNuova for a mushroom topped pizza or pasta and Babettes for freshly squeezed juices in every imaginable drink or smoothie. Everyone raves about two newcomers that I haven’t yet tried: East Hampton Grill (aka Houstons in the Hamptons) and Andrra, where the sunset views over Three Mile Harbor are spectacular.
Roads to Sag Harbor lead north from Southampton, Bridgehampton and East Hampton and pass horse farms, ponds, creeks, canals and bay beaches. The raggedy-edged, northern coast of the south fork is about 10 miles north of the ocean and has a distinctive maritime character.
“Sag” sits aside a deep harbor where Native Americans were whaling in the early 1600s. In 1789, the town was George Washington’s official port of entry and cleared more tonnage than New York Harbor. The Sag Harbor Whaling Museum displays artifacts from the industry that flourished until 1850. These days, mega-yachts line the marina, sleek sailboats moor in the harbor and some tony new boutiques dot Main Street near Schiavoni’s Market, Emporium Hardware, the 5&10, cinema and Canio’s Books.
Wine aficionados and the cognoscenti dine at The American Hotel Restaurant within a superbly appointed eight-room inn that dates from 1846. Fresh local fish reigns at the more casual Dockside Bar & Grill and burgers hit the spot at the Corner Bar.
All three restaurants are footsteps from Bay Street Theater which introduces the world premiere of the new musical “Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues” starring Lillias White, a Tony award-winner. In August, its Monday night comedy club features Robert Klein Susie Essman and Jim Breuer.
La Fondita, in Amagansett, is a noteworthy roadside Mexican café where the señora makes tortillas by hand to eat at three picnic tables bordering the neighboring nursery’s tall evergreens. Further east, roadside eateries feature the area specialty: lobster rolls served on the traditional hot dog bun.
The topography changes from flat to hilly en route to Montauk and Route 27 rises above the dunes to see vistas of the Atlantic. Bear right for Old Montauk Highway, here, where homes and hotels are perched on high bluffs.In 1921, Rudolph Valentino filmed “The Sheik” here because the hilly dunes resembled the Arabian desert. Today, 65 percent of the land is in a preservation fund and campers cluster on oceanfront parking lots in Hither Hills State Park ($10 parking). Montauk is the sport fishing capital with charter and party boats ready for the tuna and striped bass catch which is served at great restaurants near the dock, notably Dave’s Grill. There are dude ranches, a golf club, marinas, and, above all, the Montauk Lighthouse at the very tip of the island and an oceanfront Seawater Spa.Gurney’s Inn Resort Spa & Conference Center is a 109-room oceanfront resort hotel best known for its full-service spa, its Olympic-size indoor seawater pool, its restaurant, rooms and cottages. The deck outside the living room of two-bedroom Bridge Cottage is surrounded by beach grass and footsteps from the sand. However one feels about $100,000 rentals or $10 to $100 million dollar homes, The Hamptons appeals at many price points. It attracts folks who can and do travel the world because of its splendidly casual lifestyle, stunning scenery, historical authenticity, great food, best beaches, top shops and entertainment. Try one vacation there, and you’ll know why The Hamptons are as appealing today as it was to the colonists in the 1700s.
For more information, visit www.discoverlongisland.com.