In the six months I’ve been in New York City, I’ve mostly circled around Manhattan with an occasional foray into the Bronx or Brooklyn. Manhattan is the tail that wags the dog in this town. Guidebooks take you on a street-by-street tour through Manhattan, and throw in the other boroughs as an afterthought. Or–they might completely overlook the existence of any other borough.
One day, I overheard someone mention Montauk–the last town at the tip of the South Fork of Long Island, and I wanted to go there. Something about these end-of-the-road places. Something about seeing land disappear into big water. As a further inducement, I had just read Charming Billy, a delightful little book partly set in Amagansett, next-door neighbor to Montauk.
I decided to take the train to the end of Long Island.
Montauk is considered part of East Hampton, the last and fanciest of a string of towns that line the southern shore of Long Island like dowager aunts staring out to sea. Celebrities hang out there and so do those who stalk them. The Manhattan monied have their “cottages” there, and the restaurants and golf courses and beaches have an irresistible scent of exclusivity.
If you live in Manhattan, you want a place in the Hamptons.
The season hadn’t started yet, so not only could I afford a visit, but I also figured I wouldn’t feel so ugly-duckling-ish. So fish-out-of-water-ish.
I got on the Long Island Railroad to Montauk last Saturday morning. (There is also a bus–the Hampton Jitney–but I found out about it too late.) The trip took three hours (almost as long as to Washington D.C.). As the train chugs east, the crush of apartments in Queens gives way to residential streets and cheap duplexes and single-family homes, then, increasingly, to open field and brush.
From the train station I walked the mile or so to town.
The weekend was sunny but with a chill in the air. Many stores were still closed for the season, and early visitors like me roamed through town in pairs and bunches. The place still had sleep in its eyes.
Montauk is a patchwork of faux Bavarian buildings, surf shops, motels, restaurants, and
realtors along its single main street and handful of side roads. It’s the shirttail relative of spiffy East Hampton and describes itself as “laid-back,” but a cottage here will still set you back a million or so. Heck, a one-bedroom condo in the tower that broods incongruously over Montauk costs half a million. (The “Tower in Montauk” was a failed business venture that was never occupied until the nouveau riche moved into town.
This year is supposed to be a good one for the realtors. After a dry spell as Wall Street thrashed on its self-made bed of nails, the market is finally picking up.
I was excited to see the Atlantic, however frothy and gray, because I’ll be spending many weeks on its coast in Canada this summer.
Although there’s a state park and an old lighthouse at Montauk point, after living in Michigan I’m saturated with lighthouses, and I had no way of getting there anyway. (A ten-mile round-trip is beyond my easy hiking range now.) But Shadmoor Park was close, and its trails (surrounded by “maritime heath”) almost convinced me I was in the wilderness again.
This isn’t a place where you strike up a conversation with someone on a park bench, and after six months in the nest of family (with my daughter), I’m less adept at being alone. Actually, I’m a little lonely. So I go to dinner at Shagwong Tavern, one of the original townie pubs that every town has (OK food–not great); I go to mass on Sunday morning and notice how empty the tastefully renovated church is and how few people hang around afterward.
In a few weeks these quiet streets will become a mosh pit of weekend warriors. A “Go Away Group” (GAG) of 200 locals has already formed to spread lies and propaganda about the place so city people will stay home in their concrete jungle.
The GAG is hoping to save the village from the “nightmare traffic…the lines at the restaurants, the lack of parking, the booting of cars, the roving gangs of celebutards, and the extraordinary surliness exhibited by overworked waiters in expensive restaurants.”
That’d be enough to keep me at home in front of the air conditioner.
But right now anyone can wander through mostly empty streets.
I meet Lewis on the beach. He’s from “the city” and is visiting Montauk with his family. He thought it would be fun to dig a hole bigger than himself in the sandy beach, and it’s a killer pit. (Hi, Lewis.)
I take the same 3:33 train back to Manhattan as Lewis.
Kate’s Montauk rating: Hmmm+. I enjoyed the fresh air and the wander in a new place, but honestly folks, Michigan’s West Coast, with its dramatic dunes, singing sand, expanse of clean, blue water, and fishing villages along the coast, is far more authentic, quaint, and beautiful than anything the Hamptons has to offer. No celebrities or stalkers, but it’s a lot cheaper.
But that’s just me.