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Montauk: Heaven at the End of Long Island

In California, where I’m from, we don’t know the power of the traditional summer vacation—the migration of souls, en masse, from the city heat and humidity to beaches and the casual land of time-off. On the West Coast, the summer air cool, there is no humidity and the nights are foggy.

But in New York where the summer reaches unbearable heat and the humidity can be drenching upon stepping outside the front door the migration-escape is a much needed respite.

Montauk is the ultimate escape. At the far end of Long Island, the fishing village still has its hippie-surfer roots and long-time locals. People live in their flip-flops, and dance to the groovy music by night. The pace is just right.

Flying into JFK from the West Coast, we rented a car (you need one if you want to explore) and hit the road directly. The drive is 2 1/2 hours, so settle in and watch the scenery change from city to gritty suburb, woodsy terrain, through the charming and beautiful Hamptons, and finally, out to the beaches. The highway was a crawl by Wednesday on the traverse out (try for midweek if you’re coming in mid to late summer).

The delicious thing about Montauk is its beaches—they stretch from end-to-end, state beaches, hidden beaches, residential beaches—on both sides of the tiny peninsula. The water is spectacular in its body-surfing, Pacific-like cresting waves. There is a distinct feeling of an end of the world peace.

A few decades ago, when the stone’s throw away Hamptons were the end-all destination, Montauk was authentically downscale and funky. Now it has found its hipper sea-legs, and July and August definitely witness the Wall Street banker-turned-sometime-surfer, expensive rental-house set, and the expansion of the Easthampton crowd. But just like New York City, it’s still a terrific mix. Montauk is still a place you can go and hang loose—lounge on the beaches by day, eat upscale or thrifty at night and sleep soundly all night long at your seaside inn. Families, couples, surfers, locals all blend together for a beach-community feeling that’s open and inclusive.

It’s obvious that many people make the trip to Montauk’s beaches every year, which means one thing to the novice East Coast traveler; reservations. Since we decided to make the trek just a month before our July date, we scrambled to find something affordable. The inns were full. The beach motels were packed. Finally, after a kind referral from a local friend, we found The Montauk Lake Club a spectacular private inn and yacht club just northeast of town and close to the lighthouse.

We were graciously given a midweek special, and for about $230 a night got a terrific, simple room in a spectacular locale. If we would have booked early—I’m guessing as early as last summer—we might have found one of the $125-$160 a night seaside inns available near the water and south of town, or a cheaper motel in town, but once we laid eyes on The Montauk Lake Club & Marina, we were thrilled to be there. It was worth every cent.

The Lake Club is situated on an inlet “lake” which flows in from the Atlantic’s Block Island Sound to the west—which essentially means that we were surrounded by water on all sides. The staff is sweet and attentive, the grounds are lush and beautifully attended to (though the relentless use of leaf blowers in the morning is annoying), and the huge brick-surrounded, vine-covered pool is just steps away from the lake. It is a special joy to have continental breakfast sitting on the stone porch overlooking the yacht harbor. It’s all sky and water, view and charm at The Lake Club. We felt like we were visiting another country—slow-paced, quiet, gracious and rich with delicious scenery.

Wandering into town, Montauk showed itself to be all about its wonderful beaches. We quickly found a Surf Shop, just off the main drag within walking distance to the city beach. We rented chairs and umbrellas ($10 per chair, about $12 per umbrella) and headed out to lounge. On the way, we found the Continental Market for breakfast, with authentic South American specialties, and the Naturally Good Café

just next door, with smoothies and organic treats.

One of the first things we noticed as West Coasters was the deep level of local tans. No one who lives near a northern California beach is brown during summer. Here, there was a golden glow on skin from beach to beach—a great throw-back to our college summer days, reminding us of long, languishing hours with nothing to do. Vacationers hang out at the beach all day, under an umbrella, a good book in hand while kids played in the sand. It’s relaxation at its finest. The views and fresh air soothe the soul like nothing else.

Our first state beach visit was just south of the town to Hither Hills. Hither Hills’ beach has a good kick and strong undertow, one that will slam you to the watery turf. Its vistas extend for miles. We settled in and spent a whole day there, eating sandwiches and chips and drinking beer from the local beach shack, about $18 for two. Fit with full bathrooms and showers, the beach had everything we needed. ($10 fee to park for the day, with a general store and a playground for kids.)

Venturing out at night with our local friends, we headed to Gosman’s Inlet Cafe, just down the road from The Lake Club on West Lake Drive. For about $30 I had a 1 1/4 pound lobster, in traditional East Coast style with corn on the cob, drawn butter, and a baked potato. The scallops were also delicious. The view, looking out towards the sound was phenomenal, and the cocktails were ample.

On day two we discovered Gin Beach just off to the side of the Inlet Cafe’s parking area. A much less populated beach, its breakwater provides a lovely little sheltered rocky-edged beach that’s cooler in temperature than the east side of the Montauk’s peninsula. (Parking pass required; get one from your hotelier if possible.)

For a more authentic, old-school repast, we found the hidden West Lake Clam and Chowder House Restaurant. Food in town is all about fish, and pricing is on the upscale side, even in the funkier spots—unless you find a side of the road “shack” like The Lobster Roll in Amagansett. ($12-20 on average.) Always clear about our finances on vacation, we set aside a set amount for dining and daytime food, and the preparation was worth it.

The next day was cloudy and rainy—a summer event we also don’t see much of on the West Coast—so we took the day and rambled into Easthampton. Lunch at Citarella, shopping at the Shoe Inn, and some hours in the local bookshop killed the morning. By afternoon, when the clouds cleared, we were back at Hither Hills for a little more sun and a romantic sunset.

Dinner that night was a group of six at the Harvest on Fort Pond—a beautiful setting with marsh-like views and a local garden from which comes many of the vegetables on the menu. The restaurant pricing ranges abut $22-40 per appetizer and $40 and up for entrees—but don’t be scared off: the portions are huge, so a family-style shared dinner for six, plus cocktails was just over an affordable $150.00.

The next morning we drove out to the lighthouse on Montauk point—the eastern most point in New York with a solitary, edge-of-the-world expanse stretching out to its eastern and northern sides. I could feel the land and the wind in another time—a time when ships came exploring and washed up against unknown and undiscovered continents.

Our favorite sunset was a spectacular Sunday night event at the local hangout, The Surf Lodge. The Lodge overlooks Fort Pond, and on the night we were there a local band played out on the deck, big pasha couches in the middle and rays of sun beaming down as the local color sang and played for us. The place has its roots in clapboard, and its earthy, quaint vibe charmed us. So much about Montauk is deliberately charming—not accidental, and certainly scaled up for a savvy clientele—but the foundation that the whole town stands upon is still visceral, still sensually alive—fishing village, outpost, beach town, surfer-haven.

After less than a week in the sun-filled beach life of Montauk, we had found our heaven: the sun had tanned our skin, the views had soothed our minds, and sea had unwound our souls. Montauk had brought us an unfurled, uncomplicated, easy, beautiful respite at the edge of the world.

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