The summer escape from Manhattan brings a profound change to the tone and people of the seaside towns of the Hamptons.
A home for the holidays
Every weekend in summer, the island of Manhattan empties out on to neighbouring Long Island and the seaside towns of Westhampton, South Hampton, Bridgehampton and East Hampton. They are known to New Yorkers simply as "the Hamptons" - two words that have become synonymous with the summer escape from the city.
I've long been one of those commuters, packed into a sweltering car, asking "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?", anxious to get out to the coast.
As a child, riding horses or trawling for hermit crabs in the bay that laps the shoreline by my family's seaside house were blissful departures from my weekday Manhattan life of concrete and rattling subways. As a teenager, I held summer jobs at half a dozen restaurants, mucked out horses at local stables and taught kids to ride ponies as a camp counsellor. Working alongside locals while simultaneously being a Manhattan interloper, I had a unique view: I saw the multiplicity of forms these towns could take, from back country villages to glitzy mini-Monacos.
I could visit all the Hamptons' worlds.
Technically, there are four Hamptons. But it quickly becomes apparent that there are any number of Hamptons, shaped and defined by the lives, goals and perceptions of the people within them.
There's the Hamptons of the weekender, a hard-partying microcosm of Manhattan's clubland, filled with jet-setters and frequented by Saudi royalty; the blue-blooded Hamptons of the American aristocracy filled with horses and golf; the hometown Hamptons of the local; and the overlooked Hamptons of the Hamptons themselves - of natural beauty, quiet estuaries and seabirds.
The Hamptons are roughly 100 miles from Manhattan, a journey that should take two and a half hours by car, but which can take up to five hours on a busy holiday weekend. It's a logjam between Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) and Labor Day (the first Monday in September).
For Manhattan's upper crust, there are two unwritten rules surrounding these dates. First, one is only permitted to wear white shoes between these holidays, never before nor after. Second, on the last Friday in May everyone who is anyone - including celebrity residents such as Martha Stewart, Christie Brinkley and Alec Baldwin - packs the picnic basket, fills the Dooney & Burke satchels with pastel Ralph Lauren cable-knit cashmere sweaters and heads "Out East".
Memorial Day and Labor Day are the bookends of summer in America. In the Hamptons, they herald sea changes in the place's tone, demographic and atmosphere. In East Hampton for example, the population of just under 20,000 can swell to eight times the size.
The area has been a holiday spot for 200 years. But the holiday crowds only began to come in droves in the 1880s when the ambitious president of the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), Austin Corbin, extended its reach to the end of Montauk. His luxurious railway carriages decked out with Mexican mahogany, silver plate and India silk curtains, brought the first wave of well-heeled Manhattanites, anxious to escape the sweltering city.
The Mexican mahogany of the LIRR has been replaced by modern trains filled with steel, linoleum, and the genteel day-trippers, by hordes of weekenders, derisively known by the locals as "Cit-iots". Young and aspirational, they are the real-life embodiment of the Sex And The City crowd, seemingly universally tanned, blond, and thin.
Many weekenders stay in what is known as a "share-house", sprawling mansions shared by as many as 30 twenty-to-thirty-somethings, who often sleep six to a room in a scenario that calls to mind the TV shows Big Brother and MTV's The Real World. They can be found on websites such as summersharehouse.com, which advertise posh pads like a seven-bedroom house that sleeps 18 for $95,000 (Dh349,000) for three months. Some are lovely; most descend into squalour by mid-July.
"I think of them as kinda dirty party houses," says Michael Casarella, 26, designer of the menswear line Barking Irons, who occasionally rents a house for a weekend, but limits the shares to a handful of close friends. "Share-houses connote a raucous, college-age, tattooed, beach-partying crowd," he adds. "For me it's a complete 180 of what you come out to the Hamptons for."
He hasn't been to any of the many night clubs that dot the area. "If I wanted to go to a club I could do that any weekend."
aSalwa Fertitta, 49, was born in Fez, Morocco and is renting a beach house for the third season in a row. Fertitta and her husband Charlie and daughters Najwa, 14, and Kenza, 12, commute out every weekend in the summer. The quiet resort community reminds her of Kabila, a seaside town in Morocco she used to visit before she moved to America in 1967. But while both places attracted young people intent on partying, for Fertitta, the Hamptons is "more of being with family and enjoying the ocean. It's not to enjoy the single life."
Though Fertitta works in as a vice-president in finance at The Neilson Company, the flash and glitz of the Hampton wasn't what called to her: "I love the beach, I love the quiet and the peacefulness of it."
As a young woman, while others of her set were drawn to the share-houses, Fertitta saw only the sea. But those who must get their groove on by the beach have a multitude of slick venues to slake their thirst for loud music and dancing on tabletops.
The club names change nearly every summer in an effort by the owners to be the next big thing. This year's hot spot of the minute is Georgica, in the hamlet of Wainscot. Outside, women in bright micro-minis and men in striped button-downs throng at the door, beseeching the bouncer to part the velvet ropes. Inside its white-on-white confines, women old enough to know better dance on table tops as singles on the prowl eye each other.
The Hamptons are split down the middle by the two-lane Route 27, or Montauk Highway. Houses "South of the Highway" are close to the beach and on the water. "North of the Highway" is considered "declasse." South of the Highway lies the area's most exclusive road, Further Lane. At No 121 is the Lasata, or "place of peace", estate, where a young Jackie Bouvier spent summers, long before she became the First Lady or Jackie O. Further down, like a giant brooding bird, sits the hub of the Kennedy set: The Maidstone Club, a private beach club with a tacit policy of not admitting Jews or Blacks as members.
The Maidstone Club's elitist environment supposedly made even Diana Ross so uncomfortable when she married a member, that the couple left in anger for the country clubs of Greenwich, Connecticut.
Its 18-hole golf course is constantly among the top ranked in the world, though nearly impossible to play unless you're a member. The Maidstone contingent spends a lot of time on the green in various forms. When they're not golfing, there's polo. At the Southampton Polo and Hunt Club, professional polo players, flown in from Argentina, facilitate games for wealthy amateurs, while women in floaty dresses and wide hats watch in admiration.
One Saturday in July, the line-up of a casual morning match included professionals Michael Matz, who is the son of six-time Olympic gold show-jumper, Michael R. Matz, and Argentinian Nacho Figueras, known as much for his model looks as for his ranking as one of the world's top polo players. Polo requires deep pockets. The game is so physically demanding that in order to stay competitive throughout a match, polo ponies must be swapped out as the animals become exhausted.
"It would be very difficult for them to play more than one chukka and not break a pony down," says Frank MacNamara, president of the club.
A polo pony can cost as much as $100,000 for a top-of-the-line mount. Riders have from four to eight ponies apiece, which are stabled for roughly $1,500 a month. That's $36,000 for eight equines' summer board, and that's before games are even played.
Polo is a natural fit for the Hamptons says MacNamara. "It has speed, it has excitement, it has competitiveness, it has strategy. And it has a certain amount of danger. The nature of the people who live out here, they are for the most part, competitive people, very successful people. They like thrills, they like excitement, and there's a certain exclusivity to it too."
Major games like the celebrated Mercedez-Benz Challenge Cup are held at the nearby Bridgehampton Polo Club, where A-list celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker turn up to watch matches in invitation-only VIP tents.
You'll mingle with them only at half-time when guests are invited to walk the polo field and stamp down divots kicked up by flying hoofs. Every group in the Hamptons has its own haunts, with de facto separate restaurants, shops and beaches for each set.
Locals intermingle with city folk often on Manhattanite turf: they're the life guards, cabana boys and cocktail waitresses. But it rarely goes the other way: city people don't know where their waitresses and pool-boys spend their free time, and that's fine by the locals. Tara Israel, 26, is as local as it gets. Born in Southampton Hospital where her father is a doctor, she grew up in East Hampton. Israel even has the word "Bonac," the slang term for locals that derived from name of the Accabonac Creek which runs through the area, tattooed on the inside of her lower lip.
Loyalties in the tight-knit community border on tribal. Growing up, East Hampton-ites, she says, "kinda looked weird upon you if you were friends with people from South Hampton, let alone from the city."
The tensions are based in the fact that most locals, in essence, work for the city people. The industry of the entire town is based around summer tourist dollars. The imbalance sparks a resentment that lies just under the surface. "A lot of my friends have this weird tension stemming from insecurity of feeling like the hired help," says Israel. She has worked at many of the area's popular restaurants where she says weekenders often ply her with dollars for choice tables and in hopes of jumping the queue. Money here is concomitant with power and privilege, but does not always triumph. "They may have money, but I was entitled to certain things because of just being local," says Israel. "They felt they could cut the line because they were tipping and greasing the palms of the hostesses. But I would walk up [to the hostesses] and say, 'Yo, I went to school with you. Hook it up.'"
Naimy Hackett, 58, is the niece of Mikhail Naimy, the celebrated biographer of Lebanese author Khalil Gibran. Naimy is a musician who was born in East Hampton to a Lebanese mother and a Hamptons native. "My father was a local, basically a Bonacer," she says. Hackett experienced growing up in the Hamptons as simultaneously both a local and an outsider. "In the 1950s my mom was considered extremely exotic," she says. Other students would bring the American classic fare - peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - to lunch, and marvel when she opened her lunch box to reveal stuffed vine leaves. Hers was the only family of Arab descent at the local school, and one of only a few minorities. And yet, says Naimy, she rarely felt treated differently, even though the climate of the rest of America at that time was rife with discrimination. "It was such a magical place, nobody cared, everybody knew each other," she says, "I think we really were fortunate to be in this special cocoon of a place."
Growing up, Naimy and the Bonacers spent their time on the beaches, a long-standing tradition. At the crack of dawn surfers go online to the check the surf report and gauge what kind of waves they're likely to face that day. Ditch Plains beach in Montauk, near where Andy Warhol once lived, is considered one of the nation's top surfing breaks, with a reef shelf hidden under the water's surface that produces a smooth, curling swell whenever the surf's up. Surfers from around the world queue here, sometimes by the dozen, waiting their turn to hang ten. In August, there can be upwards of 50 boards in the water.
Montauk, also called the "un-Hampton," has long been a sleepy surf town filled with crab shacks and fishermen hauling tuna and big game sharks into the harbour under the gaze of a watchful lighthouse. Last year, it was "discovered", with the advent of a city-person hangout called "Surf Lodge," which brought staggering numbers of revellers into town, much to the ire of locals already frustrated with weekenders flouting ocean etiquette.
As city dwellers make inroads into Montauk, the Springs area of East Hampton seems to be the last truly local hideaway. It a quiet community of estuaries ringed with pale green marsh grass stalked by white egrets on reed-thin legs. Gerard Drive, is arguably the most beautiful spot in Springs, some would say in the whole of Long Island. Once, it was an isthmus, with Gardiner's bay on one side and the tidal marshes on the other. Hurricanes separated Gerard Drive from Louse Point, which now sits distant across a deep inlet where children splash while their fathers scrape the silt for clams for dinner.
Houses on Gerard Drive are built on stilts in the sand, as storms commonly bring the sea up to wash away the road. Look up and telephone poles reveal themselves to be nesting platforms for osprey, installed by the local telephone company when the birds went on the endangered species list.
Nearby is the Springs General Store, quiet in the afternoon but rammed each morning as seemingly every resident pulls in for their morning coffee. One of those customers was painter Jackson Pollock who lived next door (along with artist Willem de Kooning, who lived down the road) and once traded a painting for his groceries. His house, a few hundred metres away on the road where he died in a car crash in 1956, is now a museum. A replica of the painting (the original now hangs Pompidou Centre in Paris) hangs next to the cupcakes proprietor Kristi L. Hood bakes fresh every day. Hood and her two young daughters, Molly and Hunter, live above the shop and grow organic garlic and fresh herbs behind a farm stand just next to the 1940s petrol pumps that quaintly rust beside it.
In the summer, Hood is up before dawn, baking pies for the morning rush. "It's our busiest season so it's financially essential," she says. Every morning the porch outside the store is filled with people reading the paper, sipping their coffee and gossiping with passers-by. "Everyone is a poet or an artist or a writer," says Hood of her neighbours. Locals who stay for the winter do so, she says, "because they are contemplative people, they enjoy the beauty of the land, they are deep people. Look at Pollock and de Kooning, they lived out here - and all those people started out painting houses."
When Memorial Day brings the first summer people in droves, says Hood, "it's like a having a house guest: You love it when they come and you're happy to see them go."