The Hamptons Status and Seclusion for the City-Weary

While most full-time residents of New York City love their big, scrappy town, sometimes the crowded streets, the cacophony of aromas and sounds that waft from restaurants and apartments, and the hectic pace - particularly in the summer months, when the mercury gets longer and tempers get shorter - can be a bit much.

So what happens when the idea of a person-packed sidewalk makes you cringe? When a soothing weekday trip to the Met just isn't doing it for you anymore? For certain lucky city dwellers, the answer is: get out of the city and head east to the Hamptons. With its cluster of peaceful, picturesque village-neighborhoods on the East End of Long Island, each rich with history and community atmosphere, the beaches and clear skies of the Hamptons make the 100-mile trek from the gritty city - usually made by car, rail, or on the Hamptons Jitney, a bus that picks up in Midtown Manhattan and drops off in the East End - well worth the trip.

Where It All Started

The weekend and summer exodus to the Hamptons began around 1870, when some residents of Westhampton Beach - inspired, no doubt, by the construction of a Long Island Railroad link to the village - got the bright idea to rent out rooms to travelers from the city. Other year-round residents in nearby towns knew a great idea when they saw one, and soon tourism began to overpower fishing and farming as the main sources of revenue for the Hamptons.

Westhampton itself includes the tiny hamlets of Westhampton Beach, Westhampton, Remsenburg, and the amusingly named communities of Quogue and Speonk. Thanks to beautiful natural surroundings - which include lush woodlands, pastoral farmland, and scattered small lakes and ponds - proximity to New York City, and the arrival of young families buying property, Westhampton has become not only the gateway to the East End, but one of the fastest-growing communities on Eastern Long Island, seasonal or otherwise.

The Hamptons' Hampton

Shopping, a thriving social scene, and white sand beaches - as well as some seriously impressive real estate - make Southampton the epicenter of the Hamptons, and a magnet for high-profile celebrities, socialites, and power brokers from the city. Established in 1640 by English colonists, Southampton is home to both ultra-modern beach mansions as well as many historical sites, including the National Historic Registry, the Southampton Historical Museum, and the Old Halsey Homestead.

Around the turn of the century, a community of artists rejected the busy city scene and headed to Southampton, where William Merrit Chase founded The Art School, now called the Art Village. Artists like Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, and Larry Rivers used the area and its natural beauty as their muse. Ruth Nivola, wife of sculptor Costantino Nivola, was once quoted as saying, "Out here, it became more playful and more joyous"¦The artists had a real connection with the earth, with the beach, with the poetry of nature."

Today, the pursuit of status and being seen seem to have superceded the "poetry of nature" in Southampton. Not to be outdone by the artists, Southampton boasts numerous opportunities for the professional shopper to express him- or herself. Over 200 retail stores - including a surprising number of high-end Madison Avenue clothiers - line the Southampton Village streets, alongside swanky restaurants and velvet-roped nightclubs. By night, the town is the playground of movie stars, rappers, fashionistas, and trust-fund kids fresh off the beach.

Local feeling toward the summer invasion is mixed; some year-round residents make their living off wealthy visitors, while others view Memorial Day as the kick-off to a season of SUV-choked highways, loud parties, and more media scrutiny than they care for. The relationship between old money and the middle class in the Hamptons is often uneasy, with locals trying to maintain the charm and sense of community in their towns, and the wealthy seeking space away from the city.

Bridgehampton

Just east of Southampton is Bridgehampton, named for the bridge built in 1686 by Ezekiel Sandford. Bridgehampton is one of the quieter communities in the Hamptons - a spot for those seeking fewer crowds and more peace and quiet.

Antiques, art and fine dining bring visitors to Bridgehampton, as well as history fans who are drawn to Long Island's oldest operating water mill. Built in 1644, the mill was used for grinding grain into flour for livestock feed, was later used to spin yarn, and even spent some of its long history as an ice cream factory, a post office, and an outlet shop. Today, it houses the Old Water Mill Museum, where visitors can learn the art of quilting and weaving.

According to Goldine Eisemann of Hampton Country Real Estate in Bridgehampton, "The Hamptons are on fire," - figuratively speaking, of course - and she says the big draw for New Yorkers who spend summers in the Hamptons - herself included - is the feeling that they are truly getting away. "There is something for everybody in Bridgehampton," says Eisemann. "Restaurants, fine cuisine, shopping, dancing, philanthropic events - and of course, the beach." Eisemann says the current market for four-bedroom rentals with swimming pools "starts at about $65,000 for the season." It's a seller's market, she says, but with the steady rise in rental costs, now is a good time to buy.

East Hampton and Amagansett

Not to be confused with nearby Eastport, and somewhat less socially stratified than Southampton, East Hampton was founded in 1648 by farmers and fishermen who packed up their tools and bait and made a living in the area until around the turn of the 20th century, when the town began to attract large numbers of artists and writers, as well as wealthy families who sought refuge from the city during the hot summer months.

There are fewer folks working the land and plying the waters here now, and East Hampton has become home in recent years to some notable bigwigs of New York's business and entertainment industries.

Millionaires and celebrities aside, East Hampton boasts an atmosphere designed for the casual vacationer with a quaint, New England-like landscape, angelic beaches, and great cuisine - as well as plentiful locations for the great American pastime: antiquing.

Bill Williams of Devlin-McNiff Real Estate in East Hampton proudly recommends his town's glorious beaches and water views, as well as an abundance of "great home designs and architecture." According to Williams, "although market prices are on the rise, I've seen a mix of everything from families to young singles moving in on the [purchase] market" in East Hampton.

Rentals - prices for which peak between Memorial Day and Labor Day - typically go for around $25,000 to $26,000 for the season, while the one- to three-bedroom condos available for purchase are priced anywhere from $399,000 to $799,000 - though you can expect to pay more if you want a view of the water or a backyard pond or pool. According to Williams, "The lower interest rates are allowing for locals to get into the market - my last three sales were actually all second homes."

Directly to the east of East Hampton is the little village of Amagansett, which was settled in 1690 by two sons of a New Amsterdam merchant who moved to East Hampton after the English took over New York. Before the arrival of the Dutch, Amagansett was home to Native Americans of the Algonkian nation, who gave the place its name. The word "Amagansett" translates to "place of good water," though the area was - and is - excellent for farming as well as fishing. Today, the home built by the Dutch merchant's sons is maintained by the Amagansett Historical Society and is full of fine antique furniture.

As in neighboring towns, Main Street in Amagansett has retained many of its historic buildings, and is thick with charming, rustic shops and bed-and-breakfasts. Unlike other towns, Amagansett's Main Street has the distinction of being only two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. In the 1960s, tourism really began to boom in the village, and according to the chamber of commerce, Amagansett became known as the "jewel in the crown of the Hamptons."

Cow and Beach Country

On the easternmost tip of Long Island, Montauk - from a Montauket Indian word which translates roughly to "Hilly Land" - was settled in 1686 by settlers from East Hampton looking for land to raise cattle, making the area famous for being home to the oldest cattle ranch in the United States. Today, in addition to its cow population, Montauk is known as a resort destination that welcomes international and national travelers alike, with miles of pristine beaches and panoramic ocean views.

With dozens of bed and breakfasts and boutique hotels to choose from, Montauk is also a favorite spot for both casual anglers and serious sports fishermen. The town boasts more than 25 marinas and some of the best fishing on the East Coast. For those less enthused about baiting a hook but still wanting to feel the salt spray and the ocean air, there are cruise lines and whale watching expeditions.

Ray Hegner, owner and head broker of Sea + Sun Realty in Montauk, points out that a big draw for vacations in the Hamptons is obvious by just looking out the window. "We're surrounded by ocean, there's a lack of crowds, and the beaches, the fishing, the parks, and the lakes."

One of those parks is Montauk Downs State Park, a 160-acre park designed by Robert Trent Jones. The park includes an 18-hole golf course that's rated among the top 50 public courses in the nation by Golf Digest magazine.

Those who are buying in Montauk are mostly families, says Hegner; roughly 90 of his clients are families looking for second homes, but young couples in their early 30s are beginning to explore the possibility of buying rather than renting, given the low interest rates and upwardly-mobile rental prices.

As for what his clients are getting for their money, Hegner says, "there are more large, waterfront homes that are over $1 million to buy than under $1 million," and cites the cool summer temperatures in his neck of the woods as a major selling point. "Yesterday, Manhattan was 80 degrees," Hegner points out, "and we were 57 degrees." Parse that out to a 100-degree August-in-Manhattan scorcher, and you've got reason enough to start saving for that summer home surrounded by ocean.

Not all of us have the wherewithal to rent or own a summer house in the Hamptons, and not everybody can get away from the heat and noise of the city during the sultry summer months, but it's comforting to know that at the end of the Long Island Railroad, there's a little cluster of peaceful fishing villages surrounded by cow pastures and cool, placid ponds, waiting for summer to come and bring with it the families, friends, and sightseers who have replaced ducks, cows, and whales as the mainstay of the Hamptons' livelihood.

Rebecca Fons is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the University of Iowa. For more on summering in the Hamptons, click here.

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