So what have I got in common with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Jessica Parker, Billy Joel, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren? Besides religious persuasion, not a lot… but we did all spend time last summer in East Hampton, the illustrious coastal town that sits at the most eastern point of New York.
Every June to September, New York’s most stylish, celebrated and famous hit East Hampton for the “season”. Most have their own multi-million dollar property (a roll call of celebrity residents reads more like a guest list to the Vanity Fair Oscar night party), or at the very least, rent one (for mega-dollars) for the entire summer.
It is reportedly said that if you have to work on Fridays in the summer or be back in the office on Monday morning, you’re not successful enough to live there. That may be the reason why, as a regular visitor to New York, I’d never previously taken this trip just two hours outside the Big Apple. But when our New York friends invited us to visit their newly refurbished East Hampton home, we took the transatlantic flight from London to JFK, but then instead of hailing a yellow cab into the city, took a rental car (with an essential satellite navigation system) and headed east on the Long Island Expressway.
Reaching Exit 70 and entering the Hamptons, feels a million miles from the city. Southampton is the first town in, and immediately we felt a real sense of timeless, suburban America, with boat stores galore and period style homes. East Hampton, which comprises East Hampton town and the hamlets of Montauk, Amagansett, Wainscott and Springs, is the same and its surprising combination of leafy, country roads, wooded areas and unspoiled beaches is instantly appealing.
There are no five-star resorts, boutique hotels or even holiday package deals available, but for those who don’t have the luxury of staying with friends, there are other options. The local hotels tend to be small B&B-style accommodations. Amongst the most recommended are two 18th century properties, The Mill House Inn, in the East Hampton village, which has the edge on most, offering round-the-and modern (ish) bathrooms, and the eight-bedroom, American Hotel on Sag Island, a favourite haunt of Billy Joel.
The other choice is to rent a property and get a true flavour of the town. Many New Yorkers who lack a place of their own rent for the season and there are good websites offering everything from the ultra-fabulous to more down-to-earth properties, available for a week up to the entire summer.
So what’s there to do? Unlike most other beach towns, the charm of East Hampton is that it is a thriving round-the-year community which visitors are able to dip into at any time, though activities and services definitely peak during the summer months.
First stop has to be Main Street, which is just that. All roads lead to it and it hosts all the essential destination fashion stores — Scoop Beach, Calypso, Theory, John Varvartos, Intermix, Ralph Lauren and even a Dylan’s Candy Store for the kids. Have I missed any out?
To the outsider, Main Street looks just like a film set — practically perfect, in every way: the buildings are perfectly maintained, the grass is perfectly manicured, everyone is perfectly attired and even the motorists are perfectly behaved… halting in the traffic to let pedestrians cross (and remember, this is still technically New York).
And just to complete the picture, we spotted Steven Spielberg in the local Starbucks.
When not visiting the stores, the ultimate daytime hang out in the East Hamptons is the ocean. The award-winning Main Beach is open to the public but can get quite busy during peak season. Private beaches such as Georgica and the one we favoured, Two Mile Hollow, are quieter, and more family-orientated, but a resident’s parking sticker is required for access to the beach’s car park (the free public parking is a fair walk away).
Although toilet facilities are available, no refreshments are sold nearby so it is definitely a case of packing a freezer bag full of cold drinks and food (now you see the downside of not parking nearby). Most days we picked up a beach picnic from Luigi’s, where the ciabatta sandwiches are sharing size.
There is something gloriously traditional and low-key about the whole experience… a million miles from serviced beaches, cabañas or even a decent sunlounger (unless you want to bring your own, and that’s more to schlep), but, we’d never felt more relaxed just swimming in the ocean and taking long walks along the beach. For the more active, boating and fishing is available.
The local way is definitely to enjoy a light lunch, retire early from the beach and later on enjoy a good (early) supper. We varied our restaurant excursions from Italian at the renowned Della Femina (regulars include Martha Stewart and Mr Spielberg) where a reservation is essential, to the more casual, such as La Fondita, where even celebs are happy to line up to take away a tray of food and sit in the surrounding gardens to eat it.
Whatever style of cuisine, the dress code everywhere is “fabulous casual”.
The town’s architecture is another feature of interest, with cedar-shingle and colonial style homes and buildings dating from the 1700s alongside ultra-contemporary properties. Tours are available to see some of the oldest properties. But not all properties are visible. While celebrity sightings are a dime-a-dozen, their beach-front homes are, sadly, more difficult to view. These prime location properties have private walkways to the beach and beyond these, are not visible to the public. In fact last year, a US residential real estate record was set in East Hampton when a tract of land leading to a beach sold for $100 million.
For us, with two teenage daughters in tow, the Hamptons proved a perfect family vacation — we actually spent quality time together, with a winning combination of beach, shopping, celeb-spotting, good food and a dash of culture and activity. Our East Hampton taster lasted just a week but we’ll be back for more… even a less favourable dollar exchange can’t keep us away.
The Mill Inn (www.millhouseinn.com; 001 631 324 9766) has doubles from $250 (£157) per night (low season), with breakfast; American Hotel (www.theamericanhotel.com). Minimum nights apply at some periods at both hotels. East Hampton rental properties: www.vrbo.com; www.vacationrentals.com, from $1,500 per week. Car hire is essential. Dollar (www.dollar.co.uk) offer one week from £234. British Airways (www.ba.com) has 11 flights daily to JFK from £285 one way. Cycle-hire, etc: ww.easthampton.com
- The Jewish Center, a striking focal point, runs welfare programmes, kids’ day camps, Israeli films and services (www.jcoh.org).
l Minyan on the Beach, hosted by Ron Perlman, has Shabbat services and kiddushim which are open to all.
- Sag Harbour Conservative Temple on 114 Street has the oldest Jewish Cemetery in the States.
- A wide variety of kosher food is available at local supermarkets
- Glatt kosher food, including Shabbat meals and barbecue food, to order from the Chabad Lubavitch at www.kosherhamptons.com