Exploring Long Island’s East End

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Space bear! This little guy was in a vending machine at the movie theater in Ronkonkoma.

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s hard to believe that this lovely bit of the state is only a few hours’ drive east of crowded, crazy New York City, not my favorite place in the hot, humid and smelly summer.

Long Island — lying to the southeast of the city’s five boroughs — on its north shore devolves as you keep moving northeast, away from wealthy suburban enclaves to the endless vineyards of the East End.

We stayed for five days in Islandia, (where my husband Jose was photo editing the U.S. Open nearby), and I went off exploring alone every day from there.

In about an hour’s drive — headed northeast on what’s known as the North Fork, I retreated a few decades to flat green fields, weathered shingled houses and left the suburban chain-store sprawl far behind.

This diner in Cutchogue was perfect!

 

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Built in 1941, its prices were the lowest I’d seen in years. I had blueberry pancakes with sausage on heavy diner china; if you go, it closes at 3pm.

 

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I managed to miss the turnoff to Route 48 and ended up driving instead on 25, which was slower and much prettier, passing white churches and farm stands and fire halls and schools — and two llamas!

I spent a few hours exploring Greenport, which is lovely and filled with elegant shops and restaurants. One sells an astonishing array of hand-painted Italian pottery and Murano glass, and some amazing high-end costume jewelry.

 

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The area is so gorgeous I started looking at real estate prices. Hah! The lowest-priced house was $525,000.

I pushed on to the literal end of the road in Orient, the furthest northeastern tip of the Island, and was so glad I did. The town has 743 residents, settled in the 17th century, making this part of the state one of its oldest.

 

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For $8, I visited Orient State Park and lay on the beach, savoring only the soothing sounds of wind and waves. The place was virtually empty, and the road in is lined with osprey nests and huge signs warning drivers to look out for box turtles.

I came home with a handful of the most beautiful white stones, smooth as eggs, as a souvenir.

Here’s a tips-filled, links-packed guide to the region from Vogue, 2017.

 

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These Hamptons estates range from $29.5 million to $35 million. Welcome to 1-percent-world!

I also drove southeast one day to Westhampton, one of the legendary Hamptons on the Island’s South Fork — filled with enormous mansions, some of which rent seasonally for tens of thousands of dollars. Whew! The parking lots were full of Range Rovers, Mercedes and a Maserati, a very moneyed crowd.

 

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A hanging flower basket in Westhampton. Love these colors!

But I had a great day — lunch at the Bakery Cafe, a bit of shopping and people were friendly and welcoming.

I spent another day in the nothern side hamlet of Stony Brook, and drove its tree-shaded Harbor Drive, peeking through the woods at massive mansions facing the water. So beautiful! Had a great lunch at Crazy Beans, twice, in a low, white-shingled shopping center built in 1941 that includes elegant outdoor tables and benches, shady umbrellas and even a waterfall.

The town holds Avalon Park, a large pond that’s home to so many birds! I saw swans, ducks, cormorants, heron.

 

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Near Stony Brook is this amazing bit of history — a general store from 1857 still in operation.

It was a really relaxing break and left me eager to return.

Road trip!

Open road, B6355 Big sky country, the road ove...
Open road, B6355 Big sky country, the road over the Lammermuir Hills. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I looooooove road trips!

I took the first one when I was too little to even remember it — from my birthplace in Vancouver, Canada all the way to Mexico, in the back seat of my parents’ car. No wonder I’m always eager to get behind the wheel, crank up the radio and flee the jurisdiction.

The New York Times recently ran a great selection of their writers’ favorites, several of which I’ve also done and enjoyed, like Route 100 in Vermont.

Here’s a fantastic recent blog post about driving Highway 1 in California, a classic trip I’ve longed to take.

Some of my favorite road trips include:

— When my Dad and I took a month to drive from Toronto to Vancouver, dipping south of the Canadian border into North and South Dakota along the way to visit some Indian pow-wows. We camped, and woke up to find a large steak and a bag of sugar at our tent door. In one farmer’s field, we camped and were awakened looking up at the owner on his tractor. I think every 15-year-old girl should spend a month with her Dad on the road. You learn a lot about one another.

Like….I am not a morning person. So my Dad would set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. and tell me it was 7:00 a.m. It worked, for a while.

— Our road trip from Mexico City to Taxco to Acapulco, in the mid-1980s. I speak good Spanish so, as the gas gauge fell alarmingly low, he said “There’s a house. Go ask where the nearest gas station is.” When we arrived in Acapulco, he remembered a cheap hotel from a decade or so earlier and there it was.

— My mom and I lived in Mexico when I was 14 and drove all over the place, which was vaguely insane for two women alone, one of whom was 14, with waist-length blond hair.

— Montreal to Savannah, Georgia, crossing — yes, this is its real name — the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, with my Dad. We dipped into tiny coastal towns like Oriental.

— My first husband I drove south from Montreal to Charleston, S.C. where he tried to teach me to drive — why? — on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We visited one of my favorite places ever, Kitty Hawk, N.C. where the Wright Brothers got the very first airplane to fly in 1903. I adore aviation and travel, so these guys are real heroes in my book.

— In Ireland, my Dad and I drove the outer edge of the whole country in a week; as Europeans well know, you can cross several countries in the time it takes to get out of Ontario or Texas. Ireland, side to side, three hours. I’ve spent that in NYC traffic just trying to get home! We visited Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, where my great-grandfather was the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse.

— In 2002 while researching my book about American women and guns, I went to visit a cowboy who lived in the middle of nowhere, between Silver City and Colorado City, Texas. For hundreds of miles, all one could see were oil drills pumping up and down.

Out there, on a long bare and empty stretch of road, my cellphone didn’t work, my gas was getting low and I was a long way from help. Then a white pick-up truck pulled up beside me, with a weathered man at the wheel. “You the writer from New York?”

Um, yes. That lost-tenderfoot thing probably gave me away.

“Follow me!” And when I arrived, his wife Doris showed me a long, narrow, low wooden box. “You’ve probably never seen or heard these and I want you to be safe when you’re here.” Then she opened the box, using a long metal stick. It was full of….live rattlesnakes. 

— Jose, now my husband, took me from his native Santa Fe, New Mexico along the High Road to Taos, through the town of Truchas. Spectacular.

— Alone, in June 1994, I drove in a circle from Phoenix, Arizona north to Flagstaff, saw the Grand Canyon and the  Canyon de Chelly, (inhabited for the past 5,000 years), and arrived back in Phoenix against a sunset sky so yellow and purple and orange — cacti backlit — I felt like a character in a 1940s Disney cartoon.

— I had a great solo road trip, in my beloved red Honda del Sol convertible, (since stolen, from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia. I stayed in B & Bs. I visited Monticello, home to polymath, and its designer, the U.S.’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. I drove through lush hills and valleys in West Virginia that made me feel like someone in a Thomas Hart Benson painting.

I didn’t learn to drive until I was 30, so I had a lot of driving to make up!

Go alone, or with your BFF or your sister or your nephew or Dad or Mom or husband or sweetie.

Pack a cooler with yogurt and green grapes. Bring binoculars and a sense of wonder.

Stop often. Eat well! Get up for dawn.

Drive in the cool of the night, as we did in North Carolina, the scent of dew-covered jasmine filling our nostrils.

But go!

What’s the best (or worst) road trip you’ve ever taken?