You know Long Island, right? Tabloid treasure. Amy Fisher's grim and hilarious Movie-of-the-Week passion for Joey Buttafuoco. Suburbs of soul-warped "American Beauty" clones, demonic teens, serial killers, Howard Stern. Mix with robber-baron heirs on vast estates paralyzed in an F. Scott Fitzgerald hangover, add the Hamptons' celebrity-rutting season tracked by safaris of the nouveau obnoxious, desperate to be invited to the latest atrocity by Puff Daddy or Ron Perelman.
Is that the island? Who knows?
The next Napa? Long Island's North Fork has 23 vineyards and wineries.
(Photo by Kirk Condyles)
What is sure is the North Fork doesn't meet any stereotype. The extreme northeastern tail of the fish-shaped island, a two-hour drive from Times Square, is a long, lovely peninsula reaching up toward the Connecticut coast, a place of vineyards, orchards and farms. Coming onto it from Riverhead, the county seat, the landscape changes as dramatically as if you had taken a journey across water to another island. There are farm stands at the edges of open fields under a new sky. There is a feeling of separation and independence.
It has the fragile, water-sourced light of Holland, the climate and soil of Bordeaux, and is the only part of New England that is never designated as such, which may partially explain its feeling of aloofness and don't-tread-on-me spirit. The Main Road, Route 25 (there are two west-to-east roads; the other is Route 48, but always called the "North Road"), is dotted with spare white churches with slim spires, well-tended cemeteries with 17th-century graves and memorials to those who fought against "the rebellion--1861-65." In Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead," a bittersweet homage to his home region, he writes:
On a thousand small town New England greens . . .
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
Grow slimmer and younger each year--
Wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
And there he is in the center of Southold, perfectly described.
The northern side of the slender finger of land is bounded by Long Island Sound and runs in a more or less straight line of tall bluffs descending to pebble beaches. It is unlike any other saltwater bathing. Two or three strides off the beach and the bottom falls away. Not as rough or powerful as the sea, but as silkily cold and clean, the sound is usually a startling blue and, far out, the deep channels are feathered with whitecaps. The vista extends to the austere coast of Connecticut, and normally is empty except for a fishing boat or two. You are almost always spared the idiot howl of the jet ski. Early morning or near dusk, the ivory-colored pebbles and bleached driftwood turn rainbow tints.