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The Un-Hamptons

The south side of the peninsula is made of coves and wide necks of woods and farms crossed by creeks and salt marsh, all proceeding east through a series of bays to the Atlantic. During Prohibition, the North Fork was money in the bank for bootleggers. Ships from Canada would anchor at sea and offload hooch onto small quick boats that would then run west in through the bays. Trucks waited on unlit farm roads. The thirstiest city in the world was 75 miles away. Today, it's not hard to understand the smugglers' strategy. Streets run off the Main Road south from villages like Jamesport, become country roads and end in sand.

There's no parking lot; leave the car alongside the low dunes. Bring a lunch--there's nothing but a wide beach and the gentle swell of Peconic Bay. The water is noticeably warmer, shallower and easier to swim in than the sound, perfect for kids or anyone who wants to splash around or have a good float.

The next Napa? Long Island's North Fork has 23 vineyards and wineries. (Photo by Kirk Condyles)

People who come and stay on the North Fork never speak of it as simply moving house, but as explorers making a discovery. The sculptor Robert Berks and his wife, Tod, moved here in 1966 and still speak of it as the place choosing them, not the other way around. In his studio, a soaring old schoolhouse rising from the table-top fields outside Orient, Berks, 78, has created more than 300 sculptures, about 100 of which are in public collections on four continents. At least a dozen are in Washington, including the John F. Kennedy monument at the Kennedy Center and the massive, joyous Albert Einstein Memorial at 21st Street and Constitution Avenue.

In the garden behind their 1888 house, Berks says, "I first saw this part of the world from the water, sailing down the sound and coming around Gardiner's Bay to Greenport. We summered in the area for a few seasons, then put down roots here. This light"--his hands take in the arch of milky blue sky--"is like northern Europe, the Netherlands, parts of France. The weather is different from the rest of Long Island. Winds moving west to east have 90 miles of salt water to pass over. You're aware of the sea, always."

Tod Berks walks through the garden, pointing out peach and plum trees, keeping an eye on two cats hunting through meadow grass. "It's true the light is Dutch, but also you have the Dutch sense of long, long space. There's a freedom about it . . . If someone asks why are you here in the winter, then you know they don't understand it."

When the English first settled here in 1640, coming down from Rhode Island and Connecticut, they called the North Fork "the garden of New England." In the last quarter-century, it has been transformed from crops of potatoes and root vegetables to a thriving wine industry, greenhouse agriculture, sod farms, tree nurseries and small organic farms.

Becoming "certified" organic is as time-consuming and arcane as taking holy orders, Karen Lee explains at her farm stand out in the open green fields near Peconic. She and her husband, Fred, have owned and managed the 200-acre Sang Lee Farms since 1987, producing greens for Asian markets from Canada to Florida. They have recently gone retail as well, selling salad greens, potted herbs, cut flowers, "heirloom tomatoes" and ornamental peppers.

The Lee family originally had farms in places the North Fork locals call "up island," meaning anywhere west of Riverhead, but Karen says they've settled here for good. "It's very beautiful. Quiet. The beaches are beautiful, the air is fresh. The work is all-consuming, but the three children work with us, we're outside all the time. It's a good life."

Standing in the fermenting room of his winery, Ternhaven Cellars, Harold Watts pours some of his formidable Claret D'Alvah and talks wine. President of the local wine council, Watts has the only winery in Greenport, the old whaling village.

Once as important as New Bedford and Nantucket in its day, then a pleasantly sleepy backwater for almost a century, Greenport now is in danger of coming down with a case of the cutes, with twee candle shops and one too many places with names like "Shoetique."


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