The Hamptons -- that storied string of beach towns along Long Island's south shore -- are best known as a haven for celebrities and their seekers, nightclubs and their habitues, mega-mansions and their social-climbing proprietors. You'd think that no self-respecting lover of nature or fan of peace and quiet would willingly sign up for a visit.
And you'd be wrong. Come Labor Day, the summer renters and the big-city hordes get back on the Long Island Expressway, leaving a calmer world for those wise enough to go in the off-season.
Lee Satinsky displays a lobster at Multi Aquaculture Systems, a fish market in Amagansett, N.Y., also known as the Fish Factory or the Fish Farm.
(Kirk Condyles For The Washington Post)
In September, the Atlantic remains warm from the summer sun, and the farm stands are still graced with peak tomatoes and peaches, soon to be followed by the apples, pumpkins and Indian corn that announce autumn. The oft-snarled traffic on Route 27, the two-lane main road, begins to abate. The sunsets are more striking, with the melancholy honking of the southbound Canada geese adding a soundtrack that belongs to fall alone. You no longer need a permit to park at the beach (though you may want a sweater).
And if you insist on straying onto the beaten track, you can actually get a table at Nick & Toni's haute pizzeria in East Hampton or find a spot at the old wood bar at the venerable American Hotel in Sag Harbor.
When I was a child spending summers on the South Fork, it was a time of bare feet whose soles had been toughened by days of tramping on melted-tar roads and gravel driveways, dripping ice cream cones, endless swimming and new potatoes dug from fields that today sprout postmodern vacation palaces. During the past few years, whenever I've returned to visit, I've been horrified -- by the overdevelopment and overcrowding, bad traffic and bad manners of the summer people (of which, of course, I was one).
It's really only now, in the ever-shortening days leading to the chill of Thanksgiving, that it's possible to find a little of what first brought New Yorkers out here more than a century ago. It was the light and the sea air, the marsh grass and the dunes that drew painters from William Merritt Chase to Jackson Pollock, New York society from Jackie Kennedy to Dina Merrill, writers from John Steinbeck to Peter Matthiessen. What remains of what lured them?
As it turns out, quite a lot.
"When I was growing up, you waited for Labor Day, for the city people to leave," says Paul Brennan, a local real estate agent and lifelong East End resident. "But it's just so much more intense now."
In spite of the crowds and the traffic, Brennan, the son of a potato farmer, has no intention of leaving. "I manage to find what I need -- there's still enough here to satisfy me, and one of those things is September and October. There's a little crispness to the air. There are still potatoes being dug and fishermen on the beach, and the light is beautiful then."
One of the best ways to capture the magical after-season combination of field and ocean, clarity of light and smell of sea is to head toward the tip of Long Island until you come to Promised Land, an isolated peninsula stretching out into Gardiners Bay that manages to deliver on its fairy-tale name. Sometimes known as Lazy Point, this area between East Hampton and Montauk was for centuries home to the baymen who made their living harvesting shellfish. Turn off Route 27 onto Cranberry Hole Road or Napeague Harbor Road, and let yourself get just a little lost. You can't go wrong.