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.
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.
Here, every road twists around into another road, many of them dead-ending at a tiny bay beach or a beat-up boat launch overgrown with dune grass. Rent or bring your bike, and be prepared to stop and stare, gaze, ponder. Carry binoculars, a picnic, a sketch pad, a blanket, a notebook, a bottle of wine.
At one pull-off near the intersection of Shore Road and Shore Road (that's not a typo), look across the narrow channel to uninhabited Hicks Island -- and dream about what it might be like to live there. At another spot, you might see kite-sailers, their bright sails lofting up and sinking down repeatedly. Around a bend in the road, you may come across a mysterious group in rolled-up pants hunched over poles. Eventually, you realize that the poles are clam rakes, the people wielding them in search of dinner.
As Cranberry Hole Road morphs into Lazy Point Road, marsh grass stretches almost as far as you can see on one side of the road, interrupted only by a tall post at the edge of a small pond with an osprey nest atop it. On the other side of the road are a row of modest houses, unremarkable in every way except for their enviable view. Architectural voyeurism is a favorite sport around here -- whether you're in town or at the beach, there's always something to catch the eye, from modernist monstrosities and 19th-century summer "cottages" to reconditioned fishing shacks and revamped potato barns.
A few miles down the road, two huge rusted metal sheds loom behind a wire fence and an ominous sign saying "Area closed." The sheds were once home to a commercial fish-processing plant that canned menhaden. Behind the deserted plant is an almost equally surreal, but thriving, operation that some call the Fish Factory, others call the Fish Farm. Listed in the phone book as Multi Aquaculture Systems, it's a joyous place.
Long a retail shop selling local striped bass, clams and bluefish, the store eight years ago added a few rundown picnic tables for those who wanted to dig in right away. You eat outside under the watchful eye of a bunch of wandering chickens, and lobsters await their fate in huge holding pens. (But you know you're in the Hamptons because the side orders include sweet potato fries and wakame, a Japanese seaweed salad.)
Although the East End is known for its beaches and, in days of yore, its farms, there is also quite a bit of woodland. In Southampton, for instance, near Sebonac Creek and Scallop Pond, there's an 87-acre haven called Big Woods Preserve.
The trails are flat and modest, a relaxed walk for a novice hiker. As always in this area, it's important to stick to the path and take the usual sock-wearing, long-sleeved tick precautions. In places the ground gets marshy, and after a half-mile or so, you'll be able to poke your head through tall reeds and spy Sebonac Creek, ducks, maybe the pair of resident white swans. Although the foliage here never attains the hues leaf-peepers dream about (the salt air is an inhibitor), you know fall's in the air when the leaves start to drop and the canopy becomes sparser.
Another option is to leave the South Fork for a few hours by jumping on the wonderful Shelter Island ferry and venturing over to that island's Mashomack Preserve. During the summer, there can be lengthy waits for the small ferry (limit: 20 cars), an annoyance that disappears when the temperature starts to drop.
Originally a hunting club for wealthy New Yorkers in the 1930s, the 2,100-acre preserve is now one of the Nature Conservancy's jewels, with four trails of varying difficulty. Grab a soul-satisfying lunch from the Villa, an Italian deli in the East Hampton train station and feast on its prosciutto, octopus salad and homemade mozzarella -- plus farm-stand tomatoes -- in the little gazebo on the park's Red Trail.
In Bridgehampton, once a farming center unpopular with the chic set, the spud barns and sheds have become studios for celebrity painters and guest houses for mini-moguls. A long walk on any of its beaches is a restorative tonic.
In summer, the lines to show the necessary beach sticker to the laconic teenagers at the entrance back up to cartoonish lengths; at this time of the year, you need no sticker and, even better, you don't have to worry about somebody laying his towel exactly six inches from yours. If you see another soul, it'll likely be in passing, as you each walk in opposite directions.
At Cameron Beach, on the Bridgehampton/Water Mill line, Mecox Bay comes to a halt within a few hundred feet of the Atlantic. If you're the sort of person M.F.K. Fisher called a "beacher" -- someone who doesn't mind a little sand in her sandwich -- then plant yourself between the two bodies of water for a picnic.
On the way to Cameron, a tiny bridge over the bay is usually home to a few people trying their luck with a rod. And a couple of miles away, crabbers inhabit the slightly larger bridge over Sagg Pond. Although the pond is ringed with houses, Sagg Bridge remains a near-sacred place to see the sun set. The bridge connects Bridgehampton with the hamlet of Sagaponack, whose narrow roads are safe once more for bike-riding after the crowds have thinned out.
Heading back into Bridgehampton, it's hard to resist the siren lure of that summertime icon -- ice cream. If a fall day is warm, or even if it's not, the Candy Kitchen calls. Anchoring one end of the town's main street, this spot -- luncheonette, ice cream parlor, giggling ground for teenage girls -- has for years been a place where farmers silently sip coffee out of thick white cups at the counter and New York power mongers, forgetting they are at the beach, munch their breakfasts in the booths at the back. In the 1960s and '70s, the owner made his own ice cream out of fresh fruit, as well as delicious confections called cho-cho pops.
Vanilla ice cream, flavored with malted-milk powder and a little cocoa, was frozen in paper Dixie cups, with a popsicle stick inserted in the middle. They were kept in a freezer case by the door, and you had to roll them, persistently, between your palms to get them to soften enough so you could remove the paper cup and dig in.
But the cho-cho has long since gone the way of the dodo, and a cone, no matter how delicious, isn't quite the thing when there's even the hint of chill in the air. It's a milkshake -- chocolate or coffee, in my opinion -- that's the perfect treat for sweater weather at the beach, an in-season sweet transformed now that the next season's come.
Anne Glusker is a writer in Takoma Park.