The Last Resort

The western end of The Hamptons has long been a playground for well-heeled, well-connected New Yorkers. Now, the party has moved east, with this once sleepy town becoming the place to be this summer.

The famous sign at the weathered, yet beloved watering hole Liars’ Saloon reads, ‘Montauk: a quaint drinking village with a fishing problem’. It may still be quaint in the quieter months but in recent years, Montauk - located at the eastern end of Long Island, and almost 200 kilometres from Manhattan - has rapidly grown in both popularity and seasonal population. During winter, about 4000 people live and work here - they’re mostly fishermen, artists, surfers and retirees - but come summer, this sleepy village swells to a sleepless town of more than 100,000 revellers. (Montauk famously ran dry of rosé in the summer of 2014, which prompted Josh Ostrovsky, the enterprising comedian and social media mogul who’s probably better known by his Instagram handle, @thefatjewish, to launch his own wine label, which he named White Girl Rosé. True story.)

There have been many people who have recognised Montauk’s potential over the years but most struggled to realise it. In the late 19th century, railway baron Austin Corbin extended the Long Island Rail Road with the intention of making Montauk a ‘shortcut’ port, shaving a day each way off transatlantic voyages via his ‘mile-a-minute’ trains that would run to and from Manhattan. But the plans never materialised after the port proved too shallow for oceangoing vessels. In the 1920s an entrepreneur by the name of Carl G Fisher began buying up land with the aim of establishing a ‘Miami Beach of the north’, until the Great Depression put paid to his scheme. During World War II, Montauk was an important military base, then settled into an easy life as a year-round fishing village with a summer job as a no-frills bed-and-breakfast beach resort.

Though moneyed Manhattanites stuck mostly to the towns in the Hamptons that lay within easy reach of the city, there were people who actually preferred the ‘Last Resort’, as it became known (aka ‘The End’). They included the likes of Andy Warhol, who bought a house here in the 1970s and hosted a steady stream of very famous guests (the property sold last year for $50 million), as well as actor Robert de Niro and designer Ralph Lauren, who both still have beachfront mansions.

Montauk remained a well-kept secret for generations, until a number of factors converged to suddenly put the town on the map. The devastating effects of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy led Jersey Shore regulars to seek out undamaged beaches on Long Island. The proliferation of Airbnb in the past few years - which turns any private house into rental accommodation - has hugely increased the number of paying guests in town. Several charter seaplane and helicopter services such as Gotham Air and Blade have taken off, allowing time-poor but cash-rich New Yorkers to maximise their weekends by using their smartphones to book a 35-minute flight, thus skipping the heavy weekend road traffic and crowded peak-time trains.

There are still plenty of fishermen, surfers and creative types around Montauk to keep the low-key, laidback vibes alive, but come high season, the city slickers tend to distort the demographic. And though some of the saltier locals may lament the fact that their bucolic haven becomes Brooklyn-on-sea on the weekends, the sudden, regular inflow of cool kids and cash from New York has created a vibrant restaurant, bar and hotel scene.

Where the party’s at

Montauk stretches across 16 kilometres and many people arrive via the Long Island Rail Road train from New York, which is a reliable four-hour slingshot from Penn Station. (It can be standing room only on a Friday afternoon, however, and you’ll need to wrap up warm for the journey because the aircon is arctic for some baffling reason and anyone dressed in beach attire will freeze.) The journey time by road is less predictable. Midweek it will take you about three hours, but on a bumper-to-bumper Friday afternoon it could take as much as five. When you’re investing that amount of time, the Hampton Ambassador makes good sense as an alternative to the car. Essentially it’s a business-class bus with Wi-Fi, movies and plenty of legroom. It’s very civilised. 

Every weekend of the summer - which stretches from Memorial Day (the last Monday of May) to Labour Day (the first Monday in September) - Montauk parties hard by night and recovers on the beach by day. This means the better hotels are busy and many of the short-term summer house rentals are snapped up by hedonistic 20-something New Yorkers who’ve recruited a group of mates for a house-share. The clever ones visit midweek when there are better hotel rates and shorter restaurant queues.

Whether you’re booking months in advance or want to try your luck for a last-minute cancellation, see if there is any room at The Crow’s Nest, which has 14 bedrooms and a further eight cottages that either look out onto Montauk Lake or the garden. Its run by one of New York’s coolest hoteliers, Sean MacPherson, and the rustic chic beach house décor is stunning: think white wood and bleached furnishings, brass-framed king-sized beds and plenty of maritime knick-knackery.

The Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer’s also have tasteful, if expensive, boutique cabin-style accommodation - although some locals frown on both these places because they attract a rowdier crowd. It’s true; The Surf Lodge is principally a beach bar set on Fort Pond and it has a thriving Sunday session scene often with well-known live bands (The Flaming Lips, Patti Smith and The Kills have all performed in the past). Ruschmeyer’s is more like a summer camp for millennials, complete with cabins clustered around a decorative tepee, tree swings, Ping-Pong and a frenetic bar. 

The beaches, here and throughout the entire Hamptons, are remarkably unspoilt because all public access is deliberately restricted. To obtain access to a private patch of sand, your best option might be to stay at the recently refurbished spa hotel, Gurney’s, which has swish beach cottages looking out towards the sea.

Surf Up an Appetite

Those after similarly refined dining options should head to Navy Beach, a former surfers’ bar on a private 60-metre-long shingled shore: it’s a great setting for a long lunch of ceviche, calamari and a chilled bottle of wine. On the drive out there you’ll pass Melet Mercantile, a seasonal outpost of the Manhattan emporium owned by Bob Melet, former director of vintage buying at Ralph Lauren. Here, the showroom is housed in an unassuming - and therefore easily missed - garage filled with all manner of carefully curated bric-a-brac from boho jewellery to retro clothing to limited-edition coffee table books. Well worth a browse.

Surf culture is all pervasive in Montauk, so much so that a bunch of local surfers have formed a collective and a lifestyle brand called Whalebone Creative (which comprises surf apparel and also a surf culture magazine). The main surf beach is Ditch Plains, where you’ll find the Ditch Witch food truck, so-called because it used to be run by a rather uncompromising woman before her family took it over. It’s a Montauk institution, and a popular meeting place to grab a coffee and compare notes on the surf conditions, or the previous night’s shenanigans. Order the scrambled-egg burrito with ham, cheese and a Costa Rican-style hot sauce on the side, and add an Arnold Palmer (iced tea with lemonade). If it’s later in the day, head to the nearby Montauk Brewing Company to sample one of their local craft beers. It was established in 2012 by three lifelong Montauk friends.

As the sun sets, most people will make a beeline to Montauket, a lo-fi bar where the locals have stubby holders printed with their nicknames. The main draw here is the terrace that looks out over Fort Pond Bay. It must be the most Instagrammed location in town thanks to the sailboat moored on the water in a picture-perfect silhouette position as the sun drops into the water behind it.

The beach bar at the bottom of the sweeping lawn at The Crow’s Nest is also a spectacular place to watch the sun go down with a pre-prandial Aperol Spritz - so long as you have first a) sprayed yourself with bug repellent; and b) put your name down for a table at the busy and buzzy restaurant above. If you eat one meal in Montauk, make sure it is the blue crab claw tagliatelle, which has a hint of chilli and crunch of breadcrumbs. The fresh ricotta with local honey and bee pollen is pretty unforgettable, too.

One of the most interesting places in town for dinner is The Dock, which abuts Gosman’s Fish Market at the harbour so the seafood is literally right off the boat - specialities are the tuna melt and the Montauk clam chowder. It’s a wonderfully kooky joint with blue-collar prices and blue-collar attitude - and it’s decorated with random signs, slogans and bits of ephemera. You could spend half an hour just reading the walls. But take plenty of cash: this is one of many places in Montauk that doesn’t accept cards and there is a paucity of ATMs in town. Nearby at the fishing docks, Dave’s Grill is always buzzing and its signature seafood stew, ‘Dave’s Original Cioppino’, has kept the locals coming back again and again for more than two decades. 

For most people, time in Montauk is short-lived. If you’re driving back to the city, take the scenic route via the lovely yet rustic Wölffer Estate vineyard, then head north and hop on a car ferry to Shelter Island, which is lodged between Long Island’s North and South Forks. After a people-watching lunch at the ritzy Sunset Beach (by André Balazs, who also owns Chateau Marmont in LA), drive back to Manhattan along the North Fork via more farms and vineyards that line the highway. Be sure to stock up on a few bottles of rosé along the way - just in case there’s ever another drought.

Culture

If you get a rainy day, download Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, much of which was filmed in Montauk, or binge-watch every episode of The Affair, about the extra-marital relationship between Noah Solloway and Alison Lockhart (played by Dominic West and Ruth Wilson), which is set and filmed in and around the area. Go for a run along Montauk Beach and listen to Rufus Wainwright, who has a house locally. His album Out of the Game features a song called Montauk. Add The Rolling Stones song, Memory Motel to the playlist. The band stayed at Andy Warhol’s estate in Montauk while on their world tour in 1975–76 and hung out at the Memory Motel which remains a music venue to this day. After your run, over a distinctive craft beer from the Montauk Brewing Co, pick up a copy of Whalebone - a local surfing magazine produced by the same guys who established the surf-inspired apparel of the same name.

Eat & Drink

Naturally Good Foods and Cafe serves up a great egg sandwich - and the juices are justifiably famous. For lunch, try The Bruce, a tuna sandwich named after renowned local photographer Bruce Weber. Another lunch option is The Lobster Roll, a roadside clam shack that marked its 50th anniversary last year. For lunch with a view, you’re spoiled for choice - head to The Beach Club at Gurney’s, or hop on a ferry to Shelter Island to see how the other half-per cent live at Sunset Beach.

Stay

The Crow’s Nest is one of the coolest places to stay, eat and drink in Montauk, while spa resort Gurney’s is the finest beachfront accommodation - and what a spectacular stretch of beach it is, too. Ruschmeyer’s - a summer camp for kidults - is a non-stop party on the weekend, but lots of fun if you like that sort of thing. Predominantly a beach bar and restaurant, The Surf Lodge features shabby chic rooms that look out over Fort Pond: very much a hot spot. A little further out of town you’ll find luxury B&B The Mill House Inn. This quaint dog-friendly hotel is famous for its breakfasts.

Dan Rookwood - Published in Voyeur April 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 8.3 million
Time Zone UTC -5
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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