June 4, 2011

Long Island, not just for Jay Gatsby Anymore

Fieeeeld Triiiip kiddies! We’re leaving Denton, Texas and going home to my old stomping grounds in New York.

NY – It’s immortalized in countless songs, movies, plays, pop culture, and the general consciousness. But, when you think of NY, you think of New York City (NYC), right? And why not? Take a trip to NYC, and it’s impossible not to have fun. If all you do is grab a double-decker bus tour (I know!) and make it to TKTS so you can see a show for half price, you’ll have a good time. I guarantee it. Throw a museum or a couple good meals on top, and you’ll never want to leave. But NYC is not all of NY. In fact, it’s the smallest part. Have you seen the signs around DFW that tell you our airport is bigger than Manhattan? It’s true. That’s how small ‘the city’ is. And the city is just one of 5 boroughs, as you know.

Despite the fact that both Queens and Brooklyn are actually on Long Island (LI) (and if you fly into La Guardia or JFK, you’re flying into Queens) most folks head northwest into Manhattan and never, ever head east to see the ridiculous beauty that is on LI, much less venture ‘upstate’. Long Island is so beautiful in fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald located Jay Gatsby's house there. For photos of that mansion, called Land's End, in real life, and links to other sites about it, see Jenn Ross's blog. It's also rumored that Captain Kidd hid some treasure here.

I recently had to make a quick trip back to the island, to my old home on the east end, north fork, and even I was caught flat-footed by the beauty of this place. I haven’t been back in like 5 years, and that was early autumn, I believe. This time I was fortunate enough to be there in early May, the latter part of spring. Holy Moly. The lilacs were blooming, the last of the forsythia was out, the cherry trees were in bloom, the sun was shining, but the breeze was cool, the water at the beaches was clear – though waaay too cold to swim in, and the architecture is… ridiculously diverse. Naturally, I didn’t take any pictures, ‘cause I suck like that. I really am sorry about that, kids. The nature of my visit sort of precluded photos. Next time I’ll go snap happy. In the meantime, I’ve tried to give you a bunch of links.

Since my stay was so brief and my historical knowledge and experience so deep, I don’t know if I can make fresh recommendations for what would be an awesome trip for everyone; I’m too close to it. What I can do is tell you about the fun things I did on this last visit, the places I saw, and what that all reminded me of, from my life there. I will say, I do think you’d enjoy the trip I had, but again, I’m biased.

I’ll start by saying how much I enjoyed the drive down the Long Island Expressway (LIE) (and back up the Sunrise Highway). No joke. It’s a pleasant, beautiful jaunt, and 1.5 hours will take you from Queens to the far east end of the island. The drivers in NY are competent, maintain braking distance, and didn't seem to feel like they had anything to prove. And, because no one tailgates, people can get on & off the highway with no problem – a nice break from our local driving conditions, right? (Sadly, it confirms something I've suspected for a long time - that N. Texas has the nastiest, most insecure, worst drivers in the US. What’s up with us?) For real, I didn't experience or receive road rage the entire time I was there and finally conquered my fear of driving to or from the airports. Kind of freeing.

Anyway, as I headed east, I turned north at Riverhead, and it’s in Riverhead that I can recommend the Best Market. I've heard it described as an import grocery store that has good prices, fresh produce, jellies from Poland, and the best cheeses you’ll find. I can personally attest to those cheeses – delightful. Plus they’re near a liquor store. Why do I mention this? Because you might just be loading up for a picnic at one of the parks or beaches or stocking a vacation rental.

Best is also across the street from a Dunkin Donuts (which isn't as rare and noteworthy to my NT readers, as it once was) and the Tanger Outlet. I didn't visit this time, but it’s worth mentioning. It’s a swanky outlet center, and I heard two ladies in the JFK departure lounge talking about the excellent deals they got on Coach purses.

So now you know.

If you end up detoured onto the main road in Riverhead, you’ll see a bit of a rundown street (although the surrounding buildings were more architecturally interesting than I realized, as a kid), and if you’re there, you might want to swing into the Salvation Army Family Store, if you like thrifting. This place yielded some magnificent results, when I was a teenager – including a 60’s vintage men’s jacket – thin lapels, pale mustard, printed with slightly darker mustard kanji characters and a Lord & Taylor label.

If you've worked up an appetite, step into the Star Confectionary. The only thing that’s changed in this place in 25 years is the name. When I was there regularly, it was known as Papa Nick’s. Go early though, it’s only open for breakfast & lunch. I think they close at 3pm? Even if diner food doesn't excite you, leave room for their ice cream - homemade on the premises. And, there’s a Greek place right across the street you could try your luck with. This part of the island has no shortage of Greek food.

Now, if you keep on coming east, you’ll pass through Mattituck. Even if you JUST had ice cream in Riverhead, you’ll have to save room or get a pint to go at Magic Fountain. Can I tell you, as kid, I was fascinated by the idea that this used to be a Dairy Queen? I’d heard of DQ, but I’d never actually seen one. I know! Now that I have both seen and eaten at several, I can tell you – without hesitation – Dairy Queen can’t hold a scepter to Magic Fountain. I mean, look at the flavors list. Heavens! Even Beth Marie’s can’t keep up, and you know how good that is!

If you want to eat something more substantial, you might check out The Old Mill Inn, which had very good clam chowder and the best burgers, when I was a kid. And a view - of the water. Did I mention that? Yeah. A nice change from our usual vistas of parking lots, amirite NT? If all you do is grab a snack and a drink, you'll love relaxing by the water.

Or, you might prefer Love Lane Kitchen. True story, when I lived there, this was a card and gift store. Now, it’s a cozy restaurant, with a slightly fancy schmancy menu, which can also feed you gluten free! Nice. Note: Every Tuesday they offer a different three course, prefix Italian menu. It looks delightful, but it is the only thing on offer, so do check before you go. If you're there in the summer, don't miss the lobster roll (which can be severed bunless). In fact, if you're anywhere on the island, in the summer, check out the lobster roll.

And you know, that’s something I noticed – all the time – how much nicer, cooler, more entertaining all of the North Fork was than I remember thinking as a bored teenager. I’ll bet just about everyone who goes back to where they grew up has this experience. Did you?

Now, you might take your ice cream or full belly down to the Mattiuck public beach, to swim or walk, or you might keep heading east towards Cutchogue. I mentioned previously that you’d be seeing bunches of farm stands. Well you’ll also start to see a lot of vineyards. No lie. There are even vineyard tours offered – in trolleys, limos and more limos. Surely there’s a more pedestrian small bus tour? Call in to any of the vineyards and ask – they’ll know. You definitely want to stop in and try some of the wine tasting menus or buy a bottle or two. I can recommend Peconic Bay Winery’s Steel Fermented Chardonnay. Now, if you’re thinking, “Oh God, not another chardonnay! I am all chardonnay-ed out.” Have no fear! I’m right with you in being exhausted from chardonnay, but steel fermented (or un-oaked) chardonnay is different – lighter, crisper. Just try it. Or not, they've got a bunch of other wines on offer. And, if you’re there in the warmer months, you’ll find they also have events, which you can enjoy with a glass of their finest. Of course, they are neither the only good wine producing vineyard, nor the only vineyard with events.

Continue on east (I swear, you’re almost to the end of the island) and you’ll hit Greenport. Park and walk around. There’s food, docks, beaches, galleries, the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company and The Opportunity Shop Thrift store, where my grandmother used to volunteer, and where a high school friend picked up a complete sharkskin suit – for like a $1.50. I scored among many other things, a mandarin collared, geisha printed, cheongsam-style dress and a cream brocade Nehru jacket, both of which my sister K inherited and wore too. I’m sure I paid a buck or less for each. Bear in mind, this was years ago, but why wouldn't you check it out?

You can also pick up the ferry here to Shelter Island, if you like. From Shelter Island you can take another ferry to Montauk, and from there on to Mystic Connecticut – where Mystic Pizza is. Thought that was just a movie? Nope. It’s real. Mystic Seaport is also there. If you've never seen an actual whaling boat (tiny) or a tall ship (enormous), you'll love it.

Progress another mile or so into East Marion and you’ll eventually pass the Hellenic Snack Bar & Restaurant. I’ll be honest, I almost didn't mention this place, because I don’t really want to increase traffic here – I always want to be able to get a table, fast. However, I really do value my readers, and you will want to eat here if you're visiting. If nothing else, you’ll want to drink the fresh lemonade. Sweet Jesus, that’s good, gooood stuff. If you do not have to be gluten free, you also want to order the skordalia. Now skordalia is just a creamy garlic sauce, but here it’s served over fried eggplant and zucchini, and it’s just not the same with say, carrot sticks. Additionally, if you’re not gluten free, you’ll be happy to eat just about everything on this menu. If you ARE gluten free, like me, just ask the wait staff – or call ahead – to discern the GF offerings. I’ll bet there’s some delightful lamb special. Oh, and while we were there on a Tuesday (?) night, there was a wine special: buy two entrées and get a bottle for $9! Can’t beat that.

You say you want to go further east? Why not, you've made it this far! If you want to go all the way to the end of the island, keep on to Orient Point, where my grandfather kept his dock and boathouse.

What else? Well, we went to Hampton Bays and ate some amazing pan-Asian food at Matsulin. I couldn't believe it, but they had a soft-shelled crab special that was fried, but coated in corn starch! What's that? NOT wheat flour is what that is, and was gluten free for me. After, we walked on one of the beaches.

And just about now, something might be clicking for you, even if you thought you’d never heard of Long Island before. You might be thinking, “Hampton Bays? Hampton Bays? Oh wait! Is that The Hamptons?” Well sort of. Or not really. Hampton Bays is the unHampton and was actually kind of sketchy, when I was a kid. However, it, like everywhere else, seems much nicer now. I saw plenty of places I’d be perfectly happy to live in, in this nice little town. But, that does bring up “The Hamptons”, doesn't it?

OK. I didn't go any further up the south shore than Hampton Bays, and the Hampton you’re probably thinking of is Southampton. When I was a kid, it was loads of fun to come here in the summer and shop the stores that only really bloomed in the summer. I mean, there was a Saks Fifth Avenue that only opened for the summer season, and the sucking up at all shops was epic. (True story, my great aunt came to visit once, from Abilene, TX. Now, with her hair [enormous], makeup [lots] and accent [honeyed], there is NO WAY you could mistake her for anything other than the southern belle she is. And on this shopping/site-seeing trip, in the mid-80’s she was received and treated like the oil heiress they assumed she was. It was a hoot.) I haven’t been back in years, and I don’t know how I’d feel. In that time Southampton has gone from being a mostly working-class winter town, with a large, elegant (mostly) summer crowd to an exploded circus of celebrities, celebutantes and just flashy nouveau riche. Does that sound stuffy? I suppose I am, a bit, there. So sue me. However, you might very well enjoy seeing the show and shopping the excellent little stores and galleries. When we would go there as teenagers, we always ate at The Driver’s Seat. The burger with potato salad was excellent, and they had a bar/patio in the back. Looks like they have a patio in the front now, too.

I think that’s enough for now, don’t you? Really, the east end of Long Island is an easy place to get around, with tons of natural beauty, good food and diverse entertainment. Even if you don’t follow any of my recommendations, you’ll still enjoy yourself.

Oh, but one last thing. It’s not pronounced Lawn Guyland. I've never said that; I've never heard a native say that, and we don’t think it’s funny when other people say it that way. Now, you guys feel free to visit, and learn to love New York like I love New York!

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