The East end of Long Island is a magnet for tourists in summer. Visitors come to the North Fork, where we live, because it provides the most bucolically beautiful landscape. You can meander through the charming villages and towns along Route 25, or take Sound Avenue through the vineyards which give the North Fork such an exotic appearance, like Provence without the mountains.
Naturally, we welcome the thousands of tourists who come to share our peaceful countryside. We just wish they would go somewhere else, preferably to the South Fork where they would have a much more interesting time. The North Fork is not quite ready for mass tourism. Along the highways are hand-lettered placards advertising garage sales and pancake breakfasts, and pre-industrial businesses, selling pottery, hanging baskets, birdhouses, and homemade pies. There are very few boutiques, but plenty of modest stores displaying well pumps, or farm machinery, plus dozens of farm stands and nurseries. There’s not a mega-mall anywhere in sight.
The town of Greenport is the nearest thing to a regional shopping center. It’s the perfect place to shop, if you happen to need a bollard or a bowline. The ship’s chandlers and hardware stores are open and busy. But it may be hard to buy anything else. When I stopped there the other day, taking some visitors on the traditional east end tour, half the stores were not scheduled to open until ten, and still had not opened an hour after that. How refreshing it is to find a place so uninvolved in commerce, so profoundly indifferent to the chance of a sale.
Greenport is also a transportation center of sorts. There is, of course, a port. Last time we visited, the dock was empty except for a gray cat, the historic schooner Mary E and an elderly three-masted sailing ship, the Regina Maris, slowly sinking into the mud.
It was a picturesque, tranquil scene, and the police blotters in the local papers suggest that nothing very serious happens out here. Big crimes of the week: the illegal dumping of a cardboard box; a broken window; a raccoon burglary; a fight over girl scout cookies headlined “Cookie Rage Incident.”
At the railroad station, the end of the line, incredibly ancient and dirty trains can sometimes be seen, gathering their energies for the long haul westwards. Next to the station is the ferry terminus, whence travelers and their cars are wafted gently over to Shelter Island – a place that always looks uninhabited. Shelter Islanders are in a conspiracy to hide themselves and their homes, so tourists keep going along Route 114, looking for the action, until they arrive at the South Ferry, where they are briskly removed to the South Fork, which is where tourists should go in the first place. This is a different world, known as The Hamptons.
On the southern side of the short ferry crossing, Sag Harbor gives the traveler the first taste of The Hamptons. The shopping opportunities improve spectacularly. Instead of well pumps and lobster pots, the windows are full of fashions and decorator items. Antique boutiques and picture galleries are more numerous than parking spaces, and the first of many New Age stores appears. The bookstores feature glossy guides to decorating style, and lists of celebrities who may or may not be spotted in the street, instead of the pamphlets on local history and nature walks typically offered on the North Fork.
My theory is that the dramatic differences between the north and south forks go way back to the first settlers. The East End of Long Island was populated by two very different groups. In 1621, a band of dissident Puritans from the Massachusetts Bay Colony landed at Orient Point, determined to outshine the Pilgrim Fathers in righteous hard work and serious piety. So the North Fork is not a fun place. It still looks and feels more like Puritan New England than paranoid New York.
The South Fork has a very different history. In 1646, East Hampton was invaded by a bunch of English pirates, hedonists and party animals to a man, who had been expelled by the puritan Oliver Cromwell. From Montauk Point to Westhampton, it’s been one big party ever since. The pirates of course went into the antique business.
The East End is a metaphor and a theme park rolled into one. It has everything: nature and culture, tradition and modernity, puritan virtues, and pagan pleasures. It also has a splendidly appropriate symbol, in the form of the huge concrete duck, architecturally famous, which once served as an advertisement for a Long Island Duck Farm. The Big Duck sits with her egg at the head of Peconic Bay, the nearest thing we have to a regional mascot, or local deity. Surrounded by the unspoiled pine barrens, and stuffed with T-shirts and souvenirs, the Big Duck says it all.