Where the Hamptons are known for their social scene and for their nightlife, being the playground of the rich and famous, Montauk has been traditionally for families, and is one of the world’s great deepwater fishing spots. Yet the separation is more than simply cultural, and in the short distance between the competing towns there is actually a geographic buffer zone which sets Montauk off as nearly a world apart.
As few people make the distinction between the individual Florida Keys, instead calling them all “the Keys,” so one might be temped to consider the easternmost southern shore of Long Island. And though the distance between Montauk and the Hamptons is short at just twelve miles (consider the Florida Keys are 100 miles long) the geographic separation between these two Long Island hot spots is actually marked and distinct. And this twelve mile stretch of road may go a long way to explaining why Montauk has remained culturally outside the bubble of the Hamptons.
Heading east on the Montauk Highway through West Hampton you come finally to the town of Amagansett. And while not officially its own village, falling under the jurisdiction of East Hampton, Amagansett is a well defined stop on the trip. Its commercial center is surrounded by quaint old cedar shake buildings and farmland like the rest of the Hamptons. It is, in fact, one of the quietest of the group. But Amagansett is important for another reason. It serves, in part, as the gateway to Montauk and is the last of the proper villages before the land quickly empties out and appears almost desolate for the next twelve miles.
Visually one notices the change immediately upon driving outside the town limits, from the oak trees, green lawns and farm lands of the typical Hampton village, one is suddenly surrounded by a windblown, arid landscape. The interval between Amagansett and Montauk is a stretch of highway where the sand comes up to touch the blacktop and the trees are stunted from the wind off the ocean. This is the narrowest part of Long Island and the vegetation here has little cover from the ravages of the Atlantic.
Though twelve miles is a short distance, it is sufficiently long and unusual in appearance to set Montauk apart. The Montauk Highway serves as gateway to a different world. This is borne out upon entering the village where, rather than the old farmsteads blended with modernism and a peaceable sense of the way things used to be, the town appears truly as though it’s perched on the end of the earth. The trees and shrubs all seem dry and stunted, baked into oblivion by the hot sun and blasted by the relentless wind. And as the road drops down flat along the water and the town springs up from the low lying sands, one is struck by the squat motels and the sand dunes pressed close along the strip. This is a totally different world. And you didn’t even have to take plane or a ferry to get here.
In the Hamptons the neighborhoods and village streets seem safe and suburban; well traveled by Range Rovers and BMWs. While out on the End there is more a sense of the solitary. And whereas in the Hamptons one finds socialites and parties with corporate sponsors, in Montauk there is a sense of living off the ocean and a seafaring life.
In a way Montauk has merged with the endless ocean. Its trees have been shaped by a more direct and constant salt air that has warped even the oaks in Hither Hills into bizarrely crooked designs that better belong in Sleepy Hollow. But the main difference that comes after the twelve mile division is that in Montauk there is still the hint of the cruelty of nature. It’s as if in the Hamptons one escapes New York, while in Montauk one escapes the country.
I guess an old PR man by the name of Steve Hannagan said it best when back in the 1920s while publicizing the little known enclave, he remarked that Montauk was still on the frontier. And nearly one hundred years later, Montauk has retained that feel and allure. Whichever style of life or vacation you prefer, whether the social Hamptons or more solitary Montauk, the end of Long Island has something for everybody.