It’s not the Hamptons — and thank goodness for that.
While Long Island’s South Fork is where those celebrities and uber wealthy like to go to strut their stuff, the North Fork attracts vacationers and seasonal residents who prefer authentic over ostentatious. That’s not to say the jet setters aren’t present, it’s just less apparent. Visitors recognize the real “stars” as the verdant farmlands, the picturesque harbors, the flourishing vineyards, and generations of families who have kept it going. All these attractions are bustling with visitors during the summer, but things slow down a bit in the fall. Thinning crowds don’t mean the region shuts down. On the contrary — fall might just be the best time to visit, when you can still enjoy all the activities of summer (minus swimming in the Sound, perhaps), without contending with a sea of tourists.
The North Fork is a 30-mile peninsula that stretches from the village of Orient to Aquebogue with Long Island Sound to the north, and the Peconic Bay to the south. A very pleasant 1½-hour car ferry from New London to Orient Point (or the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry; see below) gets you there. With hourly departures of the Cross Sound Ferry, this destination is easy to get to without the hassle of boarding a plane or changing time zones or currency.
There is one road out of Orient Point — Route 25, or Main Road, as it’s called — and it literally begins and ends at the ferry terminal, depending on your perspective. It is a two-lane thoroughfare that forces you to slow down and take in the bucolic landscape and coastal vistas. You become absorbed by the quiet beauty, and suddenly, the endless to-do list seems insignificant ... and who knows, you just might forget about your cellphone, too.
Come fall, it’s still warm enough to get out on the water and there are plenty of boating options. In Greenport, Easterly Sailing (631-495-0216) offers lessons and charters. For the less intrepid, Glory (631-477-2515), a solar-powered reproduction of a 30-foot fantail launch, gives tours of the Peconic Bay. In Orient Point at the Cross Sound Ferry dock, the Sea Jet (631-323-2525) takes passengers on a two-hour lighthouse cruise.
The farms are in full swing with apple and pumpkin picking and lots of options for kids. The Harbes family, who have been farming for 13 generations, hosts its annual Pumpkin Festival on Sept. 29-30 at their Mattituck farm (631-298-0800). It includes potato sack races, hayrides, pig races, and wine tastings in a 100-year-old renovated potato barn.
The L.I. Fresh Hop Festival on Sept. 22 at Jamesport Farm Brewery features craft beer from over 20 breweries, food, music, and the giant pumpkin chucker (picture a slingshot, small pumpkins and a target).
In Greenport, the East End Seaport Museum & Marine Foundation hosts its annual East End Maritime Festival Sept. 22-23 with food, music, boats and maritime demonstrations.
Gabrielsen’s Country Farm Fall Festival (631-722-3259) in Jamesport starts the last weekend in September and ends before Halloween. Every weekend there are hayrides, train rides, pedal tractors, a corn maze, farm animals, bouncy houses, games, giant pumpkins, live music, roasted corn and freshly squeezed lemonade.
On Sept. 30, Sparkling Pointe has a Local Oyster Showcase in which oysters are paired with their wines. Long Island Sound is home to 15 types of oysters, so there should be plenty of variety.
The North Shore is a food lover’s paradise with restaurants offering foodie tours and delectable dishes prepared by celebrity chefs.
“Years ago there were only a few good restaurants. Now they are everywhere, but everyone has their own little niche,” says Charlie Manwaring, owner of Southold Fish Market.
Many source their ingredients from local fishermen, foragers and farmers who grow more than 100 varieties of produce. (Grapes aren’t the only foodstuffs that grow well here.) There are eateries to suit any budget, style or taste bud, and don’t forget the roadside farm stands with homemade pies, honey, pickled vegetables, jams, apple butter, freshly baked breads, handmade pasta, eggs, flowers, beef and poultry, including duck.
In East Marion, John Giannaris started Hellenic Restaurant (631-477-0138) in 1976 as a snack shack with four tables and six stools. The Hellenic has evolved into a 250-seat, indoor-outdoor restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner that still serves quality Greek food. John’s son George is the chef and now runs the place. They make everything from scratch including yogurt sauce for all-beef gyros, salad dressing, and gelato that rivals the frozen treat found in its native Italy. The Hellenic is frequented by artists, actors and musicians including The Who, and writers who like to talk shop with George, the author of Ferry Tales and Ferry Tales II: When Hellenic Freezes Over, autobiographical collections of stories about the son of immigrants who bears witness to how wineries and ferry traffic has changed the region, his restaurant and his life.
Goodfood (631-298-7599) is what you get at the casual cafe and specialty food market in Mattituck known for house-made empanadas, tacos and pastries, and freshly prepared soups, salads and sandwiches. The owner, Uruguay native Luchi Masliah, makes everything in small batches. Vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options are available for eating in or taking out.
People come from all over the island and the city to eat at the Southold Fish Market (631-765-3200), or pick up fresh fish and shellfish to cook at home. The variety is staggering — everything from branzino to bluefish, swordfish to skate, and at least 15 varieties of oysters. It’s a seafood lover’s heaven. Charlie Manwaring was a third-generation fisherman before starting this bustling business 18 years ago that he runs with help from his three siblings. The specials change but some mainstays include raw oysters and clams on the half shell, mahi tacos, succulent lobster rolls, fish Reuben wraps minus the corned beef and sauerkraut, and seafood “stuffies” in clam shells packed with scallops, shrimp, clams, lobster and bread crumbs. You can get it to go and have a drink at the bar while waiting, eat inside or at a picnic table.
For centuries, communities on the North Fork have relied on the land for their livelihood. While these agricultural roots still exist, and saved this region from overdevelopment, many have traded potatoes for grapes as their crop of choice.
Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted the first vineyard in a defunct potato field in 1973. They discovered the sandy, well-draining soil and moderate climate were ideal for growing grapes. Others followed suit, and the region now has 38 wineries and tasting rooms. Each is surprisingly different in flavor and visitor experience. They range from rustic to contemporary, elegant to garish. (For those who prefer craft beer to wine, Jamesport Farm Brewery [844-532-2337] in Riverhead offers tastings, tours and a lot of fun events.)
Kontokosta Winery (631-477-6977) in Greenport has a spacious, modern tasting room with copper-covered tables, black steel beams, and floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the vineyard on one side and the Sound on the other. It’s the only oceanfront winery on the North Fork, set on top of a bluff, which enables it to generate its own energy using a wind-powered turbine. Visitors are welcome to stroll the 62-acre grounds with glass in hand. They produce about 48,000 bottles annually of red and white varietals. Your ferry receipt will get you a two-for-one tasting flight and 10 percent off a case or bottle.
Suhru Wines (631-603-8127), owned and operated by the Hearn family, is the new kid on the block. The small, intimate tasting house in Cutchogue recently opened, but that doesn’t mean they are novices in the art of wine production. Russell Hearn began his career in his native Australia before coming to the North Fork, where he has been making wine for more than 30 years for Pellegrini Vineyards, Lieb Cellars, Bridge Lane, T’Jara (his own brand) and now Suhru. At Suhru, they produce dry, crisp whites and medium-bodied, soft-tannin reds. Their goal is approachable and food-friendly wines that showcase the true expression of the fruit, resulting in wines that are bright, clean and fruit forward.
Sparkling Pointe (631-765-0200) in Southold is as fresh as its name sounds. A large, airy tasting room boasts crystal chandeliers, high ceilings and colorful paintings by a Brazilian street artist. Wine can also be enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes. Specializing in sparkling wines, winemaker Gilles Martin hails from France’s Champagne region and uses the traditional méthode Champenoise for winemaking. They offer tastings, sometimes with food pairings from local restaurants, behind-the-scenes tours, and live Brazilian music depending on the season.
It’s easy to find accommodations to suit anyone’s fancy, from quaint B&Bs and comfortable inns to five-star resorts and funky beach motels. What you won’t find are hotel chains. What you will find are establishments that are LGBTQ friendly, pet friendly and just plain friendly.
Aqua (631-722-3212) is a new, 18-room beachfront boutique hotel in Aquebogue. Situated on the Peconic Bay and a small canal, the hotel has a tropical theme that makes you feel like you’re on a Caribbean island instead of one that’s roughly 80 miles from New York City. Its rooms converge into a private garden filled with tall palm plants swaying in the breeze, wicker lounge chairs and daybeds, bright, white picnic tables with striped umbrellas, hammocks, and a cute wooden shack with adult beverages and snacks. They offer two beachfront suites, a rooftop suite and an assortment of deluxe queen- and king-size rooms, each equipped with a full wet bar and mini bar. An oasis designed to make you not want to leave, Aqua also offers kayaks, bicycles and paddleboards for outdoor excursions. The hotel is run by the same folks who operate American Beech (631-477-6571) in Greenport, an 11-room boutique hotel that was once a 19th-century horse stable. They have an onsite restaurant, outdoor fireplace, tree bar and lounge.
Once a kitschy 1950s motel, Sound View (631-477 1910) in Greenport has been transformed into a chic, yet unpretentious, 55-room waterfront property that includes apartments and suites. From the front it looks like every other unremarkable roadside motel from this era. But from the back, the expansive and unobstructed views of the ocean and the sunset are breathtaking. The interiors are tastefully, yet simply, decorated in a nautical theme paying homage to the area’s seafaring heritage. Each room has a boardwalk-style or private deck with beach access. Relaxation is the goal here. A very substantial and complimentary continental breakfast is served daily in an open-air common space overlooking the Sound. There is a pool with a bar and concession stand called Jack’s Shack, named for Sound View’s original owner, Jack Levin, who established the business in 1935. Other amenities include a fitness center with yoga and meditation classes; an open-to-the-public piano bar with live music curated by Manhattan’s renowned Joe’s Pub; and The Halyard bar and restaurant serving fresh produce, seafood and wine procured from purveyors on the North Fork and Atlantic Seaboard. Of course, there is seaside dining on the deck with views of Connecticut, lest you be homesick.
The Duncan Inn (631-722-4024) in Jamesport is a cozy, clean and comfortable boutique motel run by a delightful Scotsman named Duncan Kennedy. Each room has coffee- and tea-making capabilities, a microwave and fridge, an iron and board if you must, and free Wi-Fi. An upgrade to a premium room includes more bath and body products, cushy robes and slippers.The room price includes a continental breakfast with fresh bagels, muffins, cereal, fruit, toast, oatmeal, yogurt and beverages. Outside each room are your own table and chairs, and there is a communal backyard nestled by tall bushes and bamboo with grills, fire pits, couches and badminton. Guests may borrow a canvas bag filled with beach towels, or purchase snacks, drinks and forgotten toiletries at the onsite commissary. Within walking distance are wineries, farm stands and restaurants, and guests of the inn receive a 20 percent discount at Jedediah Hawkins Restaurant and Speakeasy, and a $40 credit at participating wineries when booking a 2-3-weeknight stay.
Greenport has the largest concentration of boutiques, clothing stores, art galleries and gift shops in one location, although there are plenty of options along the Fork. Gratefully, there are only a few chain stores, which has enabled local businesses to survive and thrive.
The Metal Monk (631-477-2722) has an expressive jewelry line created by owner Donya Lynn O’Brien, whose “Frida” collection is inspired by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Other items include “affirmation” bracelets, pewter keychains with poignant sayings, cowhide handbags, pottery and metal sculptures. The Weathered Barn (631-477-6811) is a lifestyle boutique with half of their wares made on-site. Their aesthetic leans toward the use of reclaimed wood, metal, natural textiles and botanicals that are handcrafted into a dazzling array of home accents, bath and body products, artwork, jewelry and gifts. Mural artist Carla Oberlander owns Olive Studio (914-226-9364) where she displays her painted designs on lamps, shades, furniture, tables, pottery, canvas, boxes, fabrics and even shoes!
In Aquebogue, the North Fork Chocolate Company (631-779-2963) makes handcrafted chocolate using local ingredients and their own blend of Belgian chocolate. They also have house-made cakes and pies, and ice cream with fresh milk from nearby Goodale Farms. Recently, the shop added an on-site gallery featuring local artists and artisans.
HOW TO GET THERE
Since the 1930s there’s been talk of linking either Connecticut or Westchester County to Long Island with a bridge or tunnel. (New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, abandoned the latest proposal this summer.) Until that day comes, your best bet to get to the North Fork is a roundabout car ride or ferry. But, for our money, the chance to avoid New York traffic, plus enjoy a boat ride (along with your car), gives the edge to the ferry. You have two options — the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry or the Cross Sound Ferry out of New London to Orient Point. Pick whichever is closer. Both ferry rides depart roughly every hour, take a little over an hour, and offer food and beverage options. (Note: prices reflect one-way travel and reservations)
Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry
Fares: $58 for auto and driver; $80 for auto and unlimited passengers; $19 for adult passenger; $16 for seniors 60 and over; children 12 and under free. 888-443-3779, 88844ferry.com
Cross Sound Ferry
Fares: $55 for auto and driver; $15.75 per adult passenger; $6 per child. 860-443-5281 or 631-323-2525, longislandferry.com