Meandering Just This Side of the Hamptons

At Jackson Pollock’s studio in the East Hampton hamlet of Springs, Raul Dorticos takes a photo of the dribbles and drops on the floor where Pollock laid his canvases to paint.

I HAVE never been a fan of the Hamptons. Sure, the pristine beaches and sloping waves are a welcome respite from the Manhattan summer scorch that can melt the soles of your flip flops. But by the time midsummer rolls around on the eastern end of Long Island, a hint of desperation seems to settle in among the summer habitués who know that the days of sunset clambakes and lazy afternoons at Georgica Beach are coming to an end. 

So it was with trepidation that I drove with my friend Dan to the hamlet of Springs and the home of Jackson Pollock, who this year would have celebrated his 100th birthday. I have long wanted to see the house and studio where the troubled Pollock used sticks and brushes to drip abstract designs onto large canvases. But I have been thwarted too by the idea of snarled summer traffic (the studio is closed to visitors in winter) and the whine of avaricious shoppers clogging the shore’s few thoroughfares. As we barreled in Dan’s convertible along Route 27, I posed the question: Can we go to the Hamptons without actually having to go to the Hamptons?

It was a good time to ask, for as we approached Southampton, a line of cars ahead halted us abruptly. Dan took a sharp left onto Shrubland Road, and we found ourselves in another world, breezing along a country lane beneath a lush canopy of sun-dappled leaves, the wind tugging at the scarf I had knotted under my chin. We moved swiftly, which is more than I can say for the drivers we left behind choking on exhaust. It was an important lesson for our not-Hamptons adventure: Take the road less traveled. The journey is circuitous, and you will make a wrong turn or two, but it is certainly more enjoyable.

Sometimes we had to backtrack on roads like Scuttle Hole, Brick Kiln and Long Lane and, for the most part, we remained north of Route 27 and away from the beach mayhem. Pollock’s studio sits near Accabonac Creek in Springs, where he moved in 1945 with his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, and lived until he died in a car crash not far from his home, in 1956. The Stony Brook Foundation now oversees the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, offering tours for $10. While guides sometimes gloss over less glamorous aspects of an artist’s life, ours did not. She delved into the couple’s meager existence (they initially had no indoor plumbing), a tempestuous marriage (he had affairs), and talked openly about Pollock’s fits of alcohol-induced rage and violent death.

What I had not known was how the studio could enliven to touch. We were asked to slip on fabric bootees so we could alk on the floorboards splashed with crimson and yellow, punctuated by spots of lime green, black and sky blue, where Pollock laid his canvases to paint. Art enthusiasts are rarely allowed to touch an artist’s work, let alone walk on it. But the floor, while not meant to be a finished painting, had some of the same characteristics of his most famous pieces. I could feel the texture of Pollock’s dribbles and drops on my thinly covered feet, my toes exploring uneven layers of paint on bare wood.

Pollock and Krasner are buried nearby in Green River Cemetery. But by now we were hungry and searched for a place to eat outdoors. We drove south along Springs-Fireplace Road, turning west toward East Hampton Point and the resort there with a deck overlooking a marina. Boats slipped quietly in and out of view, the gray afternoon light reflected like ribbons of silver on the calm blue bay. The restaurant is a charmer for sunset cocktails, but it seemed to be trying too hard to appeal to a 20-something crowd. A hostess invited my niece, Tessa, who had joined us for the day, to a coming reggae night. When I asked if Dan and I could come too, the hostess noted our age but conceded with a shrug, “I guess it is an intergenerational thing.”

We capped off the day with a visit to the lighthouse at Montauk Point, picking up Route 27 again near Amagansett. The lighthouse, built in 1796, was named a national historic landmark this spring. By now it was late afternoon, and the staff was cranky (clearly all the island’s young people were drinking beer at Clam Bar that day), barking at visitors to hurry up and climb the 137 steps to the top of the lighthouse before being shuffled out the front gates. We vowed to go early next time and explore the shore of nearby Camp Hero State Park, a former military station built to look like a fishing village to fool Nazi spies.

A few weeks later Dan and I embarked on another not-Hamptons trek, this time headed on North Sea Road to the Conscience Point Historic Site and Nature Walk. It is a short path leading to a quiet bay surrounded by tall marine grasses and buzzing with dragonflies among the waist-high stalks of Queen Anne’s lace that bobbed gently in the summer breeze. English settlers landed here in 1640. About 60 acres of adjacent land was turned into a wildlife refuge in 1971, but some people may better remember the area because it is not far from the nightclub where, in 2001, the publicist Lizzie Grubman backed her father’s Mercedes-Benz S.U.V. into a group of 16 people and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.

While the area is less picturesque than the Hamptons’ Atlantic Ocean side, it has its own natural charm, including the burble of noisy bullfrogs and the smack of wings on water as hungry gulls dive for fish. It was quiet too at the nearby North Sea bathing beach, a pebbly strip of shore near a small community of homes that face Little Peconic Bay. The coarse sand disappoints when compared to the fine grains of Southampton’s Coopers Beach on the Atlantic side, but I wasn’t looking for that beach’s crowds either. Instead I found a bounty of yellow and orange jingle shells. These translucent discs are from mollusks related to oysters and named for the sound they make when you gather them together in your hand. There were also scores of charcoal, inky blue and cream shells from the scallops that nestle in the sea grasses of the Peconic Bay and are harvested in winter. I could have walked all afternoon stuffing my pockets with shells and brightly colored pebbles. 

After so much stillness I was ready to mingle with people. Even though we were never more than 20 minutes from a Starbucks or a Calypso St. Barth clothing shop, we had managed to avoid town and didn’t want to break the streak. So from here we traveled east along Noyac Road (along the bay) toward Sag Harbor and, after a few turns, picked up Sagg Road. There are vast stretches of open fields near Sagaponack: rows of corn, freshly mowed grass for horse riding and trellises heavy with grapevines owned by the local wineries.

We opted to visit Wölffer Estate Vineyard, mostly because a friend said I would enjoy the Tuscan-style tasting room with a deck and view of manicured cypress trees and meticulously kept vines. Clearly this wasn’t the low-key North Sea area; we pulled up alongside a couple loading cases of wine into his and hers Maseratis. But the crowd was wonderfully eclectic and the servers playful — generous with pours if we wanted to try a wine not in our tasting flight.

Dan and I ordered a plate of manchego and goat cheese that came with a square of quince paste and some crackers. I was relaxed from the morning walks. As I took a sip of a sparkling rosé, I thought, this is the Hamptons I could learn to love.