If you’re looking to get out of town for a day in the suburbs or countryside, and you don’t want to have to pay tolls or cross water, there’s only one way to go, and that’s east.
Long Island offers all kinds of activities and cool little nooks and crannies to discover for families, singles, fans of fine art, ecologists, historians — in short, everybody.
You’ve got the big ocean beaches — Jones, Robert Moses and Smith Point — going west to east along the South Shore. The North Shore offers the rockier but still charming Sunken Meadow Park around the Island’s east-west midpoint. Sprinkled in between all over are smaller town and village beaches, and of course the East End offers the famous Hamptons shoreline. Summer isn’t over just yet, and there’s still time to lay out in the sun and be lulled by the sounds of the surf.
But let’s say you want to spend a day outdoors on the Island but aren’t looking to hit the beach. You’ve got plenty of options.
For a relatively short trip close to home, you might visit Old Westbury Gardens in, you guessed it, Old Westbury. It’s off Exit 32 on the Northern State Parkway, which is what the Grand Central turns into, or Exit 39 on the Long Island Expressway. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the site features more than 200 acres of lovely gardens and a magnificent mansion. You can take guided tours or just stroll around on your own.
Go a bit further east to Centerport, tucked away on a North Shore peninsula just past Huntington, and you can visit another historical mansion, the Vanderbilt Museum. Situated on lovely waterfront grounds, the old estate also features the Vanderbilt Planetarium, where you can learn all about the heavens, see a psychadelic light show, or both.
Across the Island on the South Shore, and a little bit further east, is another landscaped paradise with a mansion on the grounds, the Bayard Cutting Arboretum. The arboretum sits on the Connetquot River in Oakdale and features remarkable specimens of various flora, including massive oak trees that were there when work on the site began in 1887.
Don’t let the name fool you into thinking you should bring a pair of shears, however — Cutting was the name of the family that donated the property to the state parks system. Adjacent to the arboretum is Heckscher State Park, another natural gem.
Just east of Oakdale is Sayville, one of the Island’s many quaint villages and hamlets. If you want to feel like you just stepped into New England, spend some time walking around Main Street, aka Montauk Highway. At night, docks all over the area are great for crabbing.
Along with the much-larger Bay Shore to the west and Patchogue to the east, Sayville also has ferries that run to Fire Island. The barrier beach is home to 17 distinct communities, ranging from the “party town” of Ocean Beach to the famously-gay friendly Cherry Grove and more rugged, natural areas like Watch Hill that are great for camping. And with the exception of emergency vehicles, no cars are allowed on Fire Island. Talk about retro.
One great thing about all three of the communities with ferry service to Fire Island is that they’re on the Long Island Rail Road’s Montauk branch, and it’s not too far from the station to the boat in any of them.
Opposite Sayville, back on the North Shore, is another lovely seaside village, Port Jefferson. Port Jeff, as most call it, abounds with restaurants and nightlife, like many of Long Island’s communities, from the city line all the way to the Hamptons. And it’s one of the many villages that take pride in their history, especially in seafaring, offering points of interest for the local historian. It was founded in the late 1600s —by a shoemaker from Queens named John Roe.
Port Jeff is also home to a ferry, the one that runs to Connecticut, with boats so big they accommodate cars.
Much of Long Island, especially Suffolk County but also parts of Nassau, is what you might call suburborural — less dense than communities such as Oyster Bay or Valley Stream but not quite the countryside either. But that changes once you’re east of say, Exit 64 on the expressway, which leads to Port Jeff to the north and Patchogue to the south. Then you’re entering the untouched lands of the Pine Barrens and some very small hamlets.
And then, after you pass through the Town of Riverhead, located where the Island forks — possibly stopping at the Long Island Aquarium — you’re on the East End. Hit the South Fork to enter the Hamptons or go all the way to Montauk Point, where you can visit a historic lighthouse or maybe fish for sharks; or enter the North Fork to see some less pretentious and truly rustic places. Either way, you’ll find charming communities, pretty parks, history, fine dining and, of course, wineries.
Long Island’s wine industry has been growing in recent years and really making a mark with oenophiles. There are dozens of vineyards you can visit for tours, tastings or special events, or just to pick up a few bottles.
Also in the region are a number of roadside stands with the freshest and best locally grown vegetables around. George Costanza may have been lying when he told the Rosses he had a house in the Hamptons, but he was right about the quality of Hampton tomatoes.
There’s more information online about all the places cited here, including even some of the roadside stands. And of course this article only touches upon some of the many sites to visit out east. There are many, many more. Nassau and Suffolk counties both provide information online for the day-tripping tourist.
In a sense, Queens and the rest of New York City do “have it all.” But the Long Island that Queens is a part of geographically though not politically offers something else altogether, in dozens of communities, each with its own appeal. Take a ride out there and who knows what you’ll discover.