About 75 miles east of Manhattan, far beyond the sprawl of the New York suburbs, Long Island splits into two, creating a “fish tail” on either side of Great Peconic Bay. The North Fork and the South Fork (jointly referred to as the East End) have evolved very distinctly.
Historically, the South Fork has been more prominent by far. Beginning in the late 1800s, artists and writers came in search of tranquility and inspiration who in turn were followed by captains of finance seeking summer retreats, and beaches that were once empty except for fishermen seining from the shore sprouted shingled mansions that loomed behind a rampart of dunes. A string of once relatively modest agricultural and fishing villages became a playground known as “The Hamptons.” Much of the once-serene landscape of verdant fields, owned for generations by the same families and mostly planted with Long Island’s famous potatoes, was sold for construction.
Nowadays, on July and August weekends, the beaches are packed and once-peaceful country roads become jammed with traffic. Yet the qualities that originally attracted people can still be found, especially out of high season: At times the light is almost transcendental; the produce from the remaining fields remains among the finest in the United States; and there is now a successful and growing aquaculture of oysters. The beaches still have fine, whitish sand and the sapphire-blue water is clean and invigorating.
The North Fork followed a different destiny, chiefly because it lacks the glorious Atlantic beaches, and continued to be a quiet agricultural area. Things began to change in 1973, however, when Alex and Louisa Hargrave, to the utter disbelief of many, opened a vineyard on the North Fork, convinced that the region’s microclimate would make it congenial to wine production. Instead of farmland sprouting McMansions, thousands of acres that were once cultivated for potatoes have been converted to wine grapes, with Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc thriving.
Today, driving along state Route 25, you pass through a succession of small towns composed of modest houses and their neat lawns, white clapboard churches, mom- and-pop shops and sturdy brick schoolhouses that seem the embodiment of Norman Rockwell wholesomeness. The contrast with the extravagantly moneyed Hamptons could scarcely be greater, with both areas having their own charms and appeals.
A Thriving Arts Scene
As the Hudson Valley has emerged from a period of decline, the arts have contributed mightily to luring visitors. Empty factories have been transformed into luxury lodgings, high-end dwellings and, in the case of a 1929 Nabisco printing plant, a stunning gallery. The Dia Art Foundation saw this as a perfect space for exhibiting its collection of contemporary art. Opened in 2003, Dia:Beacon has gained a worldwide reputation, and its holdings include works by Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois and many more.
Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, has long enjoyed a reputation for its performing arts programs. In 2003, the opening of the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Frank Gehry, added new dimension to Bard’s standing. The Storm King Art Center comprises 500 acres of rolling hills, meadows and woodlands in New Windsor and is filled with more than 100 sculptures and installations, including works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi.
Gorgeous Stained-Glass Windows
The Union Church of Pocantico Hills is an easy drive from Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate. A nondenominational Christian church attended by the Rockefellers when in residence, it contains an extraordinary array of stained-glass windows. No fewer than nine are by Chagall — the only church windows he ever created — and one, a rose window, is by Matisse. Designed as a memorial to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, it is the last work Matisse accomplished before his death, in 1954. To me, however, the most impressive and moving of the windows is Chagall’s magnificent “Good Samaritan,” a memorial to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s husband, John D. Rockefeller Jr.