Meet Your New Favorite Beach Town: Montauk, N.Y.
Surfers, artists, and adventurous types have made Montauk their summer mainstay for decades. Now it's your turn to fall in love.
Sian Gordon's yoga studio, Love. A Yoga Space, is not your average meditation spot (yoga classes from $18). To start with, there's a 10-foot-tall graffiti mural by Yale art student Carlos Enrique Martinez covering one wall while the floor is painted bright turquoise. The color is meant to evoke the Caribbean Sea, and its visual impact is undeniable—even under all the suntanned surfers, young mothers, and surprisingly flexible older men in their ashtanga, Iyengar, vinyasa, and anusara classes. "We wanted something alive and bright that made you feel awake," says Gordon, on why she decided to give the traditionally sedate yoga studio a good jolt. "Every yoga studio I'd ever been in made me feel sleepy."
Funny, that's what people used to say about Gordon's adopted hometown: Montauk. The 17-square-mile spit of land bordered by Block Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean seems designed to weed out the uncommitted. It's the eastern-most point of New York State, a wild bit of nature beyond 110 miles of New York City suburbs and tony Long Island summer communities, a journey that can take as long as four hours by car on peak summer weekends. "Everyone who comes out to Montauk has to slog through the traffic. They have to earn it," says Jeff Schwarz, Gordon's partner in the yoga business and the chef at the newly revamped Crow's Nest restaurant (4 Old West Lake Dr., 631/668-2077, lemon pasta $19). "But that moment when you see the ocean for the first time, you feel like you've been set free." Like his yoga space, Montauk has been going through something of a personality transplant. In the past few years, half a dozen high-profile projects have sprouted up in this former fishing village, the last holdout among the ritzy, citified beach towns of eastern Long Island. The buzziest—and perhaps most divisive—is the Surf Lodge, a Southern California- and Hawaii-themed hotel designed by Robert McKinley, with its sunken living room, basket chairs, continuous loop of surf films on a projector screen, and see-and-be-seen Sunday afternoon parties. Ruschmeyer's, a second McKinley hotel (and hotspot-in-the-making), opened here just last month.
What distinguishes Montauk from so many gentrification-by-the-sea stories is the relative seamlessness of the transition. Sure, some of the old-timers complain that the flashy new neighbors are changing the place by the minute. (And don't get them started on the flood of high-heeled day-trippers!) The influx of cash has prompted some older businesses, such as the waterfront East Deck motel and the Montauket hotel, a beloved 1950s fishing lodge and bar, to put themselves on the block. But most folks say that the changes are working with the area's assets, not against them. "Montauk was always this hidden gem," says Marcia "Mars" Ostarello, a Montauk summer resident who opened the fuchsia Montaco food truck last July, where she serves fresh fish tacos on blue corn tortillas to surfers (and those who watch them) at Ditch Plains Beach. "But there weren't a lot of things to do at night. You'd just go to a friend's place to have a barbecue. It's new to think, Let's make a dinner reservation."
One reason most Montaukers haven't gotten their board shorts in a twist is that their town has been here before and survived. In the precrash 1920s, the rich and famous flocked to the Tudor-style Montauk Manor resort, built by Carl Fisher, the visionary developer responsible for Miami Beach. Then, when Andy Warhol bought a compound in the '70s, friends including Lee Radziwill and Jackie Kennedy came out and made headlines. So what if today Mike D. from the Beastie Boys is standing in line at Ostarello's taco truck? "I'd rather see Montauk fixed up than run down," says Catherine Foley, co-owner with her husband, Stuart, of the surf shop Air and Speed. "We just appreciate and enjoy all the different people who are coming out now. New people bring new interests and enthusiasm."
It also helps that Montauk has some inherent buffers against runaway growth. Of the town's 17 square miles, roughly 40 percent is state or county parkland, which can't be developed. That means most new development hinges on renovation rather than construction—leaving all the more room for travelers to take advantage of deep-sea fishing, horseback riding, stand-up paddle-boarding, and picnics on the miles of broad, sandy beaches backed by rocky cliffs. There's also something of a go-with-the-flow vibe to the town. The Foleys are a prime example. Stuart moved here when he was 18 and ran commercial-fishing boats for 25 years, including a five-year period when he and Catherine operated both the fishing business and the surf shop. As the balance of industry in town has shifted from a primarily fishing-based economy toward tourism (with a strong surfing slant), so have the Foleys. Last year, they even launched their own surf-themed apparel line, also called Air and Speed. Of course, change does bring trade-offs to a place whose charm was always derived from its tight-knit, working-class community and its sleepy pace. Catherine remembers taking a photo of her son Michael, now 27, at Ditch Plains Beach more than two decades ago. "There he was in his little board shorts, and no one was behind him! That would never, ever be the case at Ditch now," she says. "There would be a hundred people in the background."