Walking through the forest of the Avalon Park & Preserve, I hear the crunch of something underfoot. It could be twigs, or last fall’s leaves, but I have a suspicion that it’s actually the stereotypes I’ve accumulated over a lifetime being crushed to dust.
I’m in Long Island, but it’s nothing like the Long Island of my inner eye, nourished for so long on the cliché from Sex and the City and Saturday Night Live. Where are the leather jackets, the malls, the gel-slicked hordes heading over bridges and through tunnels for a night of Manhattan hedonism? Where is Joey Buttafuoco, punchline of a thousand 1990s jokes, centre of the Long Island Lolita love triangle? As long as I’ve known about the place, I’ve pronounced it in my head in the accent distinctive to it: Lawn Guyland.
Except I didn’t know about the place, not at all, because this, too, is Long Island: forests and wetlands, gorgeous fishing villages, vineyards, a history rich with intrigue and skullduggery. I recently spent a few days on the north shore of the island, an easy weekend getaway from many parts of Canada (although this, of course, will depend on how you feel about travelling to Donald Trump’s America and supporting it with your tourism dollars).
When I confess my ignorance to long-time resident Gloria Rocchio, president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, she smiles knowingly. “There’s an expression around here: ‘Once you get sand in your shoes, you’ll always come back.’”
The two ends of Long Island, which juts like a pincer from mainland New York, are already pretty famous. On the west is Brooklyn, capital of artisanal pickle-making, and toward the east lie the Hamptons, land of taut foreheads and linen shirts. The bit in between is less well known and full of delights, even if you can’t decide between kayaking and cabernet.
In Avalon Park in the hamlet of Stony Brook, for instance, there are cormorants in the sky above and chipmunks underfoot, and no sounds of traffic anywhere (this even though Long Island is one of the most densely populated parts of the United States, with 7.8 million people stuffed into a crescent that’s 190 km long and 37 km wide). In the centre of the 170-acre preserve is a vast wildflower meadow, and in the centre of that is a piece of art – a gleaming steel orb by Alicia Framis called Cartas al Cielo (Letters to Heaven).
Next to the orb, I meet a tourist visiting from Guayaquil, Ecuador. She’s writing on one of the blank cards that are part of the art installation (the park staff gather the cards every day, and are still deciding what to do with them; a giant bonfire is one of the options).
“Did you have any idea about this?” I say to the woman, and she shakes her head and says, “I didn’t know any of this was here.” I shrug at her. She shrugs at me. We leave to explore Long Island.
Just outside the park sits the Stony Brook Grist Mill, built in 1751. The air inside is redolent with the dust of corn and wheat that are ground now just for tourists. During the American Revolutionary War, though, this was one of the places the British army, garrisoned nearby, bought its flour.
The Redcoats were popular in some quarters of Long Island, but very unpopular with a lot of rural folk: Hence the area’s other great draw for tourists, the Washington Spy Trail. In the brutal days of the war, General George Washington needed intelligence about British troops stationed in Long Island. A group of locals, part of the Culper Spy Ring, relayed messages by boat across Long Island Sound and by horseback to the American forces in Manhattan. Fans of these spies (or the AMC series Turn, which is based on their exploits) can visit Brewster House, where Caleb Brewster, a member of the ring, ran a tavern and eavesdropped on the British. Or, for those with a grislier sensibility and a stronger stomach, there are boats tours from Oyster Bay visiting the Execution Rocks lighthouse, where captured Americans were left chained to the rocks at low tide, waiting for the rising waters to bring death.
Okay, I didn’t say it was an entirely cheery tour, did I? See, for example, the trophy room at Sagamore Hill, just outside of Oyster Bay, the beloved summer home where Theodore Roosevelt found refuge and displayed the heads, hides and tusks of various beasts he slaughtered. It’s a gorgeous spot, though, set on a high thumb of land: You can see why Teddy wanted to escape the jaws of Washington for friendlier faces.
There’s only one suitable antidote to a day of spies, death and hiking, and that’s a giant plate of pasta. Fortunately, the Osteria Leana in Oyster Bay serves one of the finest versions of cacio e pepe I’ve had outside Rome, properly made with bucatini and accented with a pop of toasted Tellicherry peppercorns. Most of the better restaurants offer local vintages; Long Island has more than 60 vineyards, many of which are open for tours (and, for those forsaking the highways, the Long Island Rail Road provides service at 124 stops all day and night, every day of the year).
Another unexpected pleasure occurs one night at the Jazz Loft, where local trumpeter Tom Manuel has turned a former natural history museum into a venue for live music and display space for his vast collection of jazz memorabilia. Upstairs, on the night we visit, clarinetist Ken Peplowski plays sublimely under the baleful gaze of a stuffed mountain lion, a leftover guest from the Jazz Loft’s previous incarnation. It’s not what I expect to see or hear in the middle of Long Island; but then again it’s all unexpected, in the best possible way.
The writer was a guest of Discover Long Island. The organization did not review or approve the story prior to publication.
Where to Stay
Oheka Castle, once the second-largest private home in the United States, was built a century ago on the Gold Coast of Long Island’s north shore, and surrounded by gardens landscaped by the Olmsted brothers. In the 1930s it was a summer retreat for New York’s sanitation workers, then fell into ruin. Now restored, Oheka is a grand destination favoured by wedding planners and golfers. oheka.com
How to Get There
There are numerous ways to get to the middle of Long Island from New York airports: The Long Island Rail Road connects to JFK’s AirTrain at Jamaica station, and to LaGuardia via bus from Woodside station. There are also privates shuttles and buses. By car, drive time depends on traffic, anywhere from one to two hours.