It was around the tenth anniversary of my living the California dream that we decided to move from San Francisco to New York. I enjoyed every moment in San Francisco but felt like I needed a change. A change of the evergreen trees and the ever-the-same SFMOMA selection. A change from the decoration of the natural environment to locked-up urban living. Also, a good buddy of mine lived in New York for a few years and I suspected he was having too much fun without me. Ironically, he moved to back to San Francisco one month before we moved out to New York. I still can’t believe it wasn’t intentional.
I had an employer back then and the whole deal was structured as a relocation. It was a pretty sweet deal, if you want to know the truth. I desperately wanted to move to New York and my employer was willing to pay the big bucks to make the move a reality. One of the greatest benefits of being employed. (I don’t recall many others, though.)
When we moved, my New York co-workers were puzzled about my decision to move east. Everyone seemed to be dreaming of California as this magical place, where the grass is greener.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the move was so exciting. It went against the conventional wisdom, which I generally enjoy doing in life.
I recall my colleague telling me at the time: Ok, tough boy. I’ll talk to you again when winter comes to town.
When winter came, it was one of the most brutal in decades. Mayor Bloomberg took a lot of heat for messing up on the emergency snow removal.
Nevertheless, I was happy to be on the East Coast, with all its disproportionate weather hardship, hurricane ladies Irene and Sandy, and supposedly unfriendly New Yorkers. Only one thing didn’t come naturally to me. I realized that I need to buy a lot of new seasonal clothes… and another five-millimeter-thick wetsuit.
A very few of my California-dreaming co-workers would visit a little town at the northern tip of Long Island, about a three-hour trip from Manhattan, but with all the best of California…
It’s Called Montauk
That was my first impression of Montauk. You can surf, you can get tan. Naturally tan, not burnt tan like under the warm California sun.
I learned that the Atlantic gets warm like Hawaii for two months at the end of summer. Thank the Gulf Stream. During those months the scene turns into something out of the French Riviera. Oh, no, hold on—I’m thinking of the Hamptons, not Montauk.
Montauk sunbathers socialize by the Slopping Tuna restaurant
White sand and lukewarm water during the summertime in Montauk
Arriving at Montauk Beach
Water never gets warm in California. It’s freezing, five millimeter wetsuit freezing. Those girls in bikinis playing volleyball on the beach and swimming in the ocean are a lie the rest of the world loves to believe in. None of it really exists in San Francisco. You can argue over LA and San Diego, sure, maybe, but I won’t sign off on that either. Water is still surprisingly cold!
Over time I’ve met a lot of people who’ve shared their disappointment about California being so far from what they imagined. It’s quite an impressive feat of marketing, how forty million people convinced the other seven billion that California is a better place to be. In many ways it is, but your California dream could be much closer than you think.
Let me tell you why Montauk is just like California, or even better.
Because of Its Surf Culture
I started surfing in Santa Cruz, a little town a two-hour drive south from San Francisco. If you want to see a perfect example of a surf town, visit Santa Cruz.
Surfers’ van stacked with surfboards
Surfer at Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Cliffs
Learning to surf in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Boardwalk
Taco bar in Santa Cruz
Surfboards stacked into the 60s VW vans, guys changing into wetsuits right there on the street, taco stands, even a boardwalk and a perfectly shaped California pier.
In many ways, Montauk looks to me like a little Santa Cruz on the East Coast.
But when I give it a little more thought, it’s actually vastly different.
Montauk is different from Santa Cruz in that it isn’t an intense local surfing environment. In Santa Cruz I almost got into a fight with a local guy once. He wasn’t happy with me surfing next to him at the Four Mile Point, a hidden surf spot north of Santa Cruz. People would just push or even punch you if you got in their way.
The “Valley Go Home” sign is a notorious welcome note for anyone traveling on highway 85 from San Jose to Santa Cruz. It’s a great example of how hostile the local attitude can get.
With all due respect to the great surfers of Santa Cruz, come on—the ocean doesn’t just belong to the lucky few who were born on the coast.
Still, one thing about Santa Cruz, they do have their own O’Neil surf shop. But then, I was surprised to learn there’s also a surf shop in the middle of Manhattan.
It’s Called Saturdays NYC
The guys that run Saturdays Surf NYC are pretty keen on roasted coffee. The founder was raised in Seattle, where he spent hours at his parents’ coffee shop. It turns out that combining the highest quality coffee roast (La Colombe) with top-end surf supplies was a good idea to try out in New York.
The surf shop, or rather the coffee bar, became more appealing to SoHo residents than to the surfing community. On a busy day, shoppers would willingly stand in line for fifteen minutes to get a cup of coffee. Riding the wave of popular demand, Saturdays opened another location in the West Village, where the public can also watch surf footage projected onto the wall. I actually enjoy visiting the Perry Street location more, as the servers usually keep their attitude in check. The SoHo baristas are notorious for spicing up their service with a drop of hipster snobbery.
You may argue that a good cup of coffee is worth enduring a bit of snobbery for. Regardless, the coffee remains damn good at Saturdays Surf NYC.
A Weekend Warrior Paradise in Montauk
“Saturdays Surf NYC” is a clever name for a surf shop. The idea is you work all week long and spend your Saturdays surfing somewhere on Long Island, preferably at Montauk. This was my life in New York. We would wake up around 7am on Saturdays, hop on the subway to Penn Station and then ride the LIRR to Montauk.
It’s fun to bring a surfboard on the subway just to see other passengers’ looking at you…
While killing time on the train I would get work done, or take a nap when cell reception degraded (no, there is no WiFi on the train). Kristina would practice her drawing skills.
Montauk is the last stop after all types of Hamptons (Hampton Bays, Westhampton, Southampton, East Hampton, etc). On arrival we would either catch a cab to the beach for eight dollars per person, or take the twenty-minute walk. If you plan to take a cab from the beach back to your train, make sure you collect business cards from all the taxi drivers at the station on the way out. In the evening, you can call for a pick-up; thirty or forty minutes in advance is sufficient.
Alternately, you can do what we did one day, have a surf shop owner give us a ride to the station in a van full of pumpkins. Thank to my surf buddy Magnus from Norway for capturing this moment inside the pumpkin van.
Fashionable Side of Montauk
Over the last few years, Montauk has become a magnet for young, hip New Yorkers looking for a short escape from the summer heat of the urban jungler. All of a sudden Montauk became a super cool spot for bohemian New Yorkers to spend weekends. Fashion magazines started glamorizing the town, with its fisherman and surf culture.
Of course this meant that all the town’s motels started going bananas during the high season. A hotel room you could get for $70-90 per night most of the year started costing $750 for a minimum three-night weekend stay.
Within a five or ten minute walk from the train station is a place with no shortage of customers. It’s a hotel and bar, Surf Lodge Montauk. How about a queen size bed for $400 a night? I am afraid to say that that’s the price with a discount. The two-bedroom suite is available for $1,750 per night during the peak season. On Friday and Saturday nights, there’s no parking along the road for a mile on either side of the Surf Lodge. These are the nights that the best parties go down there.
DJs or a live band start warming up the public before sunset, and the party goes nuts till late at night, with girls in designer dresses and high heels dancing in the sand.
Hipsters Are Great, But What Else Is There to See in Montauk?
The best way to explore Montauk is on a bike. We once stayed at the Montauk Yacht Club, which provides free bikes to guests. Some other hotels offer the same.
Montauk Point Light is the oldest lighthouse in the state of New York and the fourth oldest working lighthouse in the United States. It was built in 1797 by commission from George Washington and was the first public work of the newly formed United States. It’s located in the Montauk Point State Park. You cross town and keep going to the very end to reach the park.
We were lucky to see the lighthouse when it was all lit up for the holidays. The lighting is a big event; many families come for the ceremony and celebration.
Where to Eat in Montauk
That’s a tricky one. Despite the fact that Montauk is historically a fishing town, it’s not very easy to find great places to eat. I definitely do not recommend places like Surf Lodge: not necessarily fresh food, horrendously overpriced, and served with a big attitude.
There are still some excellent choices though.
Sometimes I think the only way I can drag Kristina to Montauk on early Saturday mornings is because there is a reward for her at the end. We always stop by at Piazza Primavera for a slice of pizza. Kristina think it’s the best pizza in the world and doesn’t mind traveling for three hours to get a slice. Fair enough, but I would keep this award for Keste Pizza & Vino on Bleecker in the West Village.
There is also an organic shop we like: Naturally Good Foods & Cafe. We alternate between it and Joni’s Cafe a couple blocks from the beach.
Our friends also recommended Dave’s Grill but we never got lucky enough to eat there. It was always either completely booked or closed for the season. A reservation is a must.
Where to Surf
There are a few surf spots in Montauk. Ditch Plains is the most crowded. It’s a longboarder spot where everyone who is learning to surf goes.
I like Atlantic Terrace, as it typically works better for short boarder. The name of this spot derives from the Atlantic Terrace Motel located just in front of the spot. This beach is located near the town center, a few hundred yards north from The Sloppy Tuna restaurant (another hot spot on summer weekends) . It’s about a twenty or thirty minute walk from the train station, and if you’re up for an adventure it’s another fifteen or twenty minutes along the beach to Ditch Plains.
Turtle Cove, located south and west of the Montauk Point Lighthouse, is another classic surf spot out east. The crowds swarm there during the summer as the waves can rival Ditch’s on the right day. There are some areas here where you risk to catch a fisherman’s hook or a ticket for illegal wave riding on the north side of Montauk Point.
Surf Shack surf shop is located just one block before Atlantic Terrace. You can rent a board, wetsuit and other stuff there.
One day I forgot to bring a leash, and catching my board became a physically intensive task. I noticed a van standing on the beach and approached the guys to ask if they had an extra leash. They happily detached a leash from one of the boards. I was only wearing a wetsuit and didn’t have any cash on me to pay for it. One of the guys happened to be the owner of the Air & Speed surf shop and he told me to just pay him next time I came to Montauk.
Beware: The Drunk Train Back to New York
During the summer it’s expensive to get a hotel room, and often impossible. That’s why we would always arrive in the morning and head back in the evening.
If you are planning to catch a train from Montauk to New York on Sunday night, you may want to skip the 7:30pm train Why? You may get some unexpected company joining you in Hampton Bays. Hundreds of dead-drunk teens board the train after partying at the Boardy Barn. This picture may give you an idea of the scene…
Besides the fact these guys are drunk, loud and don’t exactly smell like perfume, there are other complications.
First, the toilet will be permanently occupied, and there are only two of them on the entire train. You may need to walk through ten cars before you find the second toilet. Imagine how you’ll feel if it, too, is occupied?
Second, if one of these guys standing by you, good luck dodging his inevitable inside-out eruption. I witnessed one gentleman try to protect his high-end clothing by holding his iPad up to a partygoer’s mouth to block the flow of lava.
Anything Else to Add?
Yes, actually. We’ll close with a comical story.
We came to Montauk as a group of four but didn’t have a hotel room booked—a pretty bad idea. I called every single hotel in the area and nearby towns to see if there was anything available. Finally I found the only place that claimed, at least, to have any vacancies, Kenny’s Tipperari Inn.
It was almost midnight. We arrived at the hotel, where there was no one at reception. There were two other guys waiting outside. They looked a bit lost and unsettled. They informed us that the guy in charge of the hotel was quite strange. When they arrived, they said, he told them that their room was not ready, and he needed their help moving a sofa into the room they booked. Well, they agreed to help. They helped him carry a sofa to the second floor—and were then given the keys to a room on the first floor.
That story sounded bizarre, but at this hour we didn’t have any other options. We rang a bell, and a guy in a bathrobe and slippers came out to greet us, a couple minutes later. I said we had called ten minutes before, and came right away because he had confirmed that a room was available. The receptionist said yes, took our money, and then spent some time pondering which room keys to take out of his cabinet, before picking one seemingly at random. Then he told us to follow him.
After checking the keys in his hand and the room number in front of him he slowly, hesitantly opened the door. It was dark inside and we went in. He started showing us around without turning the lights on. It was a suite. We felt so lucky to find a place that big for the four of us. The guy wanted to show us the bedroom and opened the door. Suddenly, from inside the bedroom, someone started asking questions in Spanish. We all rushed out of the room in panic. The hotelier explained that he had forgotten that there were people in there. Then he went to the next room and opened it. I noticed there were some musical instruments on the floor and warned him someone might be inside. Sure enough, someone in that room, too, woke up and started asking what was happening. The hotelier apologized and backed off.
By this time I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of continuing to follow the guy, as he was clearly not in his right mind. Around the corner, two other guys were giggling as another couple had just arrived. The new couple said they had booked a room online. The hotelier looked surprised and asked them why they had arrived so late. He said he would need to figure things out and returned to his desk. The four of us, and the two newcomers, were very uncertain about what would happen next.
The hotelier returned and said he had room for everyone. He led us back to the room with the musical instruments and opened the door again. I tried to mention that there were people in there, but it was too late. People woke up and started yelling again. Then he returned to the room where the Spanish speakers were sleeping. After waking those guests up again, the proprietor started knocking on random windows, waking up more guests. The whole process was becoming some grotesque farce.
Finally the hotelier gave up and said he had an unfinished room upstairs where we could possibly stay. That room didn’t have a kitchen yet. And then, at absolute random, we discovered an available room and settled there right away. The other couple were still on their quest for the room they had booked. I’m not sure if they ended up staying in the hotel that night, or not.
We got inside our room and blocked the door with the nightstands. Every time I woke up that night I looked at the window to make sure no one was trying to break in. We were pretty happy to wake up the following morning all alive and ready for another day on the beach.
There are tons of other stories about Montauk. Do you have your own one?
If so, just share below!