Cruising Long Island: Bear Left at the Fork

Long Island's North Fork is the Hampton's undersung sister-and let's keep it that way.

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It seems that no matter where you go in the world, people have heard of "the Hamptons." Over the years, the area's original fame as a seaside and agricultural oasis a stone's throw from New York City has been eclipsed by it's reputation as a place where the beautiful people go to be with other beautiful people. The result: Not so pretty. Potato farms have been replaced by McMansions, Wagoneers have been replaced by Hummers, laid-back beach style has been upstaged by designer flashiness. Of course, there are still nooks and crannies that retain the original charm of the old Hamptons, but-all in all-it's easier to just pack a bag and head for the North Fork.

It's not hard to find. You can take a ferry from New London, Connecticut, to Orient Point, New York, at the most eastern tip of the North Fork. Or get a ferry from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Port Jefferson, New York, a mid-island coastal town. Drive all the way out the LIE and instead of bearing right at exit 70 toward Manorville, just keep on going. You'll soon find yourself passing corn and potato fields, vineyards and farm stands. If you're lucky enough to be arriving by boat, you'll find the North Fork in between Gardiner's Bay and Long Island Sound. While North Fork beaches lack the drama of the South Fork's best Atlantic seascapes, the water is warmer and there are many beautiful bluffs with long, gorgeous sound views.

With the exception of Riverhead, the county seat that is the gateway to the North Fork, the towns are smaller here than in the Hamptons, and have yet to be over-run with expensive boutiques, though there are plenty of other shopping options. There's always a good place to grab a cup of coffee and a newspaper, and many towns have at least one or two good restaurants that specialize in the area's great produce and seafood bounties.

Greenport is the cultural center of the North Fork and is dotted with art galleries. Originally an old whaling town, it's retained its maritime traditions and salty demeanor. Visit Mitchell Park, which overlooks Greenport Harbor, and ride the 40-foot carousel that was built in the 1920s. At the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation you'll learn all about local fishing and boating history. The museum also has an impressive collection of Fresnel lenses for lighthouse buffs. Go for a day sail aboard the schooner Mary E. and then grab dinner at Claudio's, the oldest family-owned restaurant in America. They're known for their seafood but if you can try the Frisky Oyster for a more eclectic menu.

The North Fork is known for its vineyards. There are over thirty of them, so wine buffs can enjoy several leisurely afternoons of winery tours and tasting rooms.

There's obviously more than enough to keep tourists busy, but the best reason to visit the North Fork may be to do nothing at all. There are plenty of beaches- including four miles of shoreline at Orient State Park-that invite you to bring a towel, a book, and some sun tan lotion, so you can enjoy the natural beauty of the North Fork in the most traditional way of all.