Montauk moments: Sunsets, surf, locally caught seafood keep me coming back

The popular surfing beach of Ditch Plains in Montauk's Shadmoor State Park is pictured. Inset from left: The writer at a Montauk beach with his board; sunset on Long Island's eastern tip; and Montauk Point Lighthouse and Museum. (photos provided)
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The popular surfing beach of Ditch Plains in Montauk's Shadmoor State Park is pictured. Inset from left: The writer at a Montauk beach with his board; sunset on Long Island's eastern tip; and Montauk Point Lighthouse and Museum. (photos provided)

By JUSTIN MASON

Reaching a feverish crescendo, Mick Jagger’s voice booms outside the Montauket and across Fort Pond Bay, only to be swallowed by the vastness of the western horizon.

Stripped of its baking intensity, the now seemingly docile sun is starting its descent and bathing us in the golden hue of twilight. Though still half full, my pint glass looks startlingly empty for such a magnificent spectacle, leading me to assess the time needed to get a refill before the big show.

“…Pleased to meet you,” Jagger booms. “Hope you guessed my name…”

The outside tiki bar already had a line and a quick survey of the three dozen or so revelers showed I wasn’t alone in this same gut-churning dilemma.

Act quick, I think, downing my beer and plunging through the slightly bibulous crowd inside the weathered tavern.

For most, Montauk is a relaxing place, emancipated from the frenzy of day-to-day life. But at the Montauket at sunset, frenzy is to be expected, and it’s well worth it.

There’s no other place to cheer the day into faded memory than at the looming hillside perch of the Montauket. Tucked off the beaten path, the tavern and dive motel could easily be confused for a raging house party on any clear evening.

“…But what’s confusing you,” Jagger forcibly interjects, “…is just the nature of my game!”

Just as I’m tossing back a quick rip of tequila, my pint lands and it’s back through the throngs of tipplers in haste. The cameras and cell phones outside are all trained on the golden orb in the distance that is now casting magnificent hues of orange and magenta across the sky.

It’s futile to attempt to record this event, because the only way to truly appreciate it is to be there in the flesh. The Montauket is a perfect representation of Montauk: A rugged place of unmitigated beauty that is so often overlooked simply because it doesn’t have the type of amenities many come to expect at beach resorts.

There’s nothing particularly special about the food or drink and it’s not located near any mainstream attraction. But the combination of the sunset it observes daily and the brand of people who make the pilgrimage to watch it make the Montauket a destination for any visitor.

It’s a place where you’re just as likely to be sharing a beer with a blue-collar fisherman as you would a surfing CEO. And if the conversation or scenery isn’t to your liking, there’s almost always a friendly mutt ambling around with a tennis ball, excitedly imploring anyone with a good arm to play fetch in the bay.

This is the true Montauk, not some $45 lobster roll prepared by a Michelin chef at a chic restaurant in the village; not the crowded beach resorts and nightclubs; not the crowds of pretentious irreverent Manhattanites vomited out from the Hamptons. Montauk — the End as it’s often called — is the balance between rugged natural beauty and our ability to reverently observe it up close.

Hiding in plain sight

With its rolling sand beaches and ample surf, Montauk was perhaps New York State’s best-kept secret for years — albeit one kept for years in plain sight. Simply put, there’s no quick or easy way to get to it from any point on the globe without spending an hour or more in transit.

The easiest access is via Route 27, a meandering two-lane highway that slams into the choking traffic of the Hamptons. The Long Island Railroad makes periodic visits to the village, but not in a manner that could ever be considered quick.

This once had a dampening effect on tourism during all but the peak times of the summer. And as a result, the village retained a very decidedly blue collar feel, save for a smattering of businesses that catered to summer tourism.

Montauk was a destination for a less-pretentious brand of travelers — folks who didn’t mind the oft-painstaking trip to the easternmost tip of New York State. And I fit perfectly among them.   

Montauk became my church — a holy place where I could commune with the ocean and recenter my life. Having spent my formative years on Long Island, I knew the End well and it seemed only natural to gravitate back to it in adulthood.

My future wife and I would make bi-annual pilgrimages during the bumper seasons — once in June and again in late September — as to avoid expense and crowds of the peak summer months. Oceanfront rooms in the village were relatively cheap and almost always available, giving us a front-row seat to the best show the Atlantic had to offer.

Our days there were relatively cyclical: Wake up, pack up a beach bag with some beers and a short board and then hike along the cliff-lined shore toward Ditch Plains, where the flat ocean floor offered rolling breaks ideal for surfing. Then with a cool buzz and the smart of a mild sunburn, we’d saunter into the village in search of live lobsters to ravenously devour.

By word of mouth, we discovered Duryea’s, a weathered seafood wholesaler and lobster deck on Fort Pond Bay, where we could load up on crustaceans to steam back at our room. We learned very early on that this was not only the cheapest way to eat, but also the best: No matter the restaurant, there was simply no trumping the sweet flesh of a locally harvested lobster drenched in melted butter.

Soon after, we discovered the Montauket, a short stroll up the hill from Duryea’s, where we’d toast the coming night before feasting our lobster haul. Satiated with fresh seafood, we’d amble down to the beach to have a campfire under the stars — something that was not only permissible, but an accepted part of the Montauk experience.

For years, Montauk and the surrounding area remained a bit of an anachronism. Outside of the Shagwong — an iconic dive bar and tavern on the main drag — most of the restaurants and businesses changed as quickly as the battered coastline; the surfside hotels and motels were generally dated in appearance and comfort, occasionally leaving one to wonder whether they had accidently slipped out of the 1970s through some freak wormhole.

But these are ancillary elements to the Montauk experience. Miles of pristine beach, rising bluffs, and maritime forest literally extend to the eastern terminus of New York State, making the End an unparalleled destination.

Escaped development

It’s often hard to fathom that a large portion of this land almost fell prey to development on numerous occasions over the past century and only escaped it by a blend of strong local advocacy and a small degree of luck.During the late 1920s, famed entrepreneur Carl G. Fischer launched an aggressive plan to transform the rolling hills of Montauk into an oceanside resort he billed as the Miami Beach of the north.

After buying up large swaths of the peninsula, he began constructing structures the likes of which the southern tip of Long Island had never seen: A seven-story office building towering over Fort Pond Bay in the heart of the village and the behemoth Tudor-style Montauk Manor — both of which continue to exist today. Miles of infrastructure was constructed and a stretch of dune that protected freshwater Lake Montauk was excavated to create a saltwater harbor to support a marina and yacht club.

But in a twist of fate, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 sent Fischer’s financing into a tailspin, ultimately torpedoing his ambitions in Montauk. The large tracts of land he had acquired remained vacant as development interest waned.

For decades after, commercial fishing was Montauk’s main claim to fame, and it remains one of the largest in the Northeast. Located by water on three sides and only a short distance from the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, a wide variety of marine life can be found in the waters off the point: striped bass, bluefish, bluefin tuna, fluke, mako shark and cod.

The U.S. military also took keen interest in Montauk, establishing the sprawling Camp Hero as a coastal defense station during World War II. Located a short distance away from the historic Montauk Point Lighthouse, the base once featured two batteries with 16-inch cannons capable of firing projectiles roughly 20 miles from the coast.

The military also constructed concrete coastal observation stations along the largely undeveloped land along the south shore to spot German U-boats that would periodically visit the coast of Long Island. Some of them remain today, overlooking the popular surfing beach of Ditch Plains in what is now called Shadmoor State Park.

After the war, the military maintained a presence at Camp Hero, using it as an early warning system during the Cold War. A massive radar system was erected at the base in 1958 and served as part of NORAD’s air defense network for nearly two decades until the advent of satellites made it obsolete.

The completion of the Long Island Expressway during the late 1960s brought renewed interest in Montauk. Coupled with the military divesting huge swaths of land it no longer needed, the area faced significant pressure from developers.

But the preservation-minded residents of the area — many of them having lived their lives among the bucolic hills of the peninsula — successfully help protect large tracts from falling prey to housing projects. Today, roughly two-thirds of Montauk’s land mass is protected from development.

The result is a sprawling network of public parks that extend from the state campground at Hither Hills to Camp Hero roughly seven miles away. Even as small business, motels and seasonal vacation homes around the village get eaten up by wealthy investment companies, the surrounding area remains forever wild.

The village itself, however, has rapidly gentrified, beginning in 2008 with the Surf Lodge, a one-time dive bar and motel on Fort Pond Bay that was transformed into an upscale boutique hotel and fine-dining restaurant. Another local icon — the kitschy 1950s-era East Deck Motel in Ditch Plains — was demolished to make way for a ritzy members-only club, though plans were eventually shelved in part due to public outcry.

Duryea’s, the place that once sold locally caught lobsters for less per pound than most wholesalers, was bought by an investment company and transformed into a pricy upscale restaurant. Chip Duryea, who operated the business with his family for more than a half-century, was pragmatic about the changes.

“Nothing remains the same forever,” he said with a shrug, during our last visit before the place changed hands. “I mean, I can remember a time when ranchers would herd their cattle right through the middle of the village.”

Keeps me coming back

The fact that so much of Montauk remains protected from development and open to the public is what truly differentiates it from its neighbors to the west. And it’s what keeps me coming back after all these years. 

“Going surfin’?” queries a middle-aged woman wandering through Ditch Plains with a cluster of fair-skinned tourons looking like they’ve only recently learned that Montauk has a beach. “Because those waves look awesome.”

She emphasizes “awesome” in a manner that suggests she doesn’t use the word often or at all. She also seemingly neglects to notice the uncapped bottle of black-strap rum in my hand, which is generally a tell-tale sign to avoid any sort of engagement in light conversation.

I blink and stare out at the exceedingly angry ocean, 10-foot whitecaps pummeling the mist-shrouded shore. Surfing today? Not bloody likely, I want to say.

But instead, I give her a wink, take a pull of rum, and grab my shortboard. And before rational thought can kick in, I’m plunging into the surf with reckless abandon.

Generally speaking, when nobody is surfing at Ditch Plains, it’s an absolutely fantastic idea to avoid the water altogether. Only my machismo has taken hold, and before I can get my bearings, so has the vice-like grip of a very fast rip current.

In moments, the gawking-now-somewhat-alarmed tourons become mere specks dotting the shore. As I drift further into the seemingly endless expanse of the Atlantic, I think that at least I’ll meet my demise fittingly at the End.

Then a sudden pulse of adrenaline kickstarts my survival instinct and I paddle furiously parallel to the beach, the swells tossing my board up and down like an insignificant piece of driftwood. Muscles burning, I finally reach the breakers just in time to get absolutely obliterated with a parting shot from the Atlantic.

With this last blow, I wash ashore — exhausted, dinged by a few rocks and with a nice rash from being furiously dragged along the sandy shore, but alive. Still tethered to my leg and caught in the waning surf, my board entreaties me to come back in for another go at drowning.

“Man, when we saw you go in, I said I hope that guy knows what he’s doing,” says another touron with passing incredulity. “Because if you didn’t, we sure as heck weren’t going in to get you.”

All I’m hearing is Mick Jagger’s voice again — “Tell me baby, what’s my name?” And my mind is watching those last glorious rays of the day slip behind the horizon of Fort Pond Bay.

Justin Mason is a former Gazette reporter who resides in Saratoga County with his family.

Categories: Life and Arts

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