It’s a quiet Friday morning in late March. The sky is clear, the sun is shining and the air is cool and crisp, with just a hint of early spring in the breeze – one of those days that makes you feel good to be alive.

The neat hedgerows and mature trees lining Atlantic Avenue, in the tiny hamlet of Amagansett, surround grand but pretty homes with gambrel roofs, shingled walls, white-painted shutters and clipped lawns.

At the end of the street is a classic beach hut, closed up tighter than a lobster trap, and four salt-encrusted surfboards standing guard at the entrance. The small parking area is empty, covered by windblown sand, with a narrow path leading over a sand dune.

And there, in all its glory, is the vast panorama of the Atlantic Ocean, its white-tipped waves roaring and crashing onto an entirely deserted beach, dotted with a handful of imposing mansions and stretching to the horizon.

I’m in the heart of The Hamptons, one of the most expensive and exclusive tracts of real estate on the planet, and life is looking very good indeed.

An iconic playground for the rich and famous during summer, The Hamptons actually offers an exceptional coastal lifestyle throughout the year – assuming you have the money (and lots of it) to buy into it.

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for high-flying hedge fund executives, cashed-up corporate titans, global oligarchs and Hollywood celebrities, this glorious stretch of Long Island coastline – less than 100 miles from New York City – is a place like no other.

“There’s really nowhere for wealthy people in New York who have children to go away on the weekend,” says leading Corcoran realtor Susan Breitenbach, a long-time resident of The Hamptons and one of the nation’s top brokers with sales of more than $3 billion.

“They’re not flying to Nantucket and getting fogged in. They’re not going to the Jersey Shore. The Hamptons is so accessible. They can get everything out here that they can in the city – good caterers, yoga teachers, child care – and enjoy this wonderful coastal lifestyle in a great family community.”

Tim Davis, a lifelong Long Island and Hamptons resident and fellow Corcoran power broker with sales of $3.5 billion, agrees. “This is a lifestyle destination,” he says. “It’s safe, clean, naturally beautiful and there’s something for everybody here. “There are so many different communities, all within easy driving distance of each other, and there’s a real diversity of people, amenities and attractions,” he adds.

“This is a lifestyle destination. It’s safe, clean, naturally beautiful and there’s something for everybody here.” – Tim Davis Hamptons Power Broker

While maps of The Hamptons list more than 20 distinct towns and villages, from Westhampton and Quogue in the west to Montauk in the east, there are eight that shine brighter than others, all linked by the busy – and in summer gridlocked – Montauk Highway.

The largest of the eight key communities, and closest to New York City, is Southampton, with its bustling and historic town center and immense oceanfront estates to the south along Meadow Lane and Gin Lane.

A few minutes’ drive to the east is Water Mill, a blink-and-you-miss-it village with high-end homes extending south to Flying Point, overlooking the beautiful Mecox Bay and ocean.

Neighboring Bridgehampton has a more rural look and feel with exclusive homes north and south of the highway, many with stables and set on sprawling lots that were once open farmlands and potato fields.

Sagaponack is reportedly the most expensive zip code in the nation, with even larger estates and mansions, like industrialist Ira Rennert’s $100 million-plus palatial Italianate compound on Daniels Lane.

North of Sagaponack is Sag Harbor, a compact but charming former whaling town – mentioned in Moby Dick – with historic homes clustered around the curved Main Street, lined with antique stores and boutiques. Take in a performance at the iconic Bay Street Theater and dinner at The American Hotel, a Hamptons social institution.

In the heart of The Hamptons lies East Hampton, a bucolic residential enclave with a pond, swans and stone church straight out of an English period novel. Main Street is lined with upscale designer stores, where cashmere and linen seem to be the standard dress code.

More oceanfront estates along Lily Pond Lane and Further Lane, separated by Hook Pond and the elite Maidstone Club, regularly sell for record prices. Leading Compass broker Ed Petrie recently sold a trio of Lily Pond Lane properties, belonging to a prominent hedge funder, for $110 million.

Farther to the east, Amagansett has the most “old Hamptons” feel. It’s the one community that appears to have changed the least with the influx of serious money in the past few decades.

“I call it the Tribeca of The Hamptons,” says Breitenbach. “It’s not as built up as the rest and is a bit tucked away. There’s a farmers’ market there and it has more of a country feel to it.”

Montauk is the most easterly community, located on the farthest reaches of Long Island’s South Fork and almost separated from the rest of The Hamptons (see “A Fork in the Road” next pages). Its dunes and oceanfront attract a younger surfing-and-party set  during the summer season.Summer is naturally the peak of The Hamptons’ vacation and social scene – kicking off with Fourth of July celebrations and running through Labor Day. There’s a whirl of glamorous society and sporting events, from beach parties to polo, and house rentals can fetch from $30,000 a week up to half a million dollars.

“Rentals are definitely increasing; it’s going to be another busy summer,” says Krae van Sickle, a leading broker with Saunders Associates.

“Our rental season is very much tied up with the financial markets,” adds Davis. “If the financial people are making money, they’re happy to spend more on a rental, and that affects our buying season too.”

After three record years from 2013 to 2015, real estate sales in The Hamptons also show no sign of contracting. “It’s going to be very hard to compete with 2015 because it was such an incredible year,” says Breitenbach. “But prices for premier properties in good locations, especially oceanfront, just keep going up.

“I’ve sold a home for $2.1 million, then for $4 million. The owners knocked it down, built again and sold it for $12 million. And it just sold again for $29 million. That’s over the course of many years, but even in the past five years, the prices have gone crazy,” she adds.

“Waterfront really garners the highest premium across the board, there’s no doubt about that,” says Michael Cantwell, chief marketing officer of Water Mill-based Bespoke Real Estate, which launched in 2014.

 “We’re dealing with very special properties on unique parcels of land and waterfront. Homes this rarified in The Hamptons are comparatively less affected by the ups and downs of the financial markets than your average properties,” he adds.

 One of Bespoke’s trophy homes currently on the market is the magnificent Villa Maria on Halsey Lane, Water Mill, which is listed for $72 million. Cantwell says the firm’s average sales are in the mid to high $20 million region.

Despite its enormous wealth, exclusive homes and celebrity status, The Hamptons is a surprisingly welcoming, inclusive and unpretentious destination. There’s a relaxed country-meets-coast vibe; the various beaches are open to the public (albeit with parking permits) as are many social, culinary, arts and sporting events.

Another surprise is the region’s diverse residential architecture, with an eye-catching patchwork of traditional shingle, gambrel and gabled homes set alongside striking and cutting-edge contemporary residences.

“Modernism is making a huge comeback in The Hamptons,” says Chris Coy, a principal of leading modern architecture firm Barnes Coy, based in Bridgehampton and New York City.

“A modern home can lend itself beautifully to an ocean setting,” he adds. “We use lots of warm materials – teak, cedar siding, stone and stucco – and lots of glass to capture the ocean panoramas.

“People want to have an intimate experience with the view, especially after they’ve paid $25 million for a property. They want to embrace that ocean view; they want it to come inside and be part of their lives.”

The juxtaposition of classic and contemporary homes in The Hamptons might appear jarring to some, but it actually makes for an interesting, unique, even quirky architectural tour of the region.

One of the most fun things to do is drive around the wealthiest neighborhoods – especially out of season when there are no leaves on the trees and hedgerows – and enjoy a jaw-dropping glimpse of luxury coastal living at its finest.

The seasonal rhythm of The Hamptons is also changing. Once largely a summer playground, with many vacation homes shuttered for the rest of the year, it’s now encouraging increasing numbers of homeowners to relocate family and work from New York City and stay for weekends and longer periods throughout the year.

This ongoing “sea change” is creating year-round activities – beachcombing in the spring, apple picking in the fall, sledding in the winter, to name a few – and adding a new layer of community to the year-round local population.

It’s not all happy Hamptons, however. Some communities are concerned about the rapid growth and changes brought about by the “new money” and are fervently protective of zoning restrictions. Route 27’s traffic chaos in summer is also a persistent annoyance.

Regardless, The Hamptons remains a solid real estate investment. “It’s definitely a safe haven, with inherent natural beauty, great recreational amenities, geographic limitations and lots of zoning restrictions that keep it from getting over-developed,” says van Sickle. “It’s also surrounded by water and close to New York City, and these are durable market attributes,” he adds.Breitenbach agrees. “It’s very hard to lose money on real estate here,” she says.

And if you can’t afford to buy in, just head down Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett and claim your own beachfront slice of The Hamptons, if only for an hour or two.

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See 12 of the best things to do in The Hamptons here

gurney resort montauk

MONTAUK | A Fork in the Road

It’s Friday evening at Scarpetta Beach, the stylish restaurant at Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa, and the joint is jumping. Cocktails are crossing the bar faster than a sailfish in the ocean and diners are ordering dishes  heaped with seafood and pasta.

A fire pit is roaring on the adjoining deck, warming other guests who are braving the late-March chill. The night sky is clear, with an almost full moon casting shadows across the wide beach and dunes below.

The air is thick with the aroma of sea salt, and all around is the intoxicating roar of the Atlantic Ocean as wave after wave rolls continuously onto the beach.

Welcome to Montauk, the most easterly coastal community in The Hamptons, and arguably the most special. Perched on the farthest reaches of Long Island’s South Fork, Montauk enjoys a more remote and secluded lifestyle than its upscale neighbors.

While the town itself is nothing to write home about – a low-key fishing village, almost at the end of Montauk Highway, with a smattering of shops and restaurants – the coastline is sensational.

Cocooned by Hither Hills Preserve on one side and Montauk Point State Park and its iconic lighthouse on the other, Montauk offers calm bay waters to the north and wild oceanfront to its south.

Take the fork in the road on Old Montauk Highway and you’ll be rewarded with classic seaside vacation resorts, vast hilltop mansions and tiny beach shacks, all vying for their own private haven in The Hamptons.

Ours, happily, is Gurney’s Montauk – a breezy oceanfront retreat and Hamptons institution for 90 years that is undergoing a multi-year and multimillion dollar renovation by its owners and real estate moguls George Filopoulos and Lloyd Goldman.

Their goal is to transform the only year-round resort in Montauk into a stylish and contemporary vacation retreat and a lively social center of The Hamptons for a new generation of guests.

The first two phases of the renovation have delivered 38 refurbished oceanfront guest rooms, a revamp of the Beach Club, a redesign of the resort’s ocean-fed seawater swimming pool, updated common spaces and five new dining and social venues, including Scarpetta Beach.

This summer’s rollout includes an additional 42 ocean-view renovated rooms and the start of a major head-to-toe overhaul of the spa, slated for completion in 2017.

The prime accommodations are the 38 ocean-side guest rooms in Forward Watch, tiered in four levels that cascade like a waterfall down to a 1,000-foot  private sand beach.

Designed by Michael Kramer, of New York City’s Michael Thomas and Co., the new-look rooms are a blend of Hamptons sophistication and beachside comfort with a calm, neutral color palette.

Reclaimed cedar siding, oak and driftwoods play central roles in ceilings, floors and wall accents, along with modern interpretations of vintage furnishings. Custom dip-dyed ombré drapery complements the ocean, while the compact but efficient bathrooms have crisp white tiles with black fixtures.

The public areas have a relaxed beach vibe: more chic and upscale in Scarpetta Beach, more casual in the adjacent bistro (serving breakfast and lunch) and retro lobby bar offering coffee, snacks, pastries, and ice cream.

Various outdoor decks create plenty of room for alfresco dining, relaxing and enjoying the panoramic ocean views. Gurney’s is also partnering with a collection of fashion brands for a series of “pop-up” outlets on weekends throughout the summer.

As part of the major restoration, the resort has a new executive team led by General Manager Michael Nenner, who joins from Four Seasons with more than 15 years of luxury resort experience across America. “We want this to be the Post Ranch Inn of the East Coast,” he says.

Montauk itself is changing, attracting a younger and very social beach crowd during the summer season, and Gurney’s is riding the wave. It’s not quite there yet, but it will be soon.

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Image Credits: Photo by Paul Domzal/