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Friday, May 24, 2024

Take a Weekend Jaunt to Long Island’s Suffolk County and the North Fork Wine Region

CRL travel writer Alexandra Baackes takes you on an island-hopping adventure…right here in the Empire State!

For years, I associated Long Island with a select few destinations known as playgrounds for the well-known and well-to-do: The Hamptons, Montauk, Fire Island. While I was fascinated by the idea of rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, I never did quite make the trip down south from the Capital Region.

Thankfully, it turned out that my first foray into Suffolk County—while crossing off another one of New York’s 62 counties, all of which I’ve resolved to travel to this year—was much more my (and hopefully, your!) speed. Enter: the North Fork.

Travelers driving (or Amtrak-ing it) down from Albany have several options when it comes to getting to the North Fork. It’s about 2.5 hours by car from Albany to Bridgeport or New London, CT, where you can hop on a ferry and literally sail there. Or, if you prefer to stick to land, you can simply drive through New York City, which takes about 3.5 hours and could increase from there depending on traffic.

Samples to sip from boho-chic Croteaux Vineyards. (Alexandra Baackes)

The area is well known for its wineries, and Suffolk County, as I learned while studying vineyard maps and ferry schedules in an attempt to plan my safe regional getaway, essentially makes up the entire eastern half of Long Island. The 30-mile peninsula runs roughly parallel to another one known, aptly, as the South Fork, where the previously mentioned Long Island hotspots are located. Clearly, I’d been looking in the wrong place the entire time.

Not that the North Fork is all that “hidden” of a gem; Greenport, its de facto headquarters, is a wildly popular tourist spot and charming base from which to explore. Loyalists call it the laid-back alternative to the flashier escapes to the south. Roads up and down the fork are dotted with farm stands and family-owned vineyards, and the tiny town that makes up the heart of it is lined with vintage shops, nautical fixings and tempting restaurants.
A seasonal spot, Greenport comes to life each year in the spring, gearing up for its busy and bustling summer months. Those who arrive early enough in the season not only beat the crowds, but also encounter friendlier locals who are eager to lend a helping hand with directions before being consumed by the true tourist season.

After careful consideration, I checked into The Menhaden, a modern and minimalist boutique hotel with an inviting roof deck, which was perfectly located, allowing me to ditch my car for the weekend and venture everywhere by foot.

A retro beachy vibe reigns at Greenport’s waterfront Silver Sands Motel. (Alexandra Baackes)

Setting off on a mission to orient myself down Front Street, I quickly clocked a few of my favorite new boutiques in town for window shopping: Tea and Tchotchkes, full of modern gifts, hip T-shirts and locally crafted greeting cards; Lido, a globally-inspired, bohemian shop; and The Times Vintage, a funky place to browse for blasts from the past.

As I mentioned above, you can’t talk about the North Fork without mentioning wine—after all, it’s one of New York State’s four primary wine regions. With 40 vineyards to choose from, the options can be a bit overwhelming. But each has its own flavor. Boho-chic Croteaux Vineyards features rosés, while Sparkling Pointe serves up (you guessed it) lots of bubbles. Lenz feels bougie and upscale, while Duck Walk is unpretentious and laid back. And Jason’s Vineyard? They have alpacas. Imagine that.

The North Fork is not all about wine, though. Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. serves up artisanal brews in a renovated 1860s firehouse next to the town’s historic jail. Spirits fans will be delighted by Greenport Distilling or Matchbook Distilling Company, where you can book a $100 MYO (make-your-own!) gin experience. When it’s over, you’ll walk out with your own full-size proprietary botanical blend.

On Shelter Island, Baackes rented a bike and rode around town.

And the area’s farms aren’t just growing grapes: For something different, head to Lavender by the Bay farm, known for its fields of the fragrant flower. While it officially opens for the season in the springtime, most travelers with a passion for purple tend to arrive there in the summer months to catch lavender’s peak blooming season. Shoot for June, but you might get lucky earlier—and you can always just swing by the farm to shop, regardless of how brightly hued the fields might be.

Besides wine-sipping and lavender-peeping, Suffolk County is also a wonderful place for enjoying the great outdoors—a travel trend from 2020 that has certainly carried over to this year. A favorite getaway-within-my-getaway was to grab one of The Menhaden’s complimentary beach cruisers and hop on the eight-minute South Ferry to Shelter Island. At $3 for a round-trip ticket, it was a great bargain and opened up a whole new world of adventures. The island, nestled between the North and South Forks, has a population of 2,500 that swells to 15,000 by summer and is known as the “Un-Hamptons.” I rented a bike and rode all the way to the Mashomack Preserve, passing quaint Victorian-style homes and brightly painted flower stands lined with honor jars. On arrival there, I ditched my wheels and wandered the well-marked trails of the scenic preserve.

At North Fork’s furthest point sits Orient Beach State Park, a pebbly beach that’s home to four lighthouses and endless views of glassy Gardiner’s Bay. While the stand-up paddleboard, kayak and canoe rentals don’t open until Memorial Day and the lifeguards don’t take their posts until June, the park is open from 8am-4pm daily, even in the depths of winter, and there are plenty of beautiful walking/biking trails and scenic beach picnics to enjoy as spring comes into its own. Plus, during the offseason, you won’t have to pay the $8-$10 vehicle fee.

Like much of New York, not every business in Greenport has reopened, and that has given me a reason to return someday soon. And I will. Whenever the North Fork Yoga Shala gets back to offering sweaty classes in its converted church studio, Leaves in a Bowl Tea House once again serves up its onsite tea meditations and Greenport Village Cinema flings open its doors to theater lovers again, I plan on being there.

While COVID has kept most of us from taking part in much international travel, exploring our own backyard has been a surprisingly satisfying substitute.

Alexandra Baackes
Alexandra Baackes
A native of Latham, Alexandra Baackes is a travel influencer and blogger, whose work can be found in Capital Region Living, Forbes and Men's Fitness, as well as on her travel blog, Alex In Wanderland.

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