On the train out of New York City, Mr Smith and I watch urban sprawl give way to rolling farmland as we head to the summer haven that is the Hamptons. Neither of us has been deeper into Long Island than the eastern reaches of Queens and we only vaguely know where we’re going, so we feel exceptionally adventurous.
At the end of the line, in the charming waterfront town of Greenport, we hop onto a ferry across the Long Island Sound that drops us on Shelter Island’s northern shore. A limited taxi service is available on the island, but, fortuitously, a friend has offered to pick us up when we pull into port.
A cinematic scene of twinkly string lights and French music wafting through the twilight marks our arrival at the Sunset Beach hotel – hotelier André Balazs knows how to set the mood. We’re led past the outdoor ping-pong tables and a pétanque court at this converted roadside motel to where a brisk young German woman quickly checks us in.
Up a stairwell, heavy with humidity, we step into the welcome air-conditioning of our spacious room. The beachy decor is simple and tasteful – white couch, sisal rug, orange cabinets, butterfly chair – and Mr Smith can’t get enough of the walk-in shower’s geometric red-and-white tiling, which he hopes is a hold-over from its 1980s motel days. I’m most excited about our huge deck – as, I discover, are our neighbors, on the other side of the fabric screens.
Famished, we leave further room exploration for after dinner in favor of the hotel’s French-inspired bistro. The hostess seats us on the top open-air deck, on the edge overlooking the water. I’m too pleased with our perch to mind that the verging-on-clubby music is coming from a speaker directly above Mr Smith’s head, which he turns away, to the amused approval of the French group next to us.
Eyes widening, Mr Smith glances at the limited beer list (the man loves his craft brews) and the menu’s prices – but I remind him that it’s his birthday and redirect his attention to more important things, like the nighttime view over the water and his charming dining companion. When his rotisserie chicken arrives, and he tries both my moules marinières and the superb albariño, he is restored to his normal, contented self. After polishing off the bottle of Spanish white, he suggests a nightcap at the bar, before learning that, at 11, it has just closed.
Not to worry – there are other late-night amusements. A game of pétanque fuelled by beers from the minibar awaits. Sure, it may be his birthday, but I beat him handily before we retire for the evening to our exceptional (in both size and comfort) bed.
Throwing open the curtains the next morning, I find – not to sound too much like a romance novel – that the striking blue colour of the water really is worthy of a dramatic gasp. We beeline for the beach (almost) front café and nab a window table for some mini croissants and yoghurt before Mr Smith has the beach concierge (well, that’s what I’m calling him, anyway – sounds more glamorous than ‘attendant’) set up an umbrella and loungers for us.
I’ll be straight: we are not normally beach vacation people. I burn easily, my British beau just can’t handle hot temperatures and we both tend to get bored just sitting around for ages… But Sunset Beach made proselytes of us in no time: hours passed happily as we sat reading under one of their signature bright orange umbrellas.
Afternoon arrives and the beach starts flaunting quite a cast of characters – Mr fits in better than I do, as I seem to be the only American there. Taking a break from the sun, our friend – the one with the wheels – drives us into town to stock up on beach-picnic provisions at the French-run Reddings Market. I proceed to fall in love with the vintage Americana shops and ornate Victorian homes of Shelter Island Heights.
Exhausted from those rays, we wrap up our afternoon with a nap – the more time spent in that divine bed, the better. When we stir, it’s time to don our best Euro-beach-chic, hit the airy waterfront bar for cocktails and time it right for a magnificent sunset over the Long Island Sound. A parade of fresh seafood – crispy calamari salad, tuna tartare and crab cakes – makes for a fine dinner.
Moonlit walks along the water are mandatory in these parts, as is a little ping-pong – if Mr Smith let me play until I beat him, we would have been there all night, but, instead, he suggests we fraternize with some tequila-loving locals who are enlivening the bar. Happily, just steps from our room, we raid the minibar for a midnight snack and crawl back into our decadent bed.
Beach time has been a treat, and there’s no denying we’ve enjoyed our spell on Shelter Island’s sands. But there’s no mad last-minute sun-basking for us. Instead, we enjoy a leisurely 30-minute stroll back to the ferry. As Mr Smith’s final birthday wish, today’s whiling-away will be done over a beer-tasting at the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, an acclaimed local outpost whose tasting room is next to the town’s historic jail. We sample the daily selection of six of their beers – I unexpectedly love the chocolatey Black Duck Porter, but Mr Smith, not surprisingly, can’t get enough of the Other Side IPA.
Settled on the Jitney back to the city, I realise I’m a little shocked we’ve never come out here before. So easy to get here – and how easy it would be to come back. As the bus attendant brings snacks around, I miss the friendly beach concierge even more…