Love Letter

The Joy of the Off-Season Hamptons

by Becca Bergman Bull
Photo by Becca Bergman Bull.

What's the easiest way to face down a destination you've long avoided? Go in the off-season. Becca Bergman Bull makes serendipitous peace with the Hamptons.

THE HAMPTONS – The night was a chilly one in mid-November, the place was The American Hotel in Sag Harbor, and the occasion was my husband's 30th birthday. Our big group lined a long table crowded with candles, martinis, oysters, Champagne, and terrine de canard. Outside, the temperature lingered in the low 40s and darkness had closed in around five o'clock. Inside the cozy restaurant, fireplaces blazed and candlelight and tipsy laughter suffused the air.

With its traditional menu (duck a l'orange, oysters Rockefeller), backgammon tables, heavy wood bar, and packs of Marlboro Reds for sale beneath a glass case up front, The American Hotel, built in 1846, epitomizes old-school Hamptons.

Glancing up to see 86-year-old writer James Salter eating dinner in a far corner magnified that feeling tenfold. (It could be mentioned that Christie Brinkley, who lives down the street, was there as well, but, though eternal in her own way, she doesn't fit into this particular retro tableau).

What was especially thrilling about the Salter sighting was that he was the reason we were there in the first place.

This was my first visit to the Hamptons. I had previously never sought it out as a destination. I was scared off by swirling visions of mega-mansions and traffic and Tory Burch stores and pretentious nightclubs — actually, pretentious everything. No thanks.

But then I read James Salter's Light Years and was captivated by his descriptions of Amagansett in the late 1950s and 60s ("wooden houses...pure, empty days. The sea is silver, rough as bark..."). I knew that today it wouldn't look or feel the same, with the tranquil empty spaces filled in and pushed out. But I wanted to see if any of the essence of what Salter described remained. As it turns out, at least on a windy weekend in November, it did.

The praises of visiting popular places in the off-season have been sung many times. But with these kinds of trips, the feeling of discovery — of being in on the secret — is so satisfying it somehow still feels like you're one of the first to figure it out.

So here it is again: a fresh endorsement of trekking to the Hamptons outside the summer months. Six-packs of Blue Point Toasted Lager in hand and scarves wrapped tight against the wind, we trekked across the Walking Dunes beneath brilliant autumn sunshine and hardly encountered another soul. Afterwards came finger-thawing hot Styrofoam bowls of chowder from the roadside Clam Bar. Around dusk, Channing Daughters Winery was buzzing but not crowded, the guys behind the bar finding plenty of time to tell the tale of every pour. As it turns out, the Due Uve paired well with the cool air of twilight. Come nightfall, we danced like maniacs around the near-empty floor at The Stephen Talkhouse, and in the morning sat down for brunch at Babette's in East Hampton without having to wait. Bright gold and crimson foliage was the weekend's backdrop; quiet, quiet, quiet was the soundtrack.

And that evening at the American Hotel, with the type of coincidence that's usually reserved for literature, the inspiration for the weekend collided with its creator — and everything swung full circle. 


Light Years, by James Salter (Amazon)
- Light Years excerpt


The American Hotel
49 Main Street
Sag Harbor, NY 11963

Clam Bar
2025 Montauk Hwy
Amagansett, NY 11930

Channing Daughters Winery
1927 Scuttlehole Road
Bridgehampton, NY 11932

The Stephen Talkhouse
161 Main Street
Amagansett, NY 11930

66 Newton Lane
East Hampton, NY 11937

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.