SHELTER ISLAND SOJOURN
by Kimberly Robinson
Tucked between the North and South Forks of Long Island, Shelter Island is a remote sanctuary for endangered seabirds, rare plants, and world-weary humans. There is little here to compete with the island's natural beauty: just some discreet summer houses, a tiny commercial street, a few crafts studios, and the occasional honor-system farm stand. The island has neither the frantic social scene of the Hamptons nor the busy tourist trade of Greenport. That said, trendiness is beginning to creep in: the guest list at André Balazs's recently opened Sunset Beach Motel is laced with celebrities.
But there is still quiet to be had.
The best way to find it is to pedal. Rent a bike at Piccozzi's Bike Shop (Bridge Rd.; 516/749-0045) and head east out of town, down a long, thin spit of land toward Ram Island. The beach, blanketed in smooth, fist-size rocks, is home to a community of ospreys, whose large, messy twig nests sit on platforms. If you continue to the very end of Ram Island, you'll happen upon a piping plover nesting ground covered with sea grass, shells, and erosion fencing, which helps protect the sand dunes.
Bike back to the main part of Shelter Island, and refuel at the Chequit Inn's patio restaurant with an excellent bowl of clam chowder and a mozzarella-and-roasted-red-pepper sandwich (23 Grand Ave.; 516/749-0018; lunch for two $25). Spend an hour poking through Bliss' Department Store (186 N. Ferry Rd.; 516/749-0041), which will transport you back to the forties, when department stores carried everything: shower curtains, model rocket engines, penny candy, picnic tablecloths, and Keds for the whole family.
Plan on taking a whole day to see the Mashomack Preserve (79 S. Ferry Rd.; 516/749-1001), a 2,100-acre Nature Conservancy property that covers one third of the island. Hiking trails are available for all levels of stamina, the least strenuous of which is the 11/2-mile Red Trail loop. Step into the bird-watching pagoda, and you might spot mute swans or snowy egrets— or at least a South Ferry crossing. Intrepid hikers should take the 11-mile Blue Trail: on a clear day you can see Connecticut and Rhode Island; on a hazy one, both the North and South Forks. You'll be accompanied by a symphony of birdsong.
Back at the information center, the interactive-learning exhibition helps bird lovers identify breeds by their calls; there's also a display of gemlike eggshells. Nature Conservancy employees can be overheard saying things like "I work on my life list every vacation; I'm up to four hundred birds."
WHERE TO STAY
The best inns on Shelter Island are splendidly located, with the steep room rates to prove it. Bed-and-breakfasts can be reasonably priced, but the term is bandied about loosely here, and mornings might find you jockeying for position in the toaster line. Consider yourself warned.
Best Value House on Chase Creek 3 Locust Ave., Shelter Island Heights; 516/749-4379; doubles $75$125. Three small but immaculate guest rooms, done up with antiques and yellow-pine floors, with views of a sleepy creek across the street or the oak trees in the back yard. Breakfast is served in the glassed-in sunporch, tinted pink by the bright red leaves of the adjacent Japanese maple. The creekside hammock or the Adirondack chairs are perfect for an afternoon nap.
Ram's Head Inn Ram Island Dr., Ram Island; 516/749-0811; doubles $95 $150. The island classic. The 17 bedrooms on the top two floors of this large, shingled Colonial are decorated in wicker and white. Guests have access to an 800-foot strip of private beach, a tennis court, a two-person kayak, a Sunfish, and a paddleboat. The inn's restaurant has the best food on the island. Hope you like weddings, though; in summer, there's one at the inn almost every weekend.
Sunset Beach Motel 35 Shore Rd., Shelter Island; 516/749-2001; open mid-May through September; doubles $115$220.
WHERE TO EAT
Ram's Head Inn Ram Island Dr.; 516/749-0811; dinner for two $85. Dinner on the porch of the Ram's Head is the stuff of legend. Listen to the leaves rustle as you sit under a striped awning. Oenophiles will thrill over the extensive wine list, which devotes an entire page to Long Island vintages. The menu changes seasonally, but the daily seafood special— perhaps grilled mussels and calamari on a bed of arugula— is always the hot item. Old standbys like fillet of beef and herb-crusted chicken live up to their reputation thanks to the freshness of the local produce (you've never had green beans this good). Order the plate of homemade cookies if you dine early enough— they are great and sell out fast.
Sunset Beach Restaurant 35 Shore Rd.; 516/749-2001; lunch for two $45. It didn't take long for this restaurant, across the street from Crescent Beach, to establish itself as the happening weekend nightspot. A vibrant color scheme and loud Caribbean music lend a tropical feel; twentysomethings in jeans and wooden beads seem just as comfortable as the entertainment honcho barking into his cell phone. The kitchen turns out simple, perfectly executed dishes: herb-crusted salmon on a bed of Vidalia onions, char-grilled-chicken sandwiches, and mesclun salad lightly dressed in lemony vinaigrette. The staff is young, friendly, and hip, but you have to wonder if they weren't hot last summer in those Lycra pants.
Michael Anthony's Dering Harbor Inn 13 Winthrop Rd.; 516/749-3460; dinner for two $80. Walk through the massive carved-wood, Tiki-style door and you may think you stumbled into a Kojak episode. The interior is pure sixties: a rough-hewn rock fireplace is the centerpiece of the dining room, and a lumpy steel chandelier hangs ominously from the cathedral ceiling. Better to sit on the patio overlooking the boats moored in Dering Harbor, if the weather permits. The menu is ambitious and the presentation artistic, but the service can be extraordinarily slow. The appetizer of fried artichokes with a mint-and-lemon dipping sauce was delicious, light and greaseless. Steamed mussels and clams were served with a savory hot-pepper-and-tomato concassée. To amuse yourself while waiting for your entrée, picture a blade-wielding ninja leaping over the second-story rice-paper balcony. Keep cool, though: when the chicken roulade with porcini mushrooms finally arrives, it will taste as good as it looks.
A new ferry service from Manhattan to the North Fork offers a more pleasurable commute than a long drive or train ride. The passenger-only New York Fast Ferry departs once a day on Fridays and Saturdays from the 34th Street pier on the East River, arriving in Greenport three and a half hours later (800/693-6933 or 718/815-6942; $48 round-trip). To get to Shelter Island from Greenport, take the seven-minute ride on the North Ferry (516/749-0139).