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Driving Through the Hamptons

You can tell a lot about a person by the car she drives. I drive an 11-year-old Volvo sedan with no radio, a cracked windshield, and a heat shield that rattles like a diamondback when I go over 30 miles an hour. Cars, in my book, are a means to an end. They get you where you are going. Period. They're not a fashion accessory, they're not art, they're not fantasy. At least, that's what I used to think. Until the Ferrari 360 Modena.

It began innocently enough. An editor called with an idea--would I like to drive the newest Ferrari around the Hamptons for a weekend?It sounded like one of those trips from Wheel of Fortune. Week in Bermuda! Ferrari in the Hamptons! Except that I swore off the crowds and the prices of the Hamptons years ago, and I don't give a damn about cars. Still, I couldn't quite say no. I shopped the idea around to friends, looking for a companion. My friend David was so disgusted he threatened to put DON'T BLAME ME, I VOTED FOR MCGOVERN stickers on the bumper. My car-nut boyfriend also refused to participate, calling me a poseur for even considering it. Finally I mentioned it to my sister, a cognitive scientist with a Ph.D. and an appetite for the good life that has lain fallow during her postdoctoral studies in Madison, Wisconsin. She thought the trip sounded swell.

I arranged to pick up the car on a rainy morning that filled me with a sense of foreboding, as if I could hear the sound of drumming in the distance. The Ferrari dealership for the New York City area is just across the George Washington Bridge, in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. When I arrived I was met by Carlo Fiorani, public-relations manager for North America. He gave me some details about the 360 Modena, most of which consisted of words like torque and gearbox that flew over my head. The only facts that stuck: the average Ferrari owner is male, between 35 and 45, usually a CEO, and, oh, yeah, Michael Jordan owns a fleet of the cars.

Fiorani, who happens to be a former professional driver, admitted that Ferraris haven't always been easy to drive--they're based on Formula One race cars. But this one, he assured me, was different. The drums began to fade, until he asked me to sign an agreement stating that I'd be responsible for the $148,000 car while it was in my possession. As he led me downstairs to the spotless, cavernous warehouse where the Ferraris are kept, the drumming crescendoed at the sight of the car. It was red. Of course. And wide and low-slung, with huge tires and a mysteriously complicated engine you could see through a pane of heat-tempered glass. It looked, in short, like what it was--a race car.

We folded our bodies into the butter-colored leather seats stamped with the trademark Ferrari stallion and went for a test-drive. I took notes while Fiorani explained the complicated steps for starting the Ferrari. I'd been nervous about changing gears, but that turned out to be easy: all you do is click the two paddles behind the steering wheel. The clutch is controlled by a computer that makes the car idiot-proof; even if you wanted to do something suicidal, like drop from sixth gear to first, the car wouldn't let you. And if you get tired of changing gears, you can press a button to switch the car to automatic, a nice James Bond‚like touch. After 10 minutes, we changed seats and I drove cautiously under Fiorani's watchful eye. After half an hour he pronounced me ready to go.

As I left the parking lot, the car, which hovers only a few inches off the ground to take advantage of the laws of aerodynamics, made a sickening scraping sound against the pavement. I checked the rearview mirror to see if any Italians were chasing me. The coast clear, I roared off. The bridge tollbooth attendant must have noticed the panicked expression on my face: after complimenting the car, he asked if I could handle it. "I don't know," I answered truthfully.

I had scheduled a meeting for early that afternoon at a Marriott hotel in Long Island's Nassau County, halfway to the Hamptons, so the plan was to pick up my sister afterward at a nearby train station. Fiorani had advised me to park only in fully insured garages, though this could be difficult, since many garages won't accept liability for theft or damage of a $150,000 car. With no garages around, I found a spot in the hotel parking lot far from any other cars, which, of course, only made the Ferrari more conspicuous. My meeting over, I got in the car, put the key in the ignition, and . . . nothing. Not even a sputter. Sweat trickled down my back. Had I left the lights on?Was the battery dead?How should I know?I cursed the car, the assignment, the Hamptons, and Enzo Ferrari for inventing the damn thing. Finally, I gave up and hopped into a ratty old taxi. "The train station," I said, "and fast." When we pulled up, my sister glanced at the sagging Buick and went right back to her book. I leaned out the window and called her name. She looked up, saw the expression on my face, closed her book, and said, "You crashed the car." I burst into tears.

Back at the parking lot, my sister scanned my notes. "What does this mean here?" she read out loud, " 'Foot must be on the brake'?" Oh. When I turned the key, the engine roared. "I guess you need a Ph.D. to get the thing started," I joked lamely, relief hormones flooding my system.

With the engine humming, we pushed off onto the Long Island Expressway, the road that takes Manhattan to the Hamptons. Whether you drive a Jaguar or a Cougar, a Bimmer or a beater, you aren't likely to get to the Hamptons without traversing the great equalizer of the L.I.E. But even in that crowd the Ferrari stood out like a fur coat on a July afternoon. We hadn't gone five miles before my sister had tabulated a dozen nods, grimaces, thumbs-ups, smiles, and stares. All from men. A scientist, she broke the looks down into two basic categories: first was the mournful raised eyebrow from middle-aged men who took the shiny luxe of the car personally, as if it were a comment on their lives; the other was the moist-eyed delight of young men who believed that if they worked hard and saved, maybe one day they, too, could afford such a car. Both looks broke my heart. I was relieved when we cut off the L.I.E. for Route 27, the main artery into the Hamptons, where the sight of the new Ferrari might raise a well-plucked eyebrow but wouldn't stop traffic or break hearts.

When I was a teenager, the Hamptons were the home of a few famous writers, a handful of self-destructive artists, and a lot of sozzled WASP's in Lilly Pulitzer trousers. There's still plenty of all that going on, but in recent years, Hollywood types have moved in, boosting the price of real estate into the stratosphere. These days, $30,000 will rent you a modest cottage for the summer, which seems outrageous until you try to find a hotel in the Hamptons. The best you can hope for is an overpriced old inn in town. But we wanted to stay on the water, so we pushed farther east toward raffish Montauk.

Gurney's Inn, where we spent our first night, occupies a magnificent spot on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic. We gawked at the wagon-wheel chandeliers, the mirrored disco ball, and the full-size replica of Botticelli's Venus on the half shell. But our room, at $380 a night, was tiny and overlooked the parking lot. I tried to explain to my sister that overpaying was part of the Hamptons experience, but she hadn't flown all the way from Wisconsin to stay in a room that would go for $40 on I-43. Sure enough, we found a charming room for $100 a night at the Driftwood, a cheery beachfront motel built in the 1950's that made me think of soldiers on shore leave with their sweethearts. What can I say?Each room comes with a hibachi grill. I loved the place.

Lodging secured, we turned our attention to our stomachs. If you're looking for a good meal in America, you would do well to heed Deep Throat's advice: Follow the money. The new monied Hamptonians take their creature comforts seriously, and the past decade has seen a restaurant boom, ranging from the Maidstone Arms (traditional decoration but daring food) to Nick & Toni's (a terminally hip dining room). Unfortunately, Ferraris and fine dining don't really go together. The thought of getting behind the wheel of that car with even one glass of wine in my system was terrifying. If it costs $800 to replace a single side mirror, imagine how much one whiskey dent would set you back. I grumpily nursed a glass of Pellegrino as my sister sampled wine after wine.

Going to bed sober does have its advantages. While my sister slept in, I got up early to go for coffee and a paper. When I reached the highway, I noticed something strange: it was empty! The blacktop beckoned. Here, finally, was my chance to see what all the fuss was about. The 360 Modena is capable of going from 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds. I did it in 7.5. Once I was at 60, it wasn't such a leap to go to 70, 80, 90. I let out a redneck holler (I am from the South--roots will tell). I finally understood the car. Fact is, at 40 miles an hour, the Ferrari feels awkward and balky, like a racehorse hooked up to a parade float; it's only when you hit 100 mph that you begin to understand the allure of having a 400-horsepower engine at your fingertips. I had just been initiated into the fraternity of fast cars, and I would never be the same again. Monday morning, when I exchanged the Ferrari for my grotty old Volvo, I couldn't help feeling that a little magic had gone out of my life. But at least I didn't scrape the curb on the way out.

Rebecca Johnson is a contributing editor for Vogue.

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