The Great Escape

Apologies for my absence. We’ve been busy escaping. Everyone said you don’t want to be in New York all summer, it’ll drive you crazy, so we took them at their word and made plans to be in London in late June, then someplace different every weekend in July. Maine followed by Montauk followed by western Quebec.

We drove to Prouts Neck in Maine to visit our Wimbledon based American neighbours D and M, who vacation there every summer. “That’s one ugly drive,” M said. (By which I think she meant long as opposed to visually ugly) “Why would you do that when you could fly there in an hour.” We did it because we wanted to see the countryside, and because, really, when you think about it, an hour’s plane ride always turns into a five hour journey by the time you account for the taxi to the airport, the hour getting through security, the hour or more for the inevitable delays, the long queue for the rental car at the other end. What’s an extra hour when you can spend it cruising along through upstate New York under a cerulean sky, stopping en-route to enjoy one of the two egg and sausage, road-trip McMuffins you allow yourself every year?

Prouts Neck was even more beautiful than we’d anticipated after fifteen years of picturing our neighbours staying there. Stretching out into Saco Bay, with Portland to the North, Cape Elizabeth to the East and the Old Orchard Beaches to the West, it’s a little slice of New England paradise. A long, deep stretch of beach watched over by a white slatted wood beach club, weather beaten steps descending to the sand. New England style beach houses nestling in the sand and long grasses of the gentle slopes behind the beach, or sitting high amidst the rosa rugosa on the cliffs to the West of it. Miles of cliff walks during which you can breathe in the mist thrown up by the waves crashing onto the rocks below, while never being too far from the slip-of-foot-on-loose-pebble that could send you sliding down onto those same rocks.

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M, D and L1 ahead of me on the cliff walk. See those tree roots ready to trip you up?

It’s a community – and I mean community, since successive generations of connected families have been vacationing there for decades and everyone seems to know everyone – that feels largely untouched by time. It could be nineteen fifty-three or nineteen eighty three, or indeed, twenty eighteen. There’s no wifi unless you want to make your way to the Blackburn Point Hotel and use theirs. People ride bikes everywhere – not slick racing bikes with the bottom bruising seats, but the kind with baskets on the front, and not sporting helmets and lycra, but wearing sundresses and sun hats, or tennis whites, and with rackets strapped to their backs. There’s a weekly, Sunday evening picnic on the rocks just beneath D’s father’s house (the extended family have a cluster of houses that they all share) to which the regular guests all contribute food and partake in the barbequeing and clearing up while the sun sets spectacularly behind them.

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Prouts Neck sunset after picnic on the rocks

After the picnic a large contingent always head off to what’s called Sing, held in the hall of the sailing club.

 

We’re no singers, but D wanted us to drop by and see what Sing was all about. What it turned out to be was a massive sing-along led by an enthusiastic song master, the white haired and the middle aged and the teen aged and the toddlers all holding song sheets and intoning about never trusting a sailor an inch above the knee. They were all having a whale of a time in what could only be described as a thoroughly joyous and unaffected atmosphere.

“This is the very best of America,” L1 whispered to me as we watched from the doorway.  Another woman, a local who’d introduced herself to us, shaking both our hands with a warmth rarely seen in New York or London, leaned in and said, “It is the best. But it’s also pretty weird. You gotta admit.”

Now, our host, D, is an action man. He can’t really sit still for more than a minute or two at a stretch, and his idea of a perfect day is sport followed by more sport followed by more sport. So the Sunday picnic and Sing represented the culmination of an activity packed weekend. M had warned me before our arrival:

“D has completely overscheduled the weekend. L1 will not have a moment’s peace. But don’t worry, you’ll be safe with me, do-nothing-M.”

Don’t believe it for a second. There’s nothing do-nothing about M. She and D escorted us on a bike ride and a cliff walk the Friday afternoon we arrived before hosting a lobster dinner for twelve that evening. Then she was up with the birds, cycling off to the beach club to pick up coffees and returning to do yoga stretches on the deck before whipping up a delicious corn chowder for lunch, while the boys spent a few hours on the golf course. We had all of about an hour’s down time before we set off for a ferry ride to Great Diamond Island, where we dined on clam chowder and a myriad of delicious fish dishes before returning for a late evening browse through the lively streets of Portland. There was talk of an early boat ride and a fishing expedition on Sunday morning, but the weather failed to cooperate, so we rose a little later and walked the length of the beach (at a clip, I might add, because M doesn’t like to dawdle), stopped to chat with the various friends and family who emerged from their houses when they spotted us, then rode our bikes to the kayak club and kayaked across the sound towards lunch at a favourite oyster bar. L1 and I took the easy option of the double kayak while M powered ahead on her own and the mighty D paddle boarded his way across in the manner of a Viking leading a fleet of longships towards a raid.

“You’re just lucky we weren’t with D’s sister,” M said as we pulled the kayaks up onto the shore. “She’d have had you kayaking all the way up the Nonesuch River and back before you’d be allowed any lunch.”

I think this all qualified as a quite a slack itinerary for D and M. They couldn’t know that L1 and I regularly spend vast amounts of time sitting down, reading. Which we did the following weekend in Montauk. We rocked up to Gurney’s Inn Montauk (I know. It’s a terrible name, isn’t it?) at about noon on Friday after a three hour drive the length of Long Island, during which we passed through all the Hamptons – Westhampton, Southampton, Hampton Bays, Bridgehampton, East Hampton – to get to the eastern tip of the island. We promptly established ourselves on a couple of sun loungers on the beach, ordered two margaritas and opened our books. Every now and again we would spot a para glider overhead, or some kite surfers out at sea, and we would say, that’s probably D. He must have paddle boarded down from Maine to squeeze in a bit more action.

The remainder of the Montauk weekend was much the same. Lying down reading followed by sitting up reading followed by lunch followed by a short stroll along the beach followed by more sitting down reading. The occasional short drive to take in the surrounding topography. No kite surfing. No para gliding. No kayaking. No death-defying cliff walks. Not that we hadn’t enjoyed the cliff walks and kayaking the weekend before, because we had. Immensely. But life is all about contrasts, right?

Montauk, as most of you will know, is the home of The Affair, that addictive Showtime series about Noah and Alison and the affair between them that upends their lives as well as the lives of everyone around them. We did a fair amount of location spotting as we drove around, managing to identify the house where Helen’s rich parents lived, the motel where Alison holed up when it all went wrong, and of course the Lobster Roll, where it all began. The Lobster Roll is insanely popular. L1 and I had seen the cars jammed into its car park and along the adjacent roadside, so we thought we’d be clever and get there early for lunch on Sunday. We rolled up at eleven forty-five to find that we weren’t the only ones to have had that bright idea. The car park was thick with four by fours jostling for the right to claim the next available space, and there was a throng of people waiting for tables. But, being a party of two, we didn’t have to wait that long, and what wait we did have was well worth it. The lobster roll, advertised as the best in the country, certainly was.

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The Lobster Roll – where, apparently, you might spot Alec Baldwin or Diane Keaton

 

The landscape around Montauk is very Cornish, but with softer sand and better weather, and Montauk itself is a bit like Padstow, but on a bigger scale. Surf shops, pizza parlours and fish and chip restaurants, modest hotels and beach shacks overlooking the beach and more modest ones overlooking the car parks.

It’s a different vibe altogether from that of East Hampton, ten miles away, which is more like Rodeo Drive or Bond Street. It’s full of chichi people and chichi shops – the ice cream parlour is tucked between Jimmy Choo, purveyor of the thousand dollar shoe, and Orlebar Brown, home of the five hundred dollar swimming trunk, just to give you an idea. There were also far too many silver foxes looking pleased with themselves in vintage soft top SL Mercedes 500s, which L1 declared to be a sad cliché. We preferred the more authentic, chilled out vibe of Montauk. And on the whole, it would be fair to say that if we had to choose between Prouts Neck and the Hamptons, (which we don’t) we would opt for the former. There’s something very uplifting about being surrounded by people who all wave and say hello, and kids cycling along dirt roads with tennis rackets slung across their backs. (Our only experience of cyclists in the Hamptons was of the ones who shouted ON YOUR LEFT! ON YOUR LEFT! before speeding past and disappearing in a flash of steel and lycra. But I’m sure there are other kinds there too.)

That’s not to dismiss the Hamptons, or our hotel and its beach, which were dreamy. Our room was beyond dreamy. For some inexplicable reason, we were upgraded to a suite that afforded us simultaneous views of the ocean and the TV, which suited L1 down to the ground when it came to sneaking peeks at the British Open.

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Genius room design: the British Open AND the ocean in view

And it was on the West side of the hotel complex, far removed and facing away from the beach bar. This turned out to be a real boon when hundreds of twenty somethings flooded in on Saturday afternoon and turned the place into an Ibiza beach club – all impossibly toned, tanned bodies lounging on beach sofas or dancing to unidentifiable, thumping tunes while waving champagne glasses in the air.

 

Which brings me to telling you about a rather worrying incident which took place in the hotel restaurant on Friday evening. There we were, happily chatting away and minding our own business, when two glasses of champagne were delivered to our table.

“We didn’t order those,” L1 said, gesturing to our still-half-full bottle of cabernet.

“They’re a gift from the next table,” the waiter said.

We glanced over to see a man and two women, all in their mid to late twenties. The three of them waved, then one of the women – no, let’s face it, she was a girl – came over.

“This is so kind of you,” L1 said. “But what’s it for?”

“We just thought you guys looked so cute,” she said. “So enjoy!”

Back to her table she went, leaving us speechless. When we stopped being speechless, we started whispering.

“Cute?” I hissed. “Is that what we are now? Cute?”

“Be quiet,’ L1 said. “It was a nice gesture.”

“But cute? I’d rather be interesting, or cool, or fun. Or terrifying. Anything really, but cute. Tell me, have we reached the age where we’re going to be patronised from now on?”

I think I was particularly sensitive to the cute thing because the word had already been used to describe us back in New York. The lovely instructors at Arthur Murray seem to think we’re cute too. I have no idea why. Is it because we’re old – both compared to them, and generally? Old and still married? Old and still talking to one another? Old and learning to dance?

“Maybe cute doesn’t mean what we think it means?” I said to L1 in a clutching-at-straws way the following morning. “Maybe in America it’s a catch-all word meaning…something else.” I consulted the thesaurus on my phone.  Cute: sweet, endearing, charming, appealing, delightful, adorable.

I still don’t like it. And here’s my pledge to all the seventy, eighty and ninety-year olds I know: I will never, ever refer to you as cute so long as we both shall live.

But I mustn’t obsess. Or so L1 tells me. Move on. And we will. Back to Manhattan, and then on to Chateau Montabello in Quebec next weekend, where we’ll spend time with my family. Ten days after that we’ll face the moment of truth in Wyoming: have all those dance lessons paid off or not?

Time is flying, and I’m both happy and sad about that. Happy that October will soon be upon us and we’ll be moving back home. Sad that October will soon be upon us and there’s so much we still haven’t done in New York. The Lincoln Centre. Sylvia’s in Harlem. Harlem. The Hudson River Boat tour. The Standard rooftop bar. So much theatre.

L1 says I mustn’t obsess about that either. “The way to look at it,” he said, “is that we could have been going to the Lincoln Centre twice a week but we chose to learn to dance instead. You can’t do everything.”

Spoken like a wise man, not a cute one.

 

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P.S. To our son and his friends, you might want to think about applying for a summer job at Gurney’s Montauk Inn. We met six twenty-one year olds from Cork who’d come over on J1 visas after graduating from university, and claimed to be having the time of their lives, doing everything from setting up beach chairs and umbrellas to delivering the (fantastically overpriced) room service meals in open topped buggies. An American boy claimed to work there every summer because he could make “upwards of twenty thousand dollars in just a few months.” Hmn. Might not have been the most diplomatic thing to say to two people who were growing weary of handing over ridiculously large tips for every mortal thing that was done for them, tips that undoubtedly made up the lion’s share of the twenty thousand dollars earned by each of the summer staff. Still, it was useful information to pass on to all you English boys and girls looking to make a killing in the summer. Better start applying for those J1 visas.

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