How to live the Hamptons high life

It's one of the most elite vacation destinations and expensive real estate markets in the US. And the air here in the Hamptons is clear and decidedly rarified.

The Hamptons comprises a string of seaside communities, villages and hamlets at the East End of Long Island, which stretches east from New York City, and is popular as a summer getaway for affluent New Yorkers. Many wealthy celebrities, hedge fund managers, CEOs, socialites and politicians own multimillion-dollar homes here which they visit in summer. 

Long stretches of beach run on either side of Long Island. The interior is made up of forests and farmland interspersed with towns and villages, 18th-century shingle buildings and estates hidden behind tall boxwood hedges. When driving the long winding roads at night, remember to watch out for deer

East Hampton is home to high-end restaurants, bars and designer boutiques. Southampton is known for its "old-money" mansions and even has its very own "Billionaire Lane" reserved for the rich and powerful.

Sag Harbor has the feel of an old fishing town, while Montauk is a laid-back destination for surfing and fishing, with many seafood restaurants and a lighthouse. 

The TV series Revenge is set in the Hamptons, and the region has appeared in a number of movies – including Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities and Something's Gotta Give – as the poster child for fame, wealth and excess. 

And, of course, Hamptons style is always in vogue in decor and home design. I'd always been curious to see the place where it comes from, so on my most recent trip to New York I decided to explore getting there. And it's a lot easier than you might think.

Thousands leave Manhattan and flock to these towns and beaches by jitney, the island-bound bus, or the Long Island Rail Road. Weekends are the busiest time.

Many glamorous events dot the summer calendar but you will find fewer crowds and less action during the week and in the cooler autumn and winter months.

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Long Island also has long and beautiful beaches: Jones Beach, Main Beach, Coopers Beach and Montauk are rated the best, but the almost deserted, windswept white sand stretch of Sagg Main Beach at Sagaponack is breathtaking. Think Nights in Rodanthe. It's hard to believe this nature paradise with fresh, clean, pine-and-salt-tinged sea air is only 150 kilometres from the concrete jungle of busy Manhattan. 

One of the appeals of the Hamptons is how the character of its villages and hamlets change – with everything from cutsie historic houses to tasteful mega mansions – as you travel from Southampton at one end to Montauk on the tip of the island.

Bridgehampton, Southampton and East Hampton have huge estates in Colonial, Italianate, Georgian and American Revival styles. Think Grayson Mansion from Revenge for an example of the latter. Nearby Sagaponack has some of the most expensive real estate in the country.

The quaint harbour town of Sag Harbor has row after row of cute shingled and shuttered houses with slate roofs and two-tone painted timber doors and windows in whites and greys. With its mansions, white picket fences, flower boxes, cedar shingled homes and white trims, it reminds me of an English village – if not for the American flags that hang there.

I hear that Billy Joel lunches regularly in Sag Harbor at the Dockside Bar & Grill, located in The American Legion building. Visitors can study his collection of vintage boats, which are visible from its patio.

And our Hugh and Deb were recently seen sitting on one of the front balconies at the American Hotel, a popular celeb haunt.

Le Bilbouqet on the waterfront has great views of the harbour or there's the more modest Dock House, a fresh fish and lobster shack.

Donna Karan's daughter owns one of the area's most popular eateries, Tutto il Giorno, but it's hard to score an outdoor table at either of its Southampton or Sag Harbor venues during the busy season.

There's a Down Under connection, too. Moby's, run by Australian high-profile LA and NYC restaurateurs Lincoln Pilcher and Nick Hatsatouris, has signed a two-year lease in East Hampton at the Yacht Club Marina. 

I spend my time in the Hamptons checking out farm stands, wineries, the crab shacks, the in spots, and quaint attractions such as LongHouse Reserve's sculpture garden with works by Mark Rothko and other famous American painters such as Jackson Pollock, who lived on the island.

Most accommodation in the Hamptons is in boutique-style inns, wooden shingle cottages, beach shacks and B&Bs. The most luxurious place to stay, if you don't have your own Hamptons home, is Topping Rose House. 

This gorgeous old historic Bridgehampton house was turned into Long Island's only full-service luxury boutique hotel in 2013 and now houses a Jean-Georges restaurant run by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

​The younger New York crowd heads to the surf enclave of Montauk to The Surf Lodge, a hip motel that draws its inspiration from Australian surf style and hosts seasonal concerts, with recent turns by Kimbra, Jessie J and Lupe Fiasco.

All this charm doesn't come cheap. Summer rates at Topping Rose can start from a whopping $1500 a night for a room in the main house, dropping in winter to $395. As the temperature drops, you can curl up in front of a fire. 

Karen Halabi travelled to the Hamptons at her own expense but stayed courtesy of Topping Rose and The Surf Lodge.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale May 19.

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