What Shelter Island is … and isn’t

Peter Waldner cartoon

Peter Waldner cartoon

Apparently very few writers, real estate brokers and travel agents can resist the word “nestled” in their descriptions of Shelter Island because it pops up all the time.

Standard example: “This picturesque and pastoral island sits ‘nestled’ between the north and south forks of Long Island.” In addition to the above, the list of descriptive adjectives almost always includes tranquil, serene or bucolic and let’s not forget “downright idyllic.” It was even described once as “precious, just precious.”

Yes, Shelter Island can be all that, and more — or less, depending on your perspective. This 8,000-acre rocky patch of land is heavily wooded and, for most of the year, populated by about 2,400 year-round residents. During July and August, the population swells by many thousands.

Route 114, the main road that crosses the Island from North Ferry to South Ferry (or vice versa) is 4.4 miles long. Access to Shelter Island is by ferry, there are no bridges connecting it to the mainland, the grass-strip airport is restricted and no one will confirm or deny rumors of a “locals only” tunnel.

Like any other community, Shelter Island is many things to as many different people, but there’s a lot that it is not.

Not “the Hamptons”

First and foremost, Shelter Island isn’t “the Hamptons,” though often, creative — or wishful — real estate agents promote it that way. Because it is not connected to either fork, it is, technically, neither here nor there. Politically though, Shelter Island does fall in the same district as “the Hamptons,“ but you can’t go by that, because every few years the powers that be redraw the boundary lines and hand it back to the opposite fork.

Certainly the number of big-ticket, twinkly-lighted, white-tented, champagne cocktail catered events has increased in recent years, but there are still enough pig roasts, venison feeds and barbecue and beer bashes to maintain the Island’s solid “between the forks” balance.

A visual reminder of what we aren’t is the license place on the car driven by one Island real estate broker that proclaims: UNHAMPTON. And, not to pound it home, but even that ultimate source, Wikipedia, which does describe Shelter Island as “nestled,“ does not include it in its definition of what makes up “the Hamptons.” So, enough about that.

No Gushing Zone

Some people go to “the Hamptons” specifically to see and be seen with celebrities. It’s such a popular sport on the South Fork that you can download maps of homes of the stars to make celebrity stalking that much easier. Or just a meander along Jobs Lane in Southampton might allow you a glimpse of the Baldwin brothers, Bobby Flay, Katie Holmes, Ellen DeGeneres and of course, Martha, and who knows how many Reality Housewives a fan can tick off at the Polo Grounds and/or Zabar’s in Amagansett. If you like to gush over your favorite Kardashian, the place to do it is on the South Fork, not here. Over there, celebrities are out and about and ready to strike a pose. Here, no.

Shelter Island has its share of celebrities, but most of the time they keep a low profile and blend into the “bucolic” background, happy to be ignored by rabid fans. An Islander once reported (quietly and long after the fact) seeing Sean Connery cast a line from Second Bridge. There was the morning Harrison Ford (during his good years) enjoyed his coffee and the New York Times at a sidewalk table in front of Stars, as if he were invisible. John Kennedy Jr., so handsome it hurt to look at him, could sit at the soda fountain counter in the pharmacy here without anyone taking his picture. And, speaking of what goes on at the pharmacy, many people remember having to make their way around a man who sat on the front steps of the pharmacy one summer afternoon, eating an ice cream cone with his granddaughter. That grandpa was Bishop Desmond Tutu.

No stop lights, but…

Shelter Island did have a stoplight once, two actually, back in the 1990s, but only while the Bridge Street bridge in the Heights was being replaced and the short stretch of road was reduced to one lane. If there was no on-coming traffic in sight, or police cars, most drivers just ignored the light. Aside from that temporary lapse, Islanders are law-abiding citizens. Most of them.

They are also very courteous drivers, which creates a problem when four of them are stopped at a four-way stop sign and each one is signaling “you go” to the driver on their right. There was once a 20-minute stand-off at the intersection of West Neck and Menantic, until an impatient driver waiting in line behind one of the polite drivers beeped the horn. It had to be a visitor, because Islanders never beep.

No shopping mall, but…

Islanders can usually find what they need without making a ferry trip. Some of them even brag about how many months, or years, it has been since their last trip to “the big city.” (“The big city” = Riverhead.)

Shelter Island boasts a grocery store, convenience stores, a couple of coffee shops and a soda fountain at the pharmacy. The upper level of the Legion Hall serves as a youth center and the lower level belongs to the local American Legion and is where our bowling leagues gather to strike and spare on our two-lane bowling alley. We have a general store, several hardware stores, banks, businesses, numerous shops and three golf courses: one public, one private and one mini.

Fast food? Nope.

But good food, fast? You bet! There are great restaurants and delis on the Island.

The postman does not ring twice … or ever

Shelter Islanders go to one of two post offices to pick up their mail. The 11964 people go to the Center post office, across the street from the police station, and the 11965 people go to the Heights post office, on Grand Avenue. Most box holders here enjoy going to get their mail; it’s part of their daily routine and often a social event. It’s where candidates hang out during campaigns and friends catch up on births, deaths and divorces. About 20 years ago, give or take, there was a half-hearted attempt to stir interest in home delivery and a resident circulated a petition, but the idea fizzled before it got off the ground. Guess you could say it was cancelled.

No man is an island…

Or woman, or child, either. At least not on this Island. There are advantages to being surrounded by water, but that isolation brings disadvantages, too. Like those occasions, especially during weather events when the population here is on its own. Perhaps because of that, this is a tightly-knit community family that makes it a point to take care of each other. No one makes it a big deal, it just happens. When someone needs help, it’s there, right away. And whether a person is suffering a heartbreak or a joyous moment, the Island community steps forward to comfort or celebrate. And some of those people don’t even like each other, which makes this Island community all the more like one big family.

Some people don’t get it.

Awhile back, a woman visiting the Island made a quick tour, then stopped in a department store on Bridge Street. She opened one of the Chamber of Commerce maps and spread it on the counter.

“I don’t get it. Everyone talks about this place like it’s so special. Why? I’ve been looking around and I’m baffled. What is there to do?”

The clerk (me) graciously pointed out several of the town landings by Hay Beach and Shell Beach on the opposite side of the map. The woman made a bad smell face and shook her head. “I can go to beaches in a lot of other places and I don’t have to bother with a ferry,” she said.

The clerk, ever so polite, suggested a drive along the causeway to Ram Island out to Reel Point. The visitor shook her head. Osprey nests. Ah, no.

The clerk then suggested a visit to Mashomack. It’s a nature preserve that covers about a third of the Island and it has an interesting Visitors Center.

“What? Trees?” the woman said, tossing the map across the counter, “I’ve got to drive to go look at trees?”

Her parting shot was flung over her shoulder as she left the store. “I don’t know why everyone talks about this place,” she said, before adding her final insult. “I’m not impressed.”

There are people who just don’t like Shelter Island for any number of reasons. Maybe it’s too far away from anything, too rural, too low key. For some, it’s the ferry. Even though long waits in the ferry lines have been reduced dramatically in recent years, just the idea of having to wait rubs certain types of people the wrong way.

But plenty of people love the serenity of Shelter Island. Its trees and starry skies, the wild turkeys crossing the road, the rocky beaches and general unHampton-ness of the place come together to make it what it is — and what it isn’t.