What makes the North Fork so great?

An aerial view of the Long Island Sound in Greenport. (Credit: Bridget Elkin)

An aerial view of the Long Island Sound in Greenport. (Credit: Bridget Elkin)

As an aerial photographer, Bridget Elkin has a unique view of the North Fork. On a regular basis, the East Marion resident pilots a drone a few hundred feet above creeks, beaches, and rows of corn or vines, sharing the beauty she discovers with more than 9,000 Instagram followers at @northforkgrown.

But it’s not just from that rarely explored vantage point that Elkin fell in love with the place she’s called home for the past several years.

“Even just running an errand, I’m often stopped in my tracks and find myself needing to stop to take a photograph,” she said. “Photographers talk about the golden hour, but every hour on the North Fork is truly special.”

Faced with the daunting challenge of putting into words exactly what makes this place so great, we sought out interviewees who look at the area through a distinct lens, that opens up their world and often helps them see new possibilities. With rich maritime and agricultural traditions and cultures that include native American, English, Polish, Italian, and Greek, it’s no surprise that the markets and restaurants are so diverse and pleasurable. It’s no surprise that so many writers, artists, and musicians have decided to live here. And it’s no surprise that the North Fork has become a beacon (and a very affordable one) for tourists.

A former ferry boat captain, who spent full days peering in on views of Greenport Harbor and Shelter Island, spoke of “breathing in the sea air.” A recent retiree who spent decades in cloudy western New York found a new appreciation for the sun above when she planted her garden in Mattituck. Then there are the young entrepreneurs, who moved away for a time before finding themselves wading in the bay with a new generation of North Forkers at their side. We spoke with people who have lived in New York City, San Francisco, Hawaii and the Carolinas. Today there’s only one place they call home: the North Fork.

“There are very few regions with everything we have here,” said Saltbird Cellars founder Robin Epperson-McCarthy. “Wine, food, surfing, sailing, fishing, and New York City is just two hours away.”

In a community where many young people stay long enough to get their education but leave their roots behind for opportunities elsewhere, Epperson-McCarthy followed a different path. Born in Florida, she first visited her family’s North Fork beach home when she was two years old, and “the summer vacation never ended.” A sommelier with more than a decade in viticulture, she’s worked harvests in Australia, New Zealand and California. But once she married in 2010, the Riverhead resident knew the North Fork was the place where she wanted to start a business and a family.

David Benthal

Robin Epperson-McCarthy, founder and winemaker, Saltbird Cellars. (Credit: David Benthal)

Memories are among the reasons why.

She counts sailing around the Island that shares her name with her grandfather among her fondest remembrances, along with exploring the woods around Laurel Lake Preserve and catching turtles in Wolf Pit Lake, in Mattituck. “Last but not least would be my aunt sneaking me a taste of rosé at a local tasting room when I was way too young,” she added. Call it vocational training.

Early childhood impressions are what so many North Forkers say make their hometown so special.

Chris Burns and Bob Fox grew up in South Jamesport and Aquebogue, graduating from Riverhead High School in 1999 and 2001, respectively. There they were each inspired by a popular teacher to pursue a degree from the School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan. Today, they run their animation company, appropriately named Exit 73 Studios, from an office above Star Confectionery, in downtown Riverhead.

“We could pretty much be anywhere with a decent internet connection,” Burns said. “New York City was a great place to start in our 20s.” Then he started thinking about raising children, something that would also soon be on Fox’s radar. Naturally, Burns began to think about his own childhood so close to the beach in South Jamesport. “Growing up, they called me nature boy,” he said with a chuckle. “I was always very outdoorsy.”

Fox, a former lifeguard at Indian Island County Park, recounted a similar lifestyle. “When I would tell friends in the city that I’m from Long Island, they would think Nassau County,” he said. “Then you get out here, and it’s this whole different place. It’s exceptionally rural.”

Chris Burns and Bob Fox of Exit 73 Studios. (Credit: David Benthal)

Chris Burns and Bob Fox of Exit 73 Studios. (Credit: David Benthal)

Sharna Nicholson knows firsthand that bias you might have about Long Island if you haven’t ventured too out too far. Growing up in Queens, her family trips to Long Island didn’t stray far from the Roosevelt Field Mall and Jones Beach. Her husband, John, grew up in Rochester, where they spent more than 30 years before it was time to retire someplace else.

They’d never even visited the North Fork before they began searching for a home here. Sharna knew she wanted to be closer to her family in and around Queens, but she figured convincing John of such a move would take some work, as he’d grown accustomed to life around the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Neither one of them really had an idea what awaited them in their new home.

“We found farms and the open space,” Sharna recalled. “We fell in love with the North Fork small-town feel of places like Love Lane, where people start to know you.” The Nicholsons now identify as “local by choice.” They live next door to Macari Vineyards on Sound Avenue in Mattituck at what used to be a Catapano family goat farm. They maintain a small private vineyard in their backyard and sail the Peconic Bay — pastimes reminiscent of their decades spent in the Finger Lakes region. They also spend much of their downtime volunteering with local community groups and have found many like-minded people they now call friends.

Yvonne Lieblein, a Greenport resident and native, said the people deserve a lot of the credit for what makes the North Fork such a special place. She compared the way neighbors of all backgrounds seem to come together on the North Fork to being at a wedding. “You have people of all ages stopping to have a conversation on the street,” she added. “Real friendships are formed with people decades older or younger than you.”

The writer and marketing professional spoke to us from the East End Seaport Museum, in Greenport. The museum’s director, Jennifer Curtin, was also a part of the discussion. She grew up in Greenport and spent her high school years on Shelter Island. In her mid-20s she became a captain on the North Ferry, shuttling back and forth between the two places she called home in her formative years. While some might think of steering a passenger ferry as a simple, monotonous task, Curtin describes it as ever-changing, like the seasons she’d navigate through. “I can remember every winter keeping an eye out for a seal,” she said. “We believed it to be the same seal every year.”

Photographer Bridget Elkin mentioned that friends often ask when is the best time to visit. She tells them there’s no correct answer. “I’m not worried about weather or the time of year here,” she said. “Every season on the North Fork is truly stunning.” She spent her summers visiting her grandparents, all four of whom called the North Fork home, but lived in seven different states along the East Coast while growing up. And before moving here, she and her husband spent five years in San Francisco.

Sharna and John Nicholson at their Mattituck home. (Credit: David Benthal)

Sharna and John Nicholson at their Mattituck home. (Credit: David Benthal)

So what makes the North Fork rank above all those other places? “It’s a water world,” she explained. “We have the creeks, the sound, the bay and a proximity to the ocean as well. People here are also very generous with their landscape. There’s not a lot of privet hedges, opening up vistas and views of the architecture, which really makes it.”

So what’s the secret of the North Fork? Yes, it’s a collection of charming villages and expansive views. The food-and-wine scene is exciting. The people are friendly. And it’s just plain fun. All of that is true. But what’s really great about it is that the folks here have figured out what’s important to them. They’ve figured out how to live.

But don’t take their word for it. You’ll want to see for yourself.

This story originally appeared in the March 2017 edition of northforker magazine