The East End before the crowds offers something for everyone....

The East End before the crowds offers something for everyone. Get some rest and relaxation at Gurney's Resort & Seawater Spa, stroll the beach or have dinner at a popular restaurant this spring.  Credit: Gordon M. Grant

For decades, the prevailing view has been that the best time to visit Montauk is between November and May. True, that view is held mostly by seals, but the idea has steadily been catching on with other mammals as well. For proof of this, you had only to see the 40-plus reservation list recently at Montauk Point State Park, which hosts weekly seal hikes through end of April.

And while only a dozen poncho-clad intrepid types actually showed a few Saturdays ago, that too was an impressive figure. It was a cold day in late March and a storm had blown in overnight. Rain came down in great sheets, the kind that finds its way under ponchos and hoodies, soaking socks and skin on its way to chilling a person to the bone.

Spot seals on a nature walk in Montauk.

Spot seals on a nature walk in Montauk.

“Does anyone know why they only come at this time of year?” asked naturalist Teddy Esposito even as he prepared to lead a nervous band of seal hunters down a trail that snaked from the road to the beach, up and down dunes, onto wooden planks over muddy red sand flush with garnet and magnetite, past shrubbery and thickets, and ended at a spot where seals like to haul off, which is to say flop their way onto the beach and sun themselves on rocks at a time that Montauk is at its most pristine, when summer pests like tech bros, influencers and reality show camera crews are still months away.

Naturalist Teddy Esposito leads seal watchers at Montauk Point State...

Naturalist Teddy Esposito leads seal watchers at Montauk Point State Park. Credit: Newsday/Scott Vogel

“I was just asking myself the same question,” replied one smart aleck, eliciting a laugh from the rest of her group, a gang of five who’d come here on a girls’ getaway.

The East End in the offseason

Montauk Point State Park 2000 Montauk Hwy., Montauk; 631-668-3781, parks.ny.gov

Harvest at Fort Pond 11 S. Emery St., Montauk; 631-668-5574, harvestfortpond.com

Il Buco al Mare 231 Main St., Amagansett; 631-557-3100, ilbuco.com

Bird on the Roof 47 S. Elmwood Ave., Montauk; 631-668-5833, birdontheroof.com

Gurney's Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa 290 Old Montauk Hwy., Montauk; 631-668-2345, gurneysresorts.com

Guild Hall 158 Main St., East Hampton; 631-324-0806, guildhall.org

BookHampton 41 Main St, East Hampton; 631-324-4939, bookhampton.com

Hither Hills State Park 164 Old Montauk Hwy., Montauk; 631-668-2554, parks.ny.gov

Montauk Brewing Company 62 S. Erie Ave., Montauk; 631-668-8471, montaukbrewingco.com

Kenny’s Tipperary Inn 432 W Lake Dr., Montauk; 631-668-2010, thetipperaryinn.com

Montauk Blue Hotel 108 S. Emerson Ave., Montauk; 631-668-4000, montaukbluehotel.com

Montauk Manor 236 Edgemere St., Montauk; 631-668-4400, montaukmanor.com

Clubhouse in East Hampton 174 Daniels Hole Rd., East Hampton; 631-537-2695, clubhousehamptons.com

“No,” Esposito said after someone guessed that the seals traveled down to Long Island from the Arctic to breed. Was it the weather? “No,” said Esposito again. The answer was food. Seals mainly eat crustaceans and shellfish, both of which are easier to catch in warmer waters.

“Oh, right. That’s why I came too,” said the smart aleck again, at which point the group began wondering just how similar seals and humans might be. For the record, we share about 85% of our DNA. Also, seals are mammals, have hair, give birth to live young and head to Montauk in the offseason because …

It's easier to eat

“In the summer, lines start forming for outdoor tables at 3 p.m.,” said Terrence, my server that night at Harvest at Fort Pond, adding that while reservations for indoor tables are accepted a week prior in-season, most are gone not long after 12:01 a.m. on the day they come available. “The line wraps around the building by the time we open at 5 p.m. People bring lawn chairs.”

The weather and season notwithstanding, every seat was full that evening in the Harvest dining room. But although I’d made a reservation just hours before, I was rewarded with a perfect table in a corner of the cozy candlelit dining room. There, in solidarity with my mammalian brethren, I enjoyed buttery baked oysters and PEI mussels, as well as perfectly cooked skirt steak and a whiskey and citrus drink known as Montauk Lemonade, both of which I’m sure the seals would love too if only they tried them.

In spring, it's easy to snag a table at Il...

In spring, it's easy to snag a table at Il Buco al Mare in East Hampton. Credit: Scott Vogel

I’d had similar good luck the day before on my way into town, stopping at il Buco al Mare in Amagansett for lunch. Tables there, among the Hamptons’ most sought-after (and fought over) just a few months ago, were empty save for a couple of two-tops. And yet everything else was as impressive as ever, from the warm wooden interior to Justin Smillie’s menu, which includes his legendary deliquescent focaccia, an alchemical combo of rosemary, olive oil and ancient-grain wheat that bubbles and leopard-spots in the oven and vanishes on the tongue. Equally good was the on-trend selection of tinned fishes served with housemade buckwheat rye bread and a shave of butter, and a creamy taleggio-topped burger on a shiny fresh-baked potato bun. Somewhat unbelievably (especially to those familiar only with its summer incarnation), il Buco in spring is the perfect place to have a quiet meal, or, for that matter, eavesdrop on a pair of women discussing the relative merits of yoga and tapping while Googling the latter in complete silence.

Smoked salmon over crème fraiche on toast with pickled onions...

Smoked salmon over crème fraiche on toast with pickled onions at Bird on the Roof in Montauk. Credit: Newsday/Scott Vogel

And the atmosphere was only slightly more raucous the next morning at Bird on the Roof, one of Montauk’s most popular breakfast haunts, which these days is open for dinner as well. Scaldingly hot skillets of shakshuka and egg sandwiches with bacon and fine nuggets of roasted potatoes were delivered within minutes, owing to the fact that just half the restaurant was full, a situation that seemed to relieve rather than worry owner Leo Daunt, whom I spotted while rushing out the door to the seal hike.

“Great day for it,” he joked, spying the rain, which by then was pelting the building hard enough to knock any bird off the roof, or at least any bird that wasn’t painted on. His own offseason tip was to head to Gurney's Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa, which until April 30 is offering $150 day passes to its spa, with its plunge pools, sauna, steam room, heated indoor pool with floor-to-ceiling views of the Atlantic, and — best of all — guaranteed path to springtime serenity. Yes, serenity, because like seemingly every other place in Montauk this time of year …

The outdoor firepit at Gurney's Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa.

The outdoor firepit at Gurney's Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa. Credit: Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa

It's quieter

“Seals don’t like noise,” Esposito warned the group, even as experienced seal watchers online added that the creatures would avoid anyone who crowded the beach or donned flashy clothing. Maybe that explained why, on the way to Montauk, I’d enjoyed stopping in East Hampton so much, a place I reflexively avoid due to noise, crowds and a blinding abundance of statement earrings. For once the town seemed at peace, as was I after paying a visit to the museum at Guild Hall, which currently features an exhibition of mixed-media works by Darlene Charneco.

A mixed-media work by East End-based artist Darlene Charneco, one of several on view at Guild Hall in East Hampton until May 6. Credit: Newsday/Scott Vogel

On display through May 6 are several of the East End-based Latinx artist’s mesmerizing three-dimensional “touchmaps,” many of them, as exhibition notes put it, “created through the meditative process of hammering nails, one by one,” making them a perfect companion to quiet season. So was Book Hampton which, while never the loudest of places, feels almost church-like in spring, perfect for leafing through art books or picking up a game of Monopoly, Hamptons version. (Chance card: “Stuck in traffic. Go back three spaces.”)

Take in the waterviews and sandy beach at Hither Hills...

Take in the waterviews and sandy beach at Hither Hills State Park in Montauk. Credit: Randee Daddona

And on the road back to Montauk, I came across the quietest place of all, Hither Hills State Park, where I followed a trail through the famous walking dunes — less than an acre in size and yet a near-sacred site for the world’s dune-obsessed, of whom there are allegedly many. Not even the penitent were willing to brave a rainy Saturday in March, however, and the only sounds I heard were of winds funneling between Gardiner’s Island and the Springs, gusts strong enough to cause the dunes to “walk” a few feet every year, smothering trees and creating phantom forests in their wake.

The outdoor patio at Montauk Brewing Company in Montauk.

The outdoor patio at Montauk Brewing Company in Montauk. Credit: Newsday/Aaron Zebrook

But there was a sedate vibe to even the places that weren’t quiet. Accustomed to crowds of cup-sloshing party types crowding around barrel tables on Montauk Brewing Company’s patio, I was surprised to find the outdoor area empty and only a few souls in the tasting room. There, in the afternoon gloaming, I enjoyed a seasonally appropriate pint of amber ale, even as a local enjoyed a seasonally aspirational tropical IPA with notes of mango and pineapple while chatting with a woman who had been coaxed into an overnight stay, she admitted, because …

It's way cheaper

OK, it’s not the prices that draw the seals to offseason Montauk, but maybe they should? At Kenny’s Tipperary Inn, an upscale motel “not far from downtown Montauk, but far enough from the bustle,” as the brochure put it, I paid just $149 for a spotlessly clean room that goes for $409 a night in high season. Yes, the pool was still covered and the barbecue grills stored in a gazebo until May, but Kenny’s was a gem nonetheless. While I break with the seals when it comes to springtime swimming, I’d happily do it at the Montauk Blue Hotel, where there’s an indoor pool and rooms also start at $149 in April (a fourth of what they cost in high season). And though renovations of the indoor pool are ongoing at Carl Fisher’s 1927 Montauk Manor on Signal Hill, springtime rooms can be snagged for as little as $134.

Bowling lanes are easy to come by in spring at...

Bowling lanes are easy to come by in spring at the Clubhouse in East Hampton.  Credit: Newsday/Scott Vogel

Oh, and speaking of seasonal bargains, don’t overlook the Clubhouse in East Hampton, a recreational complex that’s mobbed in summer but whose 10 state-of-the-art bowling lanes are much less in demand otherwise. Indeed, on Fridays in spring, any size party can rent a lane for just $20 an hour.

And, of course, the seals

Join a park naturalist for a beach walk to observe seals...

Join a park naturalist for a beach walk to observe seals in their natural habitat at Montauk Point State Park. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Last but not least, no Montauk offseason trip would be complete without that seal hike I took, if only for the first-rate guidance of Esposito and his confreres, and the 90-minute trip over hill and dale to the seal haul-off area. I wasn’t there five minutes before the group spotted one bobbing in the surf a hundred or so yards off shore. “It’s a gray seal,” confirmed Esposito. “You can tell by the nostrils.”

No seals waddled onto the beach that day, but every so often a couple of them would surface for a bit of bottling, a resting posture in which they actually shut off half their brains and take a power nap, Esposito explained. And while it’s impossible to know for sure, every animal I saw appeared grateful for Montauk in spring, seals included.

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