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Hampton Bays' beach scene and nightlife

Guests enjoy food and drinks late into the

Guests enjoy food and drinks late into the evening on the outside deck of Rumba in the Hampton Bays on July 9, 2011. Credit: Daniel Brennan

It's near sunset at Meschutt Beach County Park. At the outdoor Beach Hut restaurant, the band plays reggae as a conga line of little girls snakes round the stage. People in bathing suits tap their toes to the beat while eating cheeseburgers and linguine with clam sauce.

Hampton Bays has come a long way from its past of "Animal House" rentals and out-of-control nights. In fact, the town has gone all out to fashion itself as a destination both festive and family-friendly. Affordable, too.

If ritzy Southampton is Long Island's answer to Palm Beach, then Hampton Bays is Cocoa Beach: laid back, unpretentious and filled with attractions you'll want to check out. Here's where to start:

Beaches

For pounding surf and white sand, there's Ponquogue Beach on the Atlantic Ocean (280 Dune Rd., 631-728-2530), operated by the Town of Southampton. Joe Saberito, 44, of Ringwood, N.J., who is visiting with his clan for a stay at his parents' vacation home, puts it like this: "The sun is hot, the water is cold and the waves are rough." Which suits him and his crew just fine.

A day pass for a car is $20. Lifeguards and facilities (restrooms and snack bars) run from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

More tranquil swimming may be found at Meschutt Beach County Park on Great Peconic Bay (1 Canal Rd., 631-728-2988). Julian Boylan of Quogue and family are regulars there. "Live music, good food, no waves and lots of atmosphere," Boylan says, summing it up. "And no riptides," adds his son, Liam, 9. At night, the Beach Hut offers sunset dining with a live band.

Parking fees are charged daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for nonresidents, $12; residents (green key holders) pay $5, while seniors and handicapped residents (with green keys) get in free. The Beach Hut serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Club scene/other nightlife

The Hampton Bays club scene continues to evolve. "It was worse when I was growing up," says mom and longtime resident Donna Valle, standing by the shore at Ponquogue Beach. "Now, you don't have the CPI and all the bars." Beach Bar starts the night as a casual restaurant, Shuckers Lobster Bar, where you'll find seafood (a good $15 lobster deal) and live music until 9 p.m. Around 10 p.m., the place morphs into a dance club with DJ (58 Foster Ave., 631-723-3100). A much rowdier scene goes down every Sunday at The Boardy Barn, where sun-soaked, beer-drenched afternoon festivities run from 3:30 to 8 p.m. (party buses and limos available). Often, police are stationed outside to make sure revelers don't drink and drive (270 W. Montauk Hwy., 631-728-9733, boardybarn.com). Another sort of scene is Buckley's Inn Between, an Irish pub/sports bar/restaurant. Popular with locals as well as summer people, it's open year-round and often features live music and darts, too (139 W. Montauk Hwy., 631-728-7197).

Restaurants

The tropical-style Rumba (43 Canoe Place Rd., 631-594-3544, rumbarumbar.com) is so popular that when its parking lot fills, the "Rum Bus" transports diners from a remote parking area at Mariner's Cove Marina to the restaurant. It also picks up locals within a mile radius. The place serves a mean rum punch and arguably the best Key lime pie for miles. Waterside, there's also Oakland's (365 Dune Rd., 631-728-6900), Canal Cafe (44 Newtown Rd., 631-723-2155), Tide Runners (7 North Rd., 631-728-7373, tiderunners.com) and Edgewater (295 E. Montauk Hwy., 631-723-2323, edgewaterrestaurant.com) all seafood-centered. Two notable newcomers: Squiretown (26 W. Montauk Hwy., 631-723 2626, squiretown.com), a creative New American spot in town, and TR Restaurant & Bar (78 Foster Ave., 631-728-8700), a serious waterfront seafood place under chef Tom Rutyna. In town, John's Restaurant & Pizzeria (125 W. Montauk Hwy., 631-728-9411) comes through with a fresh, bright margherita pizza; Gator's (6 W. Montauk Hwy., 631-728-4100, gatorshb.com) remains a trusted standby for burgers and pub favorites. Then, there's the landmark Hampton Bays Diner (157 W. Montauk Hwy., 631-728-0840, hamptonbaysdiner.com).

Water sports

Consider renting a Jet Ski for a fun-packed half-hour on the water. East End Jet Ski fits you out for a lifejacket, gives you lessons, then lets you go out and ride in an open -- yet shallow and well-patrolled -- area. You must be 18 or older, provide a driver's license and give a $20 deposit. Passengers can be any age. Daily, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (91 Foster Ave., 631-728-8060, eastendjetski.com).

The Shinnecock Star offers fishing trips departing from Oakland's Marina in Hampton Bays, 631-728-4563. It costs $59 ($39 for kids 12 or younger) from 7 to 11 a.m. and noon to 4 p.m. From 5 to 8 p.m., it runs $49 for adults, $39 for kids 12 and younger; seniors get a 10 percent discount. Or, do as Stephen Hewlett of Central Islip did and drop a line off the Shinnecock Canal. The fishing was free and, after two hours, he caught some crabs and a porgy.

Hotels and inns

The area is filled with motels and cottages, but these two spots are, perhaps, most typical: The Hampton Maid is beautifully landscaped with 30 tastefully appointed rooms, each with a deck. There's also a pool. Rates average about $250 a night (259 E. Montauk Hwy., 631-728-4166). Inn Spot on the Bay is a Victorian house with water views and a lovely restaurant. From $150 to $350 a night (32 Lighthouse Rd., 631-728-1200).

Food markets

Not surprisingly, the area harbors three significant seafood stores. Brewster's, a full-service seafood market sells locally caught fish and shellfish (which is stored in saltwater holding tanks and de-sanded before being served). Fish and seafood also is smoked on premises. An on-site restaurant offers takeout as well as indoor and outdoor table service. Brewster's is at 252 Montauk Hwy., 631-728-3474, brewstersseafoodmarket.com.

You also can eat at Tully's Gourmet Seafood Market, a casual outdoor clam bar that sells fish to go (78 Foster Ave., 631-728-9043). It's under the same ownership as the nearby Cor J, a venerable fish market that sells both local and nonlocal fresh seafood (36 Lighthouse Rd., 631-728-5186).

Scotto's Pork Store attracts locals and summer folk with its brick-oven pizza, meat market (big on pork provisions) and prepared food for takeout (25 W. Montauk Hwy., 631-728-5677).

Hampton Bays also is home to Wild by Nature, a supermarket specializing in natural and organic food and produce (260 W. Montauk Hwy., 631-723-3071).

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