The Scenic Route

By Jonathan Welsh

My son is reading The Great Gatsby in his 10th grade English class—the same school year when I first read it—and chatting with him about the story’s setting got me thinking about New York’s Long Island and how I have wanted for years to fly to Montauk on its eastern tip.

Yes, it’s a long way from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gold Coast and quieter than Jay Gatsby’s party-hearty haunts. But like the novel’s North Shore setting, Montauk gives visitors the feeling that they have truly arrived. As I found out, that feeling is especially strong for pilots.

My wife and I recently ended the long wait with a flight to the popular summer destination known for beautiful beaches, great food, hiking trails, and other outdoor activities. We wanted to get a sense of the place before the busy season really gets going. Over the years, we have spent weekends with friends and attended weddings in the Hamptons, of which Montauk is part, but never drove far enough east to see the hamlet. Now, once again, flying has opened the door.

Getting There

Montauk Airport (KMTP) is 122 nm from our home airport at Sussex, New Jersey (KFWN), a distance “Annie,” our Commander 114B, can cover in about 50 minutes. By road the distance is 171 miles and close to four hours or longer on a summer weekend. Flying there is a joy. Scenery includes the New York skyline, Long Island Sound, the Connecticut coast and dozens of interesting islands. There are also airports to spot along the way, many of which, like East Hampton, (KJPX), Groton, Connecticut (KGON), and Fishers Island, New York (0B8), may inspire future flights.

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The airport is not where you would expect to find it. As you fly east over the Sound, Long Island dwindles, getting narrower. Just as it appears to melt into the Atlantic, the runway appears, peeking out from a swath of thick vegetation edged with sand. The field sits in a largely undeveloped area that includes Montauk County Park and Montauk Point State Park. There is an inlet and a harbor between the airport and the village, giving the former a remote feel.

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Montauk Airport is 122 nm from our home airport, a distance ‘Annie,’ our Commander 114B, can cover in about 50 minutes. [image courtesy Jonathan Welsh]

The Airport Environment

On the day we visited, the winds favored Runway 24, which necessitates an overwater approach into a right-hand traffic pattern. Descending over water always feels strange to me, but you cannot avoid it when the runway threshold abuts the beach. It is best to focus on flying a precise pattern while enjoying striking views of the harbor, village, and shoreline. I tried not to fixate on the ocean’s expanse.

On short final, we could see people gathered and strolling on the beach. Several looked up as we passed over; a few waved. I still get such a kick out of being that person in the airplane after decades of looking up at others flying past.

The runway is 3,246 feet long, so light piston aircraft make up most of the traffic, though turboprops also show up. We shared the ramp with a Daher TBM, a Beechcraft Bonanza, and two Cirrus SR22s. There is a small airport office that is attended sometimes but not the Sunday afternoon in early May when we stopped in. I understand there is more of a reception for arriving aircraft during the summer, when traffic increases and the vacation rhythm picks up. Still, Montauk is known as a quiet place compared with the rest of the Hamptons.

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Getting Around

This is an ideal destination for flying in for lunch and a walk along the shore. The Gin Beach Cafe is across the street from the ramp, really just steps away. We took a 10-minute walk up the road north of the airport to the Inlet Seafood Restaurant, which is a classic seaside spot where you can watch boats coming into the harbor while enjoying a menu full of delicious options.

Walk a little farther, and you are on the county park beach, which we flew over earlier. One pilot friend who encouraged us to visit Montauk flies there regularly on summer evenings after work just to swim and relax on the beach near the runway.

But there is more to Montauk than the airport, and while hiking is among the area’s popular activities, you will need a set of wheels if you are planning a longer stay and want to explore. Shuttles, taxis, and rental cars are available for getting back and forth to points of interest, but this also seems like the perfect place for lightweight, folding bicycles.

The latest generation of folding bikes includes many that close up into a package compact enough to fit easily in an aircraft baggage compartment—and these include some electric or e-bikes as well. On the road, they handle and perform like high-end touring bikes, allowing you to cover lots of ground quickly. In locations like the Hamptons, where summer car traffic can be unbelievably thick, a bicycle is often the quickest, most efficient way to get around. I plan to test a few of these bikes soon.

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According to the Montauk Historical Society, George Washington commissioned the Montauk Point Lighthouse as president in 1792. [Image courtesy Jonathan Welsh]

Things To Do

The parks around the airport are good places to start if you enjoy hiking and communing with nature. Before heading to the village you might also visit the Montauk Point Lighthouse, which, according to the Montauk Historical Society, George Washington commissioned as president in 1792. It was the first lighthouse built in New York and ranks as the fourth-oldest working lighthouse in the U.S. The lighthouse is also a museum that delves into the area’s history.

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Camp Hero State Park, which includes a former coastal defense station, is another historic site at the eastern tip of town. Concrete bunkers housed gun batteries here during World War II, but today the area is better known for its diverse landscape, long beachfront, and trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Deep Hollow Ranch, about 3 miles south of the airport, includes an extensive stable and offers trail and beach rides.

There is a lot of history in Montauk and the rest of the Hamptons, from wartime military activities to the area’s development over the last 100 years or so into a popular escape for New York City dwellers. Visitors can learn a lot in the area’s museums by taking tours of historic homes or casually studying local architecture. From Colonial to Revival to mid-20th century kitsch, you can find it all in Montauk.

Where To Stay

You can also experience a range of styles in the town’s accommodations, whether you are interested in outsize resorts like the Montauk Manor, understated bed and breakfasts, or classic throwback motels Haven Montauk, Montauk Blue, and Daunt’s Albatross. Indeed the classic motel, once an endangered species, has made a comeback here as vacationers from Generations X and Y express nostalgia for time spent in similar digs during family road trips from the 1970s through the ’90s.  You probably will find the ideal combination of balconies, sliding glass doors, flat roofs, and decoratively shaped swimming pools.

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If you prefer to camp, you can check out the waterfront sites at the scenic Hither Hills State Park or along the Paumanok Path, a long-distance hiking trail that runs about 125 miles from Rocky Point through the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead, and East Hampton, ending at the Montauk lighthouse.

I plan to visit Montauk again soon, but for the whole weekend at least—not just lunch. Between now and then, I will have to decide on where to stay. But there is no longer a decision about whether or not to go.

In the old days before I acquired my pilot certificate, I never quite got around to visiting the eastern extreme of Long Island. It always seemed a bit too far, requiring more hours than I had to spare. Now, the ability to get there in less than an hour has extended my reach and transformed my outlook.

Landing at Montauk—having avoided the snarled weekend traffic—instantly makes a strong case for general aviation and the notion that there are still a few forms of real freedom out there. KMTP had been on my GA destinations list since I began flight training, and while it took more than 10 years to get there, I can say with conviction that it was worth the wait. 

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Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine. 

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