Travel Long Haul: New York's most exclusive club

East Hampton is an illusion of perfection for the rich, writes Tina Stallard
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EAST HAMPTON on a Thursday morning had the air of a ghost town. Huge houses sat beyond curving drives, surrounded by lush striped lawns and precision-trimmed hedges. But there was no sign of life. It was as though an alien spacecraft had whisked away all the inhabitants of this exclusive Long Island resort, but generously given them time to close all the windows and lock the garage doors before leaving.

We stood and gawped at the sheer magnificence of the houses. Many of them were in the classic New England style - large wooden houses of dazzling white with pretty gable windows and deep porches, designed for lazy rocking chairs and iced tea. They sat alongside architectural fantasies straight out of The Great Gatsby. We saw a sprawling mock-Tudor mansion and a neo- classical villa with wrought-iron balconies. There was also a Spanish- style hacienda with pink walls and terracotta roof tiles and a futuristic curved building of concrete and dark glass.

During the week, the East Hamptonites migrate the hundred miles west to Manhattan. They are a select crowd; among them are Calvin Klein, Steven Spielberg and Ralph Lauren. Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin are near neighbours. They leave their exquisite homes and gardens in the care of quiet and efficient armies of housekeepers and garden contractors. But by Friday morning the pace picks up: florists and grocery vans speed up and down with deliveries and early in the afternoon the first Range Rovers in a slow convoy begin to arrive. They are driven by elegant women in sunglasses, who have braved the fearsome Friday traffic jams on to Long Island, with a cargo of children and dogs. In the evening, the Wall Streeters arrive by train, or perhaps by private plane.

It is clear what attracts these people to this part of Long Island. East Hampton is not really a town - it is more like a private club for wealthy New Yorkers. Its facilities include miles of glorious beach, immaculate landscapes and buildings and a charming high street heavily weighted towards antiques, designer clothes and restaurants. The locals protect their environment fiercely. The town has historical societies, preservation societies and conservationists everywhere you look. There is even a Ladies Village Improvement Society (founded in 1895). Much hard work has gone into creating this illusion of perfection.

During our stay we somehow felt caught up in a Henry James novel. We could imagine the whispered discussions about class and social acceptability, the humiliation of those blackballed by the golf club, the parents desperate to secure a desirable son-in-law.

Those who are not part of the social set spend much of their time star- spotting. The local paper publishes an account of who has been seen at which parties and which stars have been seen out shopping and where. In the shops, the assistants seem to be looking out for the famous. Once they realise you don't qualify, they are polite and helpful, but keep glancing over your shoulder.

It was quite a relief to relax in an area of East Hampton called Springs. On this side of the island, the water is calm, and small wooded islands are scattered along the curving bays and inlets. Yachts are moored in marinas and anchored off the beaches. We found our way to Bristow's, a relaxed restaurant overlooking one of the bays, where we watched the yachts sailing in while the sun went down. With lobster and crisp white wine, it was a perfect evening far from the East Hampton crowd.

Reach East Hampton from New York's JFK airport. Flights in October are likely to be sold through discount agents for pounds 200 return or less, including tax. The area itself is maddeningly difficult to reach without a rental car, so book one along with the flight