The North Fork on the east end of Long Island is known for its grown-up attractions: wine, farmstands, oysters and waterfront villages (all of which we’ve written about here). But there is so much for the kids, it’s worth a family getaway.
I’ve been going out for a few years now, but last summer I really explored the kiddie activities, starting with Splish Splash in Riverhead, the start of the North Fork and just an hour and a half drive away. If you love water parks, this one delivers on all the essentials–heart-stoppingly high water slides, tube rides, wave pools, terrible fried food, blaring 80s rock, and a “Kiddie Cove” with four different pools for little kids, one of which has a wide enough slide to fit a family of four going down (the ride is short, but the line moves fast). To avoid the terrible, overpriced food, you can claim that your child has food allergies and pack in a lunch or you can avoid the dirty looks and bring a picnic to eat at one of the shaded tables in the parking lot. This may help alleviate the sticker shock of admission–$39 for adults, $30 for those under four feet tall, free for under 2s. It will hurt going in, but if you’re willing to spend the day in a wet bathing suit, you must love water parks, too.
Another pricey, but fun attraction in Riverhead is the Long Island Aquarium. Parents Magazine once ranked it one of the country’s top 10 aquariums, and while it may not be as impressive as Monterrey, it is way more interactive than the typical temple to sea creatures. There are two pools where your kids can touch and feed the manta rays, a “Pirate Snorkel Adventure” for experienced swimmers (for an extra $30-$35), an archaeological dig site, and a salt marsh that kids can wade into and poke at the crabs (only potty-trained kids are allowed in, but if you can tell the staff with a straight face that your child is out of diapers, they’re not going to check). There’s also a butterfly exhibit going on next door, with gorgeous, exotic specimens fluttering about. But after spending roughly $20 a head at the aquarium, the extra admission is only worth it if your kids can really take in more flora and fauna.
Across the street from the aquarium is The Riverhead Project, the latest spot from longtime North Fork restauranteur Dennis McDermott. The menu is very New York/New American–lobster rolls, Korean fried chicken, Applewood bacon BLTs–but if you want to keep things simple, head to Star Confectionary, a soda shop and luncheonette down the block.
Further out on the island is Harbes Family Farm in Mattituck, which is a cross between a farm stand, a petting zoo, and a year-round county fair. At the farmstand you should buy a dozen cider donuts, to be devoured on the spot or saved for bribes. Once inside the “Barnyard Adventure” area ($7 per person on weekdays, $10 on weekends for everyone over 1), there are oversized bikes to race around a track, goats, cows, chickens, bees, and pigs to ogle and feed, ponies to ride (on weekends), rubber duckie races, and my favorite, a white playhouse at the furthermost edge of the farm, filled with vintage dolls, books and a tattered carriage that is waiting for your toddler or preschooler to play Little House on the Prairie.
Beach-wise, you may be disappointed if (like me) you prefer real waves and the smooth sand of ocean beaches as opposed to the rocky, mellow bay and sound beaches of the North Fork. That said, one of the nicest and kid-friendliest is Veteran’s Memorial Park in Mattituck, where there’s a sandy playground, bathrooms, lifeguards, and a paid parking lot ($15 per car)–a rarity, since many of the beaches are for residents only.
There is also a wide, combed beach and swimming pool at Silver Sands Motel, one of the best options for the family. Built in 1961, the decor and feel is still very late 1950s/early 60s, from the vintage neon sign to the linoleum floors in the cottages which rent by the week. But the reviews on Tripadvisor rave about how clean and comfortable it is. Most North Fork hotels and motels require a two-night minimum and charge upwards of $200 a night on weekends. Silver Sands requires a three-night stay on weekends, but charges $150 a night, so it’s a bit of a wash. You can also come during the week, when there is no minimum stay.
There is loads more to do. North Fork Parents keeps a calendar of events like lighthouse tours and kids concerts in July through September; the local chapter of the Audubon Society compiles the area’s nature preserves and hiking trails; and there are harbor tours on a 1920s-era boat, where kids are regularly invited to take a turn at the wheel. And be sure to check out our North Fork Cheat Sheet for our favorite vineyards and restaurants–this is a getaway for you, too.