For better or worse, I work in close proximity to a lot of rich people. Compared to most of the world, of course, I am wealthy. I am extremely fortunate to live very comfortably in a wonderful city, and to have seen many parts of the world. I have great healthcare, I never go hungry, I have an apartment, etc. I am lucky. But compared to the people I work for (ultimately, if not immediately), I might as well be hopping freight trains and panhandling in Hooverville.
Rich adults are usually quite clever at keeping their wealth secret. They do this to spare blushes and not seem smug, and also to make less likely any revolutionary tax and wage reforms that could render their position less rosy. Their children, on the other hand, have no idea that their life is extremely different to mine. A few years ago, a child excitedly told me that one of the highlights of his vacation was sitting at the back of first class being able to see through the curtain and look at the poor people stuck in Economy. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that one of those poor schmucks was me, revelling in what I thought was luxury on a beautiful aeroplane with free drinks, a ticket for which had taken me years to be able to afford. Another kid once said he couldn’t wait for the weekend because his horses were arriving from Argentina and he hadn’t seen them for over a month. I don’t know where to start with that one.
Whether in the UK or the USA, these privileged few share some attributes. In addition to pastel colors, deck shoes, large sunglasses and floppy hats, another common trait is visits to ‘The Plurals’. In the UK it might be ‘our summer house in the Cotswolds’ or ‘a cottage in the Brecon Beacons’. On the other side of the pond, it could be ‘a weekend in the Bahamas’ or ‘our farmhouse in the Poconos’. No matter where you are, the smart people like to get together in places so fancy they attract a terminal ‘s’.
I checked out two such plurals recently. One, very exclusive, the Hamptons. The other, much less so, the Catskills.
The Hamptons is (are?) a collection of communities and areas at the far eastern tip of Long Island. Some friends and I visited for the day and had a fabulous time. We started at the town of Montauk, traditionally not part of the well-to-do Hamptons-proper but a surfer town and part of the Hippy Trail. It retains that vibe and was hosting a small music festival when we were passing through. On the surface, it looks like an accessible beach resort, with slightly run down motels that are all within a short walk of amazing beaches. Delve deeper, though, and you find it is undergoing massive hikes in property prices and, in tandem, prices for visitors. A mediocre meal in a beach bar was eye-watering, and a brief inquiry about hotel rooms found the best deal we could see was $400 per room per night. The lighthouse at Montauk is significant as it was the first one in NY State, and is quite quaint to look at, but they charge $11 to go inside which, if you also want to eat while you’re in the Hamptons, might be a tad steep. Most impressive is the ocean, which remains free to view. Free parking was easy to find, too, although we went outside peak season. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, expect everything to be chargeable.
Other places we visited in the Hamptons were Southampton, Bridgehampton and East Hampton. All were lovely, and we found excellent places to get ice cream, beer, lobster rolls, cocktails, etc., some of which really weren’t all that much more than a day’s wages. One of the highlights is driving past some of the USA’s prime real estate and guessing who lives there. The Hamptons is home to the country’s most expensive zip code, in which the mean price for a family home is $8 million. Don’t despair; if you want a slice of this life, you could rent yourself a summer place. For example, we saw one four bedroom place available for June-September at the knockdown price of $154,000.
I know I seem snide and slightly envious, which is exactly how I feel. It’s not that I begrudge these people their money, earned through a combination of hard work, privilege and luck, but that I resent the society that allows them to have so much while others have so little.
A happier medium is found in the Catskills. We spent a long weekend at Hunter Mountain, a ski resort in the winter and, in the summer, home to the USA’s longest zipline. The zipline experience is amazing; their ‘Skyrider’ tour lasts over two hours and takes in five ziplines as well as a rope bridge. The ziplines are a step up from your scout-camp muddy-arsed, stuck-like-Boris-Johnson affairs. These high-speed, adult only experiences are ever so slightly terrifying and completely exhilarating as you speed rear-first across the valleys at over 50mph.
At the base of Hunter Mountain are two towns, Hunter and Tannersville. Both are charming although they feel slightly past their prime. Online statistics tell me that the populations fell a lot in the last three decades, and they are very seasonal now, relying on winter sports, although the zipliners and hikers are starting to turn things around in the warmer months. Both towns have movie theaters, and both, like most of the small towns we’ve visited in America, have an abundance of local small businesses. Back home, the downfall of the highstreet has long been lamented as everywhere looks the same. Here it’s not like that at all. Most towns still seem to have local or regional stores, helped by the continuation of local TV advertising and, ultimately, the vast distances between different parts of this country. In Tannersville, one place everyone should try is the Last Chance Antiques and Cheese Cafe: over 300 beers and over 100 cheeses.
Close to Tannersville is Kaaterskill Falls, a beautiful waterfall at the head of a deep and leafy gorge. We only saw its base from afar as parking nearer to it was impossible. As one woman said in a visitor center, “It’s not fair! The tiny car park is always full and if you park on the road they give you a ticket!” The poor thing. I’m guessing she’d have them put up a multi-story right there in the forest, and while they’re at it a laser light show and 5D Cinema Experience. In fact, you can get to it by foot from a much emptier car park only a few miles away. We hiked along the Kaaterskill Railroad Trail, which took us right to the top of the falls. We could have hiked down a steep path to the base of the falls too, but it was very crowded, mostly by groups of people who had left the hustle and bustle of the city only to recreate it here in the countryside by having deafeningly loud conversations about nothing at all. Besides which, if we’d hiked down we’d have to hike back up, which isn’t that appealing with a belly full of cheeses and beers.
Instead, we hiked the trails around South Mountain, which were mostly empty, extremely peaceful, and gave beautiful views over the gorge and, in places, over the Hudson River Valley, which is stunning. We also met a man who told us he often saw bears around the trails and copperhead snakes. We saw him ten minutes later and, in that brief duration, he had seen an impressive snake that very day! We didn’t see any wildlife (other than a chipmunk) but we thought we did get a slight whiff of BS.