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A Local's Guide to Water Mill

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One of the little Hamptons in between

The People's Guide is a new series examining the many neighborhoods of the Hamptons, led by our most loyal readers, favorite bloggers, and other luminaries of our choosing. Got something to say? We'll be happy to hand over the megaphone.

Continuing in our series on Hamptons neighborhoods, we asked Austin Handler, an interior designer with Mabley Handler and a proud resident of Water Mill, for all the insider knowledge about the burg.

Tell us something we don't know about Water Mill.

Water Mill isn't a town or a village: it's a hamlet (which is typically a village that doesn't have a market or a church). Water Mill is the only place on the East End with both a functional water mill and windmill, so we've got that going for us. Incidentally, the water mill from which our hamlet claims its name was built by Edward Howell, one of the original settlers of Southampton. The water mill was completed sometime around 1644, but was moved and rebuilt several times until it arrived at its current location in 1790. The mill changed hands over the years, but fell into disrepair in the early 1900s. However, in 1921 the Ladies Auxiliary of Water Mill began the acquisition process and eventually took stewardship of the mill. In 1976, after their years of efforts, research, fund-raising, preservation and reconstruction, our town's water mill was running once again thanks to their hard work. Today, the building that houses the mill works is the site of the Water Mill Museum, which is well worth a visit.

What are some local customs of note?

In the wintertime, if it gets cold enough for long enough, the locals go ice skating on Mill Pond,and ice sailing on Mecox Bay, both of which are wonderful things to watch and participate in. The annual Easter egg hunt hosted by the Water Mill Community Club is charming and low key, definitely one of the more enjoyable Easter activates in the Hamptons, especially for parents with young children. The classic car show that takes place every fall on the hamlet green is also one of the more popular annual events in town.

Can you tell us about some hidden gems in Water Mill?

Flying Point Beach is Water Mill's main beach, but there is another beach area commonly referred to as "The Cut" further down Flying Point Road. This is where Mecox Bay cuts through to the ocean. As the tides rise and fall and the water flows in and out of the bay, tidal pools are often formed, making The Cut a favorite destination for beachgoers with toddlers because they can safely play in the pools. Unlike Flying Point Beach, there is no paid parking lot at The Cut, so unless you're lucky enough to score one of the 20-30 parking spots (which require a resident beach parking sticker), the only way you can access the beach is if you bike, walk, or get dropped off. That, combined with the fact that it is a much deeper beach area, makes the beach at The Cut much less crowded than Flying Point, and thus a favorite among locals. As for the nearby Mecox Bay, it's a great location for standup paddleboarding, kayaking, kite boarding, and fishing/crabbing.

Do you need a car to get around?

Unless you live south of the highway, it's probably a good idea to own a car. While the Jitney has a drop-off right in Water Mill, the train stops either in Southampton or Bridgehampton, each 5-10 minutes away. It can be a little hairy trying to bike (or even run) on Montauk Highway or along the backroads, so driving is advisable. But if you like to bike, the roads south of the highway are wonderful for biking, and you can get from Water Mill to Southampton Village without going anywhere near the highway.

Is Water Mill good for kids?

There is an incredible variety of things for kids to do in Water Mill year round. From swimming and surfing at the beaches in the summer (Flying Point and The Cut), to pumpkin patches and apple picking in the fall (Hank's Pumpkintown and Seven Ponds Orchards), to pond ice skating in the winter (Mill Pond), to horseback riding in the spring (Two Trees and Bright Side Farm, Matt and Annette Lauer's brand new equestrian facility on Deerfield Road). There are also great educational offerings nearby, such as the Children's Museum of the East End and the South Fork Natural History Museum, both located just outside of Water Mill in Bridgehampton.

How about telling us about the most beloved neighborhood joint.

Two of Water Mill's favorite local spots are Hampton Coffee Company for breakfast/brunch, and Suki Zuki for lunch and dinner. Both are often packed and thrive in the off-season as well. The sushi at Suki Zuki is fresh and delicious, and there is a lively bar scene there. Hampton Coffee Company is a fun brunch destination, with spacious seating inside and a charming garden area in the back. They also have a take-out counter for coffee, pastrie,s and smoothies. The Princess Diner is a local institution. Just one word of warning: the bathroom is for customers only (as Britney Spears found out several years ago when she was turned away). But there's another kind of neighborhood joint that Water Mill is known for: farm stands. Local favorites include the Halsey Farm Stand on Deerfield Road, The Milk Pail on Montauk Highway, and The Green Thumb located next door to Hampton Coffee Company, which is one of the few certified organic farm stands in all of the Hamptons.

What's the nicest park?

Water Mill's most well-known park is Downs Park, located just on the border of Southampton. It has soccer fields, baseball and t-ball fields, and a great playground/jungle gym area for kids. It's a perfect destination for both adults and kids who want to participate in organized sports or just burn off a little steam. There is also Burnett Field, which is owned and maintained by the Water Mill Community Club. It comprises four buildings, three tennis courts, and a field which is used for baseball and soccer camps. The Water Mill Community Club hosts several community events there throughout the year, and the grounds and facilities are also available for private rental. And, while not technically a park, Water Mill's hamlet green is a nice open grassy area for kids and dogs to run around.

What's not-so-swell about Water Mill?

I would say that Water Mill's biggest drawback is the lack of a more substantial town center. If you need to run out for groceries, you have to go to Southampton or Bridgehampton. On the other hand, because of Water Mill's central location, it's quite easy to get to Southampton, Bridgehampton, or even Sag Harbor, all along the back roads. And those back roads come in handy in the fall when the crowds at Pumpkintown slow traffic to a crawl on Montauk Highway. Most locals don't venture out onto that stretch of highway between Memorial Day and Halloween!

What's the neighborhood housing stock like?

According to Jonathan Smith, a broker with Sotheby's International Realty, there are some really great buys on Little Noyac Path and Uncle Leo's Lane, because you can get a lot of value north of the highway. For those in the market for waterfront, he says that there are some beautiful estates available along Mecox Bay. Water Mill waterfront is unique because you are in close proximity to the calm of the bay as well as some of the best ocean beaches. No other town in the Hamptons has so many real estate options with such immediate access to a bay and the ocean.

Is it better for buyers or renters?

Jonathan says that the market is equally good for buyers and renters. He sees rentals available at every price point, from seasonal rentals as low as $20,000 up to gorgeous waterfront estates that rent for over a million. The sales market is also strong and there are great opportunities to invest in what has historically been one of the strongest housing markets in the world. And since Water Mill is more low-key than Southampton or East Hampton, it could be seen as more appealing to people who are looking for a little more privacy. On the other hand, if you're just visiting, the newly-renovated White Fences Inn is a very cool place to stay for a summer weekend trip to Water Mill.

What's Water Mill's best-kept secret?

I don't think many people realize how much of an art hub Water Mill has become. Of course, the Parrish Art Museum is very prominent addition to the neighborhood since it moved here in 2014, but there are other amazing art destinations as well. The Watermill Center, while not as visible as the Parrish, has been home to all manner of interesting art offerings for the past decade, from exhibitions of talented up-and-coming artists, to avant-garde performing arts presentations, to their wonderful outdoor sculpture gardens. And as for art galleries, there is the noteworthy Sara Nightingale Gallery in downtown Water Mill, as well as the Celadon Gallery and the Clay Art Guild of the Hamptons, both located near the Water Mill Museum.

What's the stereotype about the town?

To my knowledge, Water Mill doesn't have any particular stereotypes, other than maybe the fact that it's perceived to be one of the sleepier towns in the Hamptons. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing!

Thanks! Now, the final word on Water Mill.

There's a great New Yorker cartoon from the 80s, featuring a man on his beachfront balcony toasting the sunset. The caption reads "Here's to East, West, South, and Bridgehampton, and all the little Hamptons in between." I've always proudly considered Water Mill to be one of those little Hamptons in between.