Long Island Park A Coveted Annual Ritual
On the first morning that Bill and Susan Bahlatzis and their two sons, then 3 and 7, camped at Hither Hills State Park in Montauk, N.Y., “the seagulls stole our entire breakfast in two minutes,” Bill Bahlatzis recalled with a wry smile earlier this summer at the park’s oceanfront campground.
That was in 1994, when the couple didn’t yet know about screenhouses – portable shelters with mesh sides that protect one’s breakfast from winged intruders. The family had driven down from their home near Albany, N.Y., with just a tent, sleeping bags and the desire, Susan Bahlatzis said, “to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean,” according to the New York Times.
They returned the following year with more equipment, including a screenhouse and air mattresses – although “we had to blow up our mattress in the bathroom with a hand dryer,” she Bahlatzis admitted.
So, the next year, they added a battery-powered air pump. Since then, the campsite amenities have grown steadily for the Bahlatzis family – Susan, 45; Bill, 48; Dave, 17; and Jonathan, 21 – for whom a stay at Hither Hills is pretty much an annual ritual.
“Montauk is my favorite place to go,” said Bill Bahlatzis, a licensed practical nurse who also runs his family’s diner in Albany. What draws him back every year to this state campground on the eastern tip of Long Island, he said, is “the serenity of being on the ocean,” as well as the uncommercialized, family-friendly atmosphere of the park, four miles west of Montauk village. Gulls aside, “the only confrontation we’ve had is with the weather,” which can be fickle, he said.
The Bahlatzis family are actually relative newbies to Hither Hills. “A lot of these people have been coming here 20 or 30 years,” Mike English, the park supervisor, said in a telephone interview.
Take John Eells, 51, a computer programmer from Pleasant Valley, N.Y., who was putting away scuba gear after an outing with his son David, 23. “I’ve been coming here since the year before he was born,” Eells said. “There was a group of us that came here, all friends, from New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Some of them are here.”
The Eellses’ 34-foot recreation vehicle amply housed Eells, his wife, Pennie, 51, and their son. But its size was not unusual for Hither Hills, where accommodations traditionally range from the simplest of tents to motorhomes with plasma TVs.
There is keen competition for the 168 campsites. Set within 1,755 acres of woodlands and beach, the campground is invariably full for the summer, park administrators say. Though Long Island has two other state campgrounds, Hither Hills is the most coveted, said George Gorman, the deputy regional director for Long Island of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
To reserve a spot, campers generally start hitting their speed dials exactly nine months before they hope to start their vacation. “It’s like concert tickets,” said Sue Volpato, 38, of Putnam Valley, N.Y., who was staying at Hither Hills with her husband, Joe, 43, their son, Joseph, 6, and family friends.
Campers are allowed only one seven-night reservation during the peak season. But it’s a poorly kept secret that visitors often wangle additional stays by having friends or a family member with a different last name make another reservation.
They are motivated, perhaps, by a wide stretch of powdery sand and the Atlantic surf, attended in season by lifeguards. Evenings are simultaneously low key and buzzing with activities like twilight softball games, family-style movies, and on Monday nights, country-western line dancing.
Campsites are $24 to $27 a night for New York State residents, double that for out-of-staters. Nationwide, the economic downturn may be making such low-budget vacations especially appealing, said Stuart Bourdon, the editor of Camping Life magazine. Sales of outdoor equipment are slightly higher than last summer, he said, and “campground reservations this summer are at an all-time high.”