BY SARAH BLANCHARD

Summering on the Atlantic

OUR PACIFIC OCEAN CAN ROCK US GENTLY IN A CALM LAGOON or thrill us with its power in a towering surf break. In Hawai’i, our beloved ocean is the main character in an ever-changing performance. And it’s always here beside us; all roads lead makai.

So why would anyone seek a windswept shore on the chilly North Atlantic? What, for example, could Cape Cod, Long Island’s Hamptons, Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard possibly offer to anyone who lives in Hawai’i?

Renowned novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, who has been everywhere and could choose to live anywhere, maintains residences in both Hawai’i and Cape Cod. There must be some very good reasons for that.

First, think of summer. Summer isn’t just a season, it’s a grand celebration of daylight and warmth that runs from early June to late September, and often returns for a brief encore in October. Outside of Hawai’i, summer is brief and intense … never taken for granted. It’s a much-anticipated gift, to be enjoyed in all its infinite possibilities. And at those northern latitudes, summer twilight is long and lingering. The dawn arrives ridiculously early, inviting a barefoot walk on a deserted beach at 4 in the morning. Cocktails on a wrap-around porch at sunset means sipping until after 9 p.m., when the twilight finally begins to dwindle.

Summer in these parts is also a verb. As in, “We plan to summer in the Hamptons this year.” Imagine mist-colored, shake-shingled cottages with white shutters, picket fences and fieldstone walls bearing a riot of roses set against cornflower-blue skies. Think of beach grass waving on wind-sculpted, white-sand dunes, all the way to where the sea meets the sky. Centuries-old fishing villages hug the shore, with fine oceanside restaurants and boutiques transplanted from New York or Boston.

In summer, there’s so much to do. There’s day-sailing and America’s Cup racing, summer-stock theater with Broadway casts, vineyard tours, yacht parties, jazz on the boardwalks, a different great restaurant every evening, string quartets on the lawn, gallery openings and dockside luncheons.

Or, if you wish, do very little. Enjoy latté and brioche at the corner café in the morning. Commune with the ocean in the afternoon. Nap. Experiment with pastels or photography. Read. Seek out a five-mile stretch of beach with no one else on it.

Every coastal village on the northeastern seaboard has a unique character, though many owe their existence to the whaling, shipbuilding or fishing industries. They were built by intrepid seafaring captains and investors who discovered fabulous wealth in the booming whale-oil markets of the 17th and 18th centuries. These entrepreneurs built amazing homes and furnished them with imported silks, china and fine furniture from Europe or the Orient, thus creating a unique culture blended from rugged Yankee enterprise and European culture.

While the whaling has fortunately disappeared from these shores, the grand style and unique charm created by the seafarers have been preserved in their homes and villages.

To thoroughly appreciate the summer experience, you’ll want to acquire a home of your own for at least two months, and use that as a base for excursions to other destinations. There’s a sharp distinction between summer people and day-trippers: summer people are seasonal residents; daytrippers are merely tourists. In mid-May, the summer people “come home for the summer” to Sag Harbor or East Hampton, Nantucket Town, Chatham or Vineyard Haven. At the end of September or beginning of October, the summer people reluctantly leave for their winter homes, promising to return next year when the plovers are nesting on Fire Island or the whales appear off the Cape.

THE HAMPTONS

Long Island is a barrier island that protects Connecticut’s southern shore from the open Atlantic, and it stretches 100 miles to the east from New York City. Its eastern end splits into North Fork and South Fork and ends at Montauk Point. Everything on South Fork, from Riverhead to Montauk, is referred to collectively as “the Hamptons.”

East Hampton is considered the heart of the Hamptons, and many of the region’s most prestigious summer residents live here. All of the villages are worth a look, however, when seeking a summer residence. Be sure to consider Bridgehampton, Westhampton, Southampton, Sag Harbor, Water Mill and Montauk as well.

One way to define the towns is to think of the shops. East Hampton is all about high-end shops and being seen in all the right places; Southampton features trendy, cutting-edge boutiques. For antiques, there’s Bridgehampton, while East Hampton, Water Mill and Southampton offer some very fine art galleries. Three to check out: the Parrish Art Museum (moving to a new building in Fall 2012), Watermill Center (www.watermillcenter.org) and the Pollack-Krasner House (www.pkhouse.org).

The 300-year-old Sag Harbor was home to John Steinbeck-writers’ colonies still abound. The Whaling Museum and the bookseller’s shop, Book Haven, help set the tone for life here.

Montauk is a fisherman’s paradise, with a huge variety of pleasure boats, full-service marinas and fishing charters. Montauk was a relatively sleepy small town until Andy Warhol took residence in the 1970s. More recently, the likes of Paul Simon, Dick Cavett and Robert DeNiro moved in.

Charters flights are available to the Hamptons (from NYC’s LaGuardia Airport) if you’re not flying your own aircraft. Another good choice is to sail in from the mainland, or drive the two hours from the city.

If you’re arriving via yacht, you can find a slip at one of the many marinas, which often have inns attached. Dozens of dockside restaurants also offer free slips or moorings and sometimes lodging for visiting sailors.

Living there, you’ll quickly learn the best places to dine and shop. Gems include Round Swamp Farm in East Hampton for a superb selection of local and gourmet foods, and Hampton Chutney in Amagansett for wonderful food to go.

Montauk Point is the site of the world-famous lighthouse. You can spend a day looking for seals and whales off-shore, build a bonfire on the beach and host a clambake, or have dinner on the waterfront at Inlet Seafood or Manucci’s.

Montauk Manor, built in 1925 as an English Tudor-style luxury inn by industrialist Carl Fisher, is a great lodging option, as is the exclusive Hedges Inn in East Hampton, or the Sag Harbor Inn.

Block Island, R.I., is a pretty little getaway just 14 miles off Long Island’s Montauk Point, and close to the coast of Connecticut. Lease a sailboat, take a day trip and find a mooring or tie up at Champlin’s Marina, Hotel and Restaurant in Great Salt Pond, then explore the island. Parasailing, horseback riding, dock parties and live music all occur here, in varying amounts depending on weather and day of the week.

The historic American Hotel and Restaurant in Sag Harbor is recommended for its innovative American-French menu, an extensive wine list and elegant lodging. The Stephen Talkhouse (www.stephentalkhouse.com) in Amagansett is a magnet for contemporary music fans; and the Stone Creek Inn (www.stonecreekinn.com) in East Quogue is well-regarded for its French and Mediterranean menu. Locals also recommend Cyril’s Fish House in Amagansett for food and sometimes music.

FIRE ISLAND

An interesting combination of public shoreline, unpaved roads, remote coastal towns and nightlife (in the town of Ocean Beach), Fire Island is a compact 32 miles long and only a few hundred feet wide- with 50-foot sand dunes, 17 tiny beachfront communities and the Fire Island National Seashore. Have lunch at Matthew’s Seafood House, wander the National Seashore and look for white-tail deer. No vehicles are allowed on Fire Island, which is indeed part of its allure; you can get there by private boat, bicycle or ferry. There are marinas at Watch Hill and Sailors Haven. Great South Bay, sheltered by Fire Island, is hugely popular with boaters and fishermen, but the bay is shallow, so be sure to consult the charts.

THE NORTH FORK

A year-round residential area with farmlands and vineyards, Long Island’s North Fork is where you go to drive “out into the country.” There are more than 40 wineries, where visitors can sign up for tastings and tours, or, to immerse yourself in a superb wine-and-dine experience. Look into attending one of the Long Island Wine Council’s celebrated wine camps, billed as a “four-day adventure in wine country.” See www.liwines.com.

The old shipbuilding town of Greenport is worth a visit for its authenticity. Preston’s Chandlery here is where you’ll want to restock your yacht-they’ve been in the business of keeping happy sailors since 1880. Also, the H.M.S. Bounty is permanently docked here, an 18th-century-style tall ship built in 1960 for the film Mutiny on the Bounty, more recently used in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Over the centuries, some of New York’s wealthiest families have built homes along these cliffs. Cold Spring Harbor is a lovely town with several outstanding restaurants and antique shops, as well as the Museum of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities.

MARTHA’S VINEYARD AND NANTUCKET

Like many villages on Long Island, these two Massachusetts islands came to prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries as major centers of world commerce for the whaling and international shipping industries. The whaling ships are long gone but the handsome gray-shingled captain’s houses reside on every lane, lovingly restored and preserved. They serve as a backdrop for a unique lifestyle that combines quaint country charm with casual elegance.

Martha Vineyard is a get-away-from-everything place with a total year-round population of 15,000; another 60,000 people claim summer residence. Nantucket’s population shifts from 10,000 in the winter to about 50,000 in the summer.

The communities on both islands are tightly knit, and they take great pride in providing privacy and a warm welcome for the rich and famous. President Obama and his family- when not in Kailua-vacation on the Vineyard.

The three towns on Martha’s Vineyard have distinctive personalities: Oak Bluffs for its kitsch, clamor, and Victorian gingerbread cottages; Edgartown for its history and quiet elegance; Vineyard Haven for its small-town charm. Daytime in Oak Bluffs is worth a quick look, if only to hop a ride on the Flying Horses Carousel, a working antique with real brass rings. At night, you’ll find free concerts, with noise and people spilling into the streets from the Circuit Avenue bars. For dinner in Oak Bluffs, consider Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company or the Sidecar Café and Bar.

By their own design, Edgartown residents lead a quiet life. Many delight in simple pleasures, like an early-morning walk to the lighthouse or an architectural tour of the 17th-century Vincent House, the island’s oldest home. For dining, try L’etoile for French cuisine or Détente Restaurant and Wine Bar for great seafood and a nice wine selection. The Wharf features good food and live music.

Vineyard Haven is a lovely little town with charming homes and shops. The historic Vineyard Playhouse offers many excellent productions, and the restaurants here offer great seafood-but no wine, ironically, as the town is dry. Go to Edgartown or Oak Bluffs if you prefer drinks with dinner.

A good way to see the Vineyard, with specific destinations and a purpose in mind, is to tour its five historic lighthouses. All are well-preserved, and all give a fascinating glimpse into the history of the people and coastal geography that have shaped the culture here.

NANTUCKET

This is your get-even-further-away-from-everything place. An island of spectacular, somewhat austere beauty, it intends to stay that way: More than 40 percent of Nantucket is a nature preserve. Properties on Nantucket don’t come on the market very often, and when they do, they command higher prices than anything else in the state, even in Boston’s posh Back Bay.

Nantucket Town is a beautifully preserved village with historic homes, many excellent restaurants, antiques shops and art galleries set on charmingly landscaped lanes and cobblestone streets. It’s a haven for artists and writers; the annual Nantucket Film Festival is a premier event for top screenwriters and film lovers from around the world.

In whaling days, Centre Street was known as “Petticoat Row” for its high-end shops that featured the very latest in ladies’ apparel and accessories from New York, Boston and the fashion centers of Europe. That tradition endures, along with an impressive array of highly regarded antiques shops.

Golfers also love Nantucket because the island’s several fine courses have been built with an eye to integrating them seamlessly into the conservation-minded landscape.

Fishermen flock here to seek out the coldwater game they won’t find in Hawaiian waters, such as striped bass and the bluefish that run in great swirling schools in late July and early August.

The beaches on Nantucket are among the finest in the region, though the water is always a bit cold for anyone accustomed to Hawai’i’s ocean temperatures. Jetties Beach is the most popular of the municipal beaches, but there are many miles of unpopulated, unmarked beaches, designated on the maps by native Mashpee names such as Quidnet, Sconset or Wauwinet. In many cases, you can simply park your bicycle or drop anchor and go ashore to explore the uninhabited beaches.

Stays on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket tend to be mostly of the B&B variety; there are also a few larger inns and resorts. Hanover House Inn in Vineyard Haven (www.hanoverhouseinn.com), Winnetu Oceanside Resort in Edgartown (www.Winnetu.com)-and its excellent Lure restaurant-are recommended.

The Veranda House in Nantucket is a well-regarded boutique hotel (www.theverandahouse.com) while the beachfront Nantucket’s Cliffside Beach Club and inn (www.cliffsidebeach.com) offers a limited number of refined rooms.

Several ferries run from Cape Cod and New York City to the Vineyard and Nantucket, some of which will carry vehicles. Flying your own plane or charter aircraft means daily flights from New York; smaller island planes from Hyannis and Providence’s Green Airport can have you on either island in an hour.

CAPE COD

More than 100 years ago, Henry David Thoreau stood on Cape Cod’s great Outer Beach and noted, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” If you crave solitude and a far-asthe-eye-can-see beach experience, follow Thoreau. His beach and many others are now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which stretches from Provincetown south to Monomoy Island off Harwich. It encompasses more than 40 miles of shoreline and 43,000 acres of glorious dunes, forests and beaches, dotted with the occasional bit of driftwood and windblown plein-aire artist.

“The Cape” curves out from the Massachusetts shoreline in a long arm of forests and sand dunes. “Upper Cape” is the southern, more populated part (Falmouth, Woods Hole) and “Lower Cape” is the northern end that narrows to Provincetown at its tip.

Head for Falmouth, a picturesque town full of art galleries, great shops, museums and theatres. Or you can avoid the upper Cape entirely, and head straight via air or water to Chatham, Harwich or Brewster, near the Cape’s “elbow.” Fly to Hyannis or the even smaller Chatham airport and rent a vehicle, or if you’re planning a longer stay you can travel with your car by ferry from the port in Boston.

Of course, sailing in on your own boat is a nice option. Numerous ports and marinas dot the Cape’s long coast on both the bayside and oceanside; some of the best are in Barnstable and Hyannis.

Provincetown, the acknowledged center of the East Coast’s summertime gay/lesbian universe, has a great boat harbor, funky shops, excellent restaurants, and easy access points for the northern end of the National Seashore. It’s also a great place to see lighthouses, since there are three of them here in close proximity (Race Point, Long Point and Wood End).

The Cape has more than 550 miles of beaches. Sandy Neck is a 6-mile-long barrier beach on the bayside that is home to protected nests of piping plovers. South Beach, accessible only by boat, is a very secluded strip of beautiful shoreline perfect for a romantic picnic with wine, cheese, fruit and a blanket. Nauset Beach is a 9-mile stretch located along the outer elbow of the Cape. Spectacular dunes and often big surf are standard here. It’s not O’ahu’s North Shore, but you may be tempted to break out the board and try ’em. (Remember your wetsuit; it’s cold.)

Coast Guard Beach in Eastham is where you’ll really want to say you’ve surfed the Atlantic. This is another piece of the National Seashore that’s known for its summer swells. Race Point Beach, close to Provincetown, boasts a steep drop-off and swift currents. Visit the lighthouse and look for whales off the coast.

Bunk down at Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in Chatham, which has hosted guests since 1925. It offers great golf, sailing and tennis clinics. Try to reserve one of the waterfront clapboard cottages, furnished in an upscale country style. Their restaurant, Twenty-eight Atlantic, is considered one of the Cape’s finest. (www.wequasset.com)

Built on a 25-acre estate in 1914 by a well-to-do Boston family, The Chatham Bars Inn overlooks the Atlantic from a tall ocean bluff. Here’s elegance, refinement and probably the best classic clay tennis court on Eastern Seaboard. The Chatham Bars also houses a state-of-the-art gym and fitness center; and offers luxury boat charters. (www.chathambarsinn.com)

For country style and attention to detail, you can’t do better than The Captain’s House Inn in Chatham. Most of the rooms in this small inn have cozy fireplaces and are furnished with antiques. If you’re tempted to return in the winter for a Cape Cod Christmas, this is the place to be.

Originally built in 1890, the historic Nickerson Mansion and Carriage House in Brewster overlooks Cape Cod Bay. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is the centerpiece of Ocean Edge Resort and Club, which boasts 11 tennis courts, a private beach and the only Nicklaus-designed golf course on the Cape. (www.oceanedge.com)

Finally, worth noting are the summer affairs in Newport, R.I., just up from the Cape. Reserve one of the East’s finest summer cottages, and dig into either the Newport Jazz & Folk Festival, a Classical Music Festival, or the 2012 America’s Cup World Series, which runs June 23-July 1. Another wonderful event is the Newport International Boat Show in September, with an amazing display of or large and beautifully appointed boats, many of which you can sail on for a day cruise.