Long, thin Long Island stretches east from Manhattan  for about 120 miles. Though the largest of islands on the East Coast, it does not enjoy the idyllic, peaceful reputation of serenity that the term island usually brings to mind. Unfortunately, due to over-publicized reports of celebs behaving badly and reality shows flaunting excess over substance, the region’s pristine nature preserves, charming little sleepy fishing villages, and some of the finest white-sand beaches in the world are all but forgotten.
At the westernmost end of the island are the New York City  boroughs of Brooklyn  and Queens , so in common parlance, Long Island begins at the Queens-Nassau County border. Remarkably though, given its proximity to New York City, much of it is still farmland, dunes, and beach. The farther east you travel, the more the island resembles its Algonquin name, Paumanok, said to mean “the island with its breast long drawn out and laid against the sea.”
The most spectacular shores are along the South Shore , where white sands and dunes stretch out for an incredible, all-but-unbroken 123 miles. Most of the beaches along the northern coast front the gentle waters of Long Island Sound, and are small and pebbly. Sailors satisfy their windlust, birders and anglers connect with the quiet side of the island, even surfers have found a toehold here to hang ten.
Beaches aside, both shores and forks have much to offer the visitor. The North Shore  is home to many of Long Island’s 75 museums, as well as private mansions and nature preserves.
The more rural North Fork  holds yet more historic sites, picturesque harbors and bays, orchards, organic farms and a flourishing wine industry.
Both the North and South Forks, with their historic villages and windswept shores, are astonishingly beautiful, and remind you of a central fact that’s curiously easy to forget: This really is an island, with an idiosyncratic culture very different from that of the mainland.
The major west-east thoroughfares traversing Long Island are Routes 25 and 25A to the north; the Long Island Expressway (LIE), or I-495, mid-island; and the Sunrise Highway/Route 27 and the older Montauk Highway (Routes 27A and 80) to the south. The Southern State Parkway also traverses the South Shore , but ends mid-island, at Heckscher State Park .
Keep in mind that traffic on Long Island can be horrific. Avoid the Long Island Expressway during rush hour and on summer Friday afternoons, when thousands of Manhattanites head for the Hamptons .
A good alternative to driving is taking public transportation. Many Long Island communities, including those on the North  and South Forks , can be reached from Manhattan  via the Long Island Rail Road (718/217-5477 or 516/822-5477, www.mta.info/lirr ). Fares are reasonable and taxis are usually available at the other end.
The Sunrise Express (631/477-1200 or 800/527-7709) offers bus service between Manhattan and various North Fork villages. The Hampton Jitney (631/283-4600 or 800/936-0440) services the Hamptons.
Ferries operate between Connecticut  and Long Island. The Cross Sound Ferry (631/323-2525 or 860/443-5281, www.longislandferry.com ) travels between New London and Orient Point . The Bridgeport/Point Jefferson Ferry (631/473-0286) lands you in Port Jefferson , an easy hour’s drive to the west of the North Fork.