Standing on the private beach at Gurney's Montauk Resort, it's impossible to picture it without The Beach Club serving oversized bottles of rosé. The Hamptons has long been seen as an extension of New York City in the summer — with the restaurants, culture, and social opportunities of Manhattan brought 120 miles outside the city and set on the beach. And Montauk is now the epicenter of that Hamptons scene — culturally, not geographically — when 50 years ago, it wasn't even considered part of The Hamptons.
In August 1989, The New York Times ran an article on the history of Montauk in which it specifically called out "Montauk's historic isolation from the Hamptons." The article places Montauk "beyond the clipped expensive foliage of the Hamptons, [where] the wind blows harder, the waves curl higher, the light reflects with a scouring whiteness off the restless back of the Atlantic."
As the Times description suggests, Montauk wasn't attracting The Hamptons goers in the '70s and '80s — it was a fishing and surfing village. Montauk was where your freshly caught tuna came from, rather than where your impossible-to-book dinner reservation was. It was appealing for those looking to surf the best waves, but not the New York City crowds after a beachfront cocktail. If you weren't here to chase wave breaks at the crack of dawn, you'd rather be miles from Montauk on the West End with the rest of New York City.
Michael Nenner, general manager of Gurney's Montauk Resort, says the local Montauk crowd of the '70s, '80s, and '90s primarily worked in hospitality on the West End. While today the real estate prices put Montauk out of reach, it was the affordable place to crash before 2000.
"All the hospitality and service staff lived here and would drive west for jobs," Nenner said.
There was, however, a seed of culture starting to take root in Montauk by the '70s. An alternative arts scene was popping up slowly, on the heels of the Rolling Stones quietly coming through Montauk a few years before. Still, it was primarily the locals enjoying this sporadic yet growing culture. The tourists buying homes around this time — which, it should be said, is roughly akin to buying Apple stock before the iPhone — were few and far between.
Gurney's Resort was just a timeshare property back then. But in 1980, Gurney's planted one more seed that became an essential root of Montauk culture: They built a spa. It was one of the first international spas in New York. They wanted the spa to speak to the healing powers of the seawater (even giving out seawater shots because it was detoxifying, according to Nenner). And their hair salon, manicure and pedicure stations, and 40 treatment rooms were open to the community and tourists alike.
"It was really way before it's time," Nenner said.
It wasn't just the first luxury spa in Montauk — it was the first in the Hamptons, setting the tone 41 years ago for the wellness retreats that have been popping up since.
It still took another 20 years for Montauk to truly catch up — the shift from West Hampton and Southampton didn't happen until the early 2000s, Nenner explained. Nonetheless, the wellness trend in the Hamptons surged on the same timeline. And, of course, in the last few years, The Hamptons has finally started to fully identify as a wellness destination — thanks in part to the spa at Gurney's that opened in 1980.
In 2019, The Surf Lodge, Gurney's neighbor and another must-visit spot in Montauk, opened a separate wellness space: The Sanctuary. The Surf Lodge's half Zen, half workout enclave brought top-tier wellness talent to Montauk. Shou Sugi Ban House — admittedly closer to Southampton but certainly attracting guests on their way to Montauk — appeared on the scene that same year, a 13-room Japanese-inspired wellness retreat offering sound baths and personalized wellness journeys.
Finally, this year, Gurney's Montauk Resort is unveiling their brand new spa — an homage to the space that started the Montauk wellness trend 41 years ago. Their new Seawater Spa, designed by Ignacio Alonso who is also the talent behind AIRE Ancient Baths in Tribeca, capitalizes on the waterfront location, with indoor-outdoor treatment rooms that let the sea air wash over guests. Imagine a seaweed wrap in full view of the water, or a treatment in the salt room followed by hydrotherapy in the five plunge pools. That's what the upcoming Seawater Spa is all about.
"We went for the trifecta — sea, salt, and sand — all of the minerals you get from seawater," said Nenner in describing the highly anticipated spa. "Salt really being detoxifying, good for your respiratory system, sand being great for exfoliating and stimulating your metabolism."
The new Seawater Spa may not serve seawater shots this time around, but the seed planted at Gurney's 50 years ago really did blossom into a world-class wellness culture in Montauk.
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