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It’s early evening on Wainscott Beach, a well-hidden strip of white sand and pounding shoreline a few miles beyond the village of East Hampton. A decidedly chilly breeze is gathering strength. During the summer season, hurricanes arrive in this exposed part of Long Island as reliably as the Cannonball trains from New York City, but tonight, at least, there’s plenty of warmth on offer from a blazing firepit and a circle of tall, open-flame torches. They glow steadily brighter as the sunlight fades.

For the Wiesenmaier family, sitting around a long, fold-down picnic table, drinking wine from plastic cups and preparing for a clambake of lobster tails and slow-roasted potatoes cooked by two chefs on an enormous outdoor grill, this pristine corner of the US eastern seaboard has tonight been transformed into America's most exclusive restaurant.

'It's hard to beat, right?' laughs Kurt Wiesenmaier, a 27-year-old New Yorker, who has organised the dinner for his mother's birthday. He adds that although his parents have owned a second home in nearby Three Mile Harbour for decades, 'They've never done this before. I don't know why - I mean, look at the view: it's so good, you can take a swim in it.'

Aside from this small gathering, the beach is empty; nothing but pristine sand dunes and surf, all the way to the almost Northumbrian-looking Georgica Pond. The pond is in fact a coastal lagoon, where Bill Clinton set up a 'summer White House' during the worst days of the Monica Lewinsky affair. The seclusion isn't an accident: unless you've been given specific directions for navigating East Hampton's identical-looking back roads, many of them lined by towering, maze-like hedges, access to the beach can be near impossible to find. Parking is also a challenge. A resident's permit helps greatly, the cost of which could easily run to, oh, £20 million, or whatever the going price is for one of the iconic, white-painted, shingle-sided beach houses.

Current permit-holders include Sir Paul McCartney, Steven Spielberg and Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs. For everyone else, there are bicycles, which can be parked anywhere. No-one bothers with locks: you could pretty much leave your wallet and keys on the seat, return a couple of days later, and they'd be exactly where you'd left them.

All of which, of course, is exactly what has come to be expected of the Hamptons, a broad term applied to the preppy towns, villages and hamlets at the East End of Long Island, originally settled by the Montaukett tribe of Native Americans, then seized by English colonists in the mid-17th century. This semi-rural peninsula of New York state, which juts out into the Atlantic in two thin forks, has become world-famous for its extraordinary wealth and privilege, and the high society of polo games, lawn parties and sports cars that go with it.

But it's not just the scale of the wealth that's notable in the Hamptons, it's the age of it. In some cases, the money is so old it predates the US itself. Take the Gardiner family, for example: they bought their private island from the Montauketts (for some powder and shot, a few Dutch blankets and a dog, allegedly) some 372 years ago, and were duly awarded a royal warrant from Charles I, which, as far as anyone knows, remains in effect today. In theory, this means they can perform trials and hangings at their leisure.

Disappointingly, the Gardiners have never found a reason to exercise this right, not even when Captain Kidd tried to bury some pirate treasure on their land; or, a few centuries later, when Ernest Hemingway came ashore for a spot of game hunting and, so it's been claimed, let off a round at what he thought was the glint of a deer's eye... but turned out to be a passing car.

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