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But there's no danger of the Hamptons coming down to earth any time soon. It's still a place where hopelessly urbanised weekenders and second-homers are willing to pay handsomely for rustic experiences, provided only too happily by locals whose other sources of income (such as whaling and potato farming) have long vanished.

Take that clambake on Wainscott Beach, for example. A company named Claws on Wheels is one of a few that will take care of everything - using their employees' residents' permits to literally drive a grill onto the beach - for £80-£100 per head. For parties under 50, guests can legally bring their own alcohol. 'For people who were born and bred here like me, this used to be a very basic, simple thing to do,' says Emma Beudert, 24, who manages the operation from a small industrial estate. 'Now it's still simple, but it's also a luxury.' And it isn't cheap. Kurt Wiesenmaier's bill was nearly £1,300, all in. That's modest, however, compared with another Claws on Wheels customer, who recently entertained 200 friends on the beach. The total? £50,000.

Not everything in the Hamptons is high-class though. Especially not at Cyril's Fish House, a shack on Route 27, owned by 68-year-old Irishman, Cyril Fitzsimons. He came to America 45 years ago and enlisted in the US Marine Corps. 'I wanted to fight in a war, and Vietnam was the only one available,' he explains from under his straw hat. 'I was a platoon sergeant, Charlie company, 1st battalion, 5th Marines. My tour lasted 14 months.'

The food at Cyril's is cheap, fried and not very memorable. But the drinks are strong, and the locals - among them a few Long Island fishermen, known as Bonackers, or Bubbies (they once had their own dialect) - can't get enough of it. Above the bar hangs a New York license plate which reads 'HAMMERED'. Another sign boasts: 'Cyril's... a sunny place for shady people'.

Then there's the banner in the car park, which makes sure everyone knows that 'Eastern Long Island Police Respect Cyril'. Perhaps that's why so many people seem to have no problem staggering from the bar to their convertibles on a Saturday night.

Every day during the summer, the man himself can be found sitting near the front of house, chain-smoking Marlboro reds. With his ginger moustache, sun-destroyed hair and huge, rhinestone-studded watch, he's become a Hamptons icon. Nevertheless, conversation with Cyril isn't advisable beyond 3pm, by which time he has made the most of his own hospitality. And as soon as the season ends, he's gone: he flies to Anguilla in the Caribbean, where he owns two other establishments. He came to this part of Long Island, he says, to 'meet the rich and famous', which is precisely what he did. Visitors to his shack have included President Richard Nixon: 'I was a big fan.'

Another escape from the old-money Hamptons can be found at Sunset Beach, a bar, restaurant and hotel on Shelter Island, which lies between the north and south forks. To get there, you take a drive-on ferry, which crosses an absurdly narrow channel of water and seems to arrive before it has even set sail. Between the French bistro menu, the boozy, well-dressed crowd and the sunset views from the roof-deck over Pipes Coves, you could almost be in St Barts. The food is excellent - the branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) is perfect - although it should be for the Manhattan prices. The only problem is claustrophobia, which sets in with alarming speed when a ferry separates you from the mainland. After dinner, it's a relief to be making for the lights of Sag Harbor ahead.

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