Downtown Riverhead during the Reflexions art installation. (Photo by Arthur Rast)

The North Shore Long Island Town of Riverhead gets its name from its location at the mouth of the Peconic River, but some might argue the region is truly defined by its seemingly endless expanse of farm fields. 

Boasting some 20,000 acres of LI’s 35,000 total acres of farmland, Riverhead proudly serves as the island’s “breadbasket,” with vast stretches of apple orchards, pumpkin farms, vineyards, and corn and potato fields. It’s also the gateway to the East End and home to a bounty of attractions and diversions.

“Riverhead is uniquely located at the crossroads of the East End of Long Island,” says Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith. “As the gateway to this distinct area of Long Island, Riverhead is home to sprawling farm fields, scenic beaches, a vibrant arts scene, and a different way of life. When you visit Riverhead you get to experience our rustic culture, and discover the pride we have in our special town.”

Riverhead has also played a vital role in LI’s political development. The smaller hamlet of Riverhead was literally put on the map in 1727 with the construction of the Suffolk County Court House, making it the seat of Suffolk government to this day. After the American Revolution, new jurisdictions divided Riverhead from the Town of Southold, making it its own official township in 1792. 

Over the successive centuries, downtown Riverhead has been on a roller coaster of prosperity — blossoming into a commercial hub in the 19th century, then experiencing urban blight in the mid-20th century — but began a recovery in the new millennium that has once again made it one of LI’s most recreationally diverse and culturally rich destinations.

When visiting Riverhead, the seasons will play a large role in how you spend your time, since so many activities there involve the outdoors and nature. What follows is a primer on the perennial draws that make Riverhead a favored community and keep visitors coming back for more:

Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center
The Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center in Riverhead is hosting informative talks, feedings, and a multitude of other sessions with its resident cute and snuggly African penguins, otters, seals, sharks and sea lions!

SLIPPERY WHEN WET

Between its riverfront and oceanfront location, Riverhead is anything but landlocked. Not to mention, there’s also Splish Splash (2549 Splish Splash Dr., Calverton, 631-727-3600, splishsplash.com), Long Island’s reigning water park, which is still the summer’s obligatory place to be when the mood hits you to don a bathing suit and shoot down 20 different water slides. The park also features two wave pools, a large kiddie area, lazy river, tropical bird shows, and the rides Bombs Away and Riptide Racer, which opened in 2018.

Then there’s the ever-growing Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center (431 E. Main St., 631-208-9200, ext. 426, longislandaquarium.com) which now features more than 80 exhibits, including Touch Tanks the kids will love. Take in regularly scheduled shows in the outdoor amphitheater, and/or pay the extra fee for a tour on the Atlantis Explorer Tour Boat, which takes guests down the Peconic River into Flanders Bay.

You can also work on your tan in Riverhead, and I’m not talking about a farmer’s tan. The town is home to four year-round beaches: Iron Pier Beach (Pier Rd., Jamesport, 631-727-5744), Wading River Beach (Creek Rd., Wading River, 631-727-5744), Reeves Beach (Park Rd., 631-727-5744) and South Jamesport Beach (Peconic Bay Blvd., Jamesport, 631-727-5744). The first three also offer boating access for both residents and visitors.

SHOPPER’S PARADISE

Riverhead’s not just about nature, either. Crowds regularly converge upon the town’s Tanger Outlets (200 Tanger Mall Dr., 631-369-2732, tangeroutlet.com/riverhead), in search of coveted bargains on goods from the likes of Polo Ralph Lauren, H&M, Nike, Off 5th, Williams Sonoma, Banana Republic, Gap, Barneys New York, Restoration Hardware and Coach, among others. There’s also a pretty decent food court, with Italian, Chinese and Mediterranean options, as well as a McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Nathan’s, Charley’s Philly Steaks and more. Shopping is hungry business.

CURTAIN CALLS

There’s an artistic pulse in Riverhead, too. One of its major arteries is the 350-seat Suffolk Theater (118 E. Main St., 631-727-4343, suffolktheater.com), a stunning, lovingly restored Art Deco movie theater dating to 1933. First closed in 1987, the theater was shuttered for nearly two decades, until Dianne and Bob Castaldi purchased it in 2005, breathing new life into the historic building. It now offers a cabaret-style/dinner theater setting, or traditional theater seating, enhanced by a state-of-the-art lighting and projection system. Upcoming performances include Canned Heat, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Yardbirds, comedian Bob Saget and Croce Plays Croce.

NEED FOR SPEED

For a truly iconic Riverhead experience, check out Riverhead Raceway (1797 Old Country Rd., 631-842-7223, riverheadraceway.com), one of the oldest existing stock car racetracks in the U.S. and the only NASCAR stock car track in the New York metro area. Since 1949, generations of speed-junkies have converged there to get their fix, whether from the stands or behind the wheel. Its one-quarter-mile asphalt, high-banked oval track also includes a famed Figure 8 course. It presents multiple racing divisions every Saturday night, with hundreds of cars in the pits, plus special shows like the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, INEX Legends National Qualifier, NEMA Midgets, Enduros, Demolition Derby, School Bus Figure 8 & Demo, Monster Trucks and more.

TAKE YOUR PICK

Pretty much wherever you look in Riverhead, you are reminded of the East End’s deep agrarian roots, even more so come harvest time. In that spirit, devote a morning or afternoon to visiting Goodale Farms (250 Main Rd., 631-901-5975, goodalefarms.com), one of LI’s lone providers of truly local dairy products and pastured meats, continuing a Goodale family tradition dating to the mid-1800s. Bring the kids and feed the farm’s baby pigs and goats, then go home with a trove of fresh milk, cheese, yogurt and other fine delicacies.

You may also feel inspired to dig deeper into Riverhead’s farming history, in which case a journey to the Hallockville Farm Museum (6038 Sound Ave., 516-298-5292, hallockville.com) is highly recommended.  The museum occupies the former Hallock Homestead, first built in 1765. Visiting its remarkably preserved original buildings and viewing the artifacts displayed throughout the museum offer a vibrant glimpse of life on a typical North Fork farm from 1880 to 1920. Its current special exhibit celebrates Hallockville’s first 250 years, spotlighting residents of the homestead and the preservation and foundation of the museum.

And of course, harvest season is all the encouragement one needs to spend a day leisurely picking apples and/or pumpkins, while loading up on pies, cider, cider doughnuts and similarly earthy treats. In Riverhead, a popular oasis for such pursuits is Harbes Orchard (5698 Sound Ave., 631-369-1111, harbesfamilyfarm.com), open from September through October. The 78-acre apple orchard grows 27 varieties of apples, using an innovative trellis system that keeps its tasty fruit within easy reach. Its apple-picking packages also include access to nine acres of on-the-vine u-pick pumpkins, sold by the pound.

And if you find yourself craving the fruit of another vine — like grapes, and more specifically, wine — you’ll be glad to know that Riverhead shares in the East End’s proud legacy of vineyards. There are multiple worthy options here, including Martha Clara Vineyards (6025 Sound Ave., 631-298-0075, marthaclaravineyards.com), Roanoke Vineyards (3543 Sound Ave., 631-727-4161, roanokevineyards.net), Paumanok Vineyards (1074 Main Rd. (Route 25), Aquebogue, 516-722-8800, paumanok.com) and Palmer Vineyards (5120 Sound Ave., Aquebogue, 516-722-9463, palmervineyards.com). A wine-tasting crawl in Riverhead is always a surefire good time; just remember to arrange transportation or a designated driver.

Hotel Indigo in Riverhead
Hotel Indigo in Riverhead

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Indigo Long Island – East End
1830 W. Main St., 631-369-2200, indigoeastend.com

Hilton Garden Inn Riverhead
2038 Old Country Rd., 631-727-2733, hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com

Hyatt Place Long Island East End
451 E. Main St., 631-208-0002, hyatt.com

Residence Inn Long Island East End
2012 Old Country Rd., 631-905-5811, marriott.com/Riverhead

The Preston House & Hotel
428 E. Main St., 631-775-1500, theprestonhouseandhotel.com

WHERE TO DINE

Buoy One
1175 W. Main St., 631-208-9737, buoyone.com

Farm Country Kitchen
513 W. Main St., 631-369-6311, farmcountrykitchenli.com

Jerry & The Mermaid
469 E. Main St., 631-727-8489, jerryandthemermaid.com

Turkuaz Grill
40 McDermott Ave., 631-591-1757, turkuazgrillriverhead.com

Tweeds Restaurant & Buffalo Bar
17 E. Main St., 631-237-8120, tweedsrestaurantriverhead.com

 

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Brendan Manley is an award-winning journalist, screenwriter and content development/marketing professional. He has extensive experience in newspaper and magazine publishing, as well as digital media, covering topics including arts and entertainment, sports, lifestyle, news, technology, travel and history. He is an ongoing contributor to Military History, Hotel News Now.com and HOTELS magazine, as well as the Long Island Press, where he formerly served as Managing Editor and Lifestyle section head. He is currently developing several of his original scripts for Hollywood, and consults on various film and scripted TV projects for studios, producers and financiers. Brendan is based in upstate New York's southern Adirondacks region.