New York isn't usually synonymous with miles of white, sandy beaches, sparkling blue water, and once-in-a-lifetime sunsets. But just a few miles southeast of the Big Apple, visitors can find a place that's just as majestic and isolated as a Caribbean island, minus the palm trees.
Fire Island is a summer getaway for Manhattanites tired of city living and Long Island families aching for a change from their suburban monotony. Since most of Fire Island is inaccessible to cars and can be reached only by ferry, it has a rustic ambiance unique to the densely populated tri-state area. The origins of Fire Island's name are murky, ranging from stories about Native Americans building fires on shore to lure ships into sandbars to the fiery appearance of the island at sunset during autumn.
At its farthest, Fire Island is just five miles south of Long Island at the point where the convenient ferries taxi back and forth across the Great South Bay. It spans about 31 miles, but isn't wider than a quarter of a mile at any point. Since it faces south, Fire Island is exposed to direct sunlight all day, making it irresistible to devout sun worshippers. With some of the softest and whitest sand around, it's hard to believe the silica-glistening concrete of New York City sits only 50 miles away.
Fewer than 500 people reside on Fire Island year-round, so businesses cater to tourists all summer, with plenty of things to do and see. The 150-year-old Fire Island Lighthouse is only a short walk from Robert Moses State Beach parking field five on Long Island. On a clear day, visitors can catch a glimpse of the New York City skyline from the top of it.
Fire Island's dynamic communities offer a variety of activities and people to meet and are mostly within walking distance from one another. Ocean Beach is indisputably the biggest and most booming of all, and many people refer to it as the "capital" of Fire Island. It has more stores, clubs, and bars than any other area. With influxes of tourists, Main Street can get crowded, but families shouldn't stay away. It also has some 600 houses in quiet residential areas, protected from the party scene of rowdy singles. Some visitors may not want to spend a fortune renting an entire beach house. That's OK in Ocean Beach. The community is home to numerous hotels like the cute boutique Palms Hotel and the family-owned Clegg's Hotel. Ocean Beach even had its own reality television show back in the summer of 1996 called "One Ocean View", giving people across the country a glimpse into what it's like to spend a summer on whimsical Fire Island.
Away from the clamor of Ocean Beach, Davis Park remains a more family-oriented community. That doesn't mean singles aren't welcome, though. In fact, there is still a large population of young people in rentals and shares here. It's comprised of Leja Beach, Ocean Ridge, and Davis Park, the primary residential center. The Casino Cafe is the most happening spot in Davis Park. It serves as a fine-dining restaurant as well as a martini bar and overlooks the Great South Bay, Atlantic Ocean, and the entire Davis Park area. It is the only restaurant on Fire Island with an ocean view.
At the most western point of the island, Kismet is aglow with nightlife, its dancing, drinking, dining, and large population of young singles the fire's fuel. Kismet is also one of the only communities somewhat accessible by car. Visitors can park at Robert Moses State Beach on Long Island and take a 15-minute walk there. Rental shares are plentiful in Kismet, but there are quite a few year-round residents as well. The most appealing part of Kismet is its quiet beaches. This is the place for folks looking for peaceful, laid-back surroundings along with the small-town charm of family-owned restaurants, bars, markets, and discos. After all, peaceful doesn't have to be boring.
Possibly the most fabulous of all Fire Island communities are famed Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines. These neighboring communities are known for their vibrant gay communities. The Pines is the largest community on the island, with around 700 homes and a bustling downtown area of boutiques, restaurants, bars, and a grocery store. Cherry Grove also has an impressive downtown area. Both organize fundraisers for gay charities and fantastically flamboyant gay cultural events every year. The Pines holds the annual Invasion of the Pines, while Cherry Grove hosts the Miss Fire Island contest, where drag queens descend upon the communities showcasing their pride. Families beware: Cherry Grove is home to nude beachgoers of all shapes and sizes, a part of its liberal philosophy. These communities may not be the best for children, but straight visitors certainly shouldn't avoid them, either. In fact, they might learn something new about gay culture.
For a taste of north Atlantic island living, Fire Island is the perfect place to rent a beach house, sit back and sip on a Long Island iced tea.
- Address: 41 River Rd, Sayville, NY 11782
- Phone: 631-589-0810
- Website: www.sayvilleferry.com
- Fare: $14 round trip; $7.25, one way; children under 12, $6.50 round trip; $3.50 one way.
- Operate year round to Cherry Grove, Fire Island Pines, Sunken Forest and Water Island.
- Bay Shore:
- Address: 99 Maple Avenue, Bay Shore, NY 11706
- Phone: 631-665-3600
- Website: www.fireislandferries.com
- Fare: $17 round trip; $9 one way; $7.50 round trip for children under 12; $4.50 one way.
- Operate year round to Ocean Beach, Fair Harbor, Dunewood, Atlantique, Kismet, Saltaire, Ocean Bay Park and Seaview.
- Davis Park Ferry / Address: 80 Brightwood St., Patchogue, NY 11772
- Watch Hill Ferry / Address: 160 West Avenue, Patchogue, NY 11772
- Phone: 631-475-1665
- Website: www.davisparkferry.com
- Fare: $16 round tip; $8.50 one way; $10.50 children round trip; $5.75 one way.
- Operate from mid-March through November to Davis Park and Watch Hill in the National Seashore park from two ferry terminals.