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 Travel Article Travel Article Archive  
June 2009 Email this to a friend

Fire Island

By Michael K Lavers


After the summer crowds leave its sand shores, Fire Island is at its best.

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NOTE: This is an archive article. For an updated and expanded Fire Island article click DailyXtraTravel

Fire Island is known for many things -- oceanfront circuit parties that draw thousands of muscle- bound boys, kitschy drag queens of varying degrees of talent and good taste, and sexual liaisons on the stretch of seashore between Cherry Grove and the Fire Island Pines dubbed the Meatrack.�
There are many attractions for summer visitors to Fire Island. But this 34-mile-long barrier island that parallels the South Shore of Long Island, roughly 60 miles east of Manhattan, truly delights once the hordes of day-trippers and shareholders return home after Labor Day.
Some Fire Islanders affectionately dub the day after Labor Day, which this year falls on September 8, 'Tumbleweed Tuesday' because the hoards of people that traditionally descend upon the beach on any given summer weekend miraculously disappear.
"It's the most incredible time of the year," says Julian Dorcelien of the Belvedere Guest House, a men-only accommodation located on Great South Bay in Cherry Grove. "It's a hidden gem. The madness of the crowd is gone and the people who enjoy the island come. The people who want to relax and not party."
The Grove and the Pines are two of the 18 hamlets scattered throughout Fire Island. Approximately 500 people live year-round on Fire Island, but the population can swell to as many as 30,000 people on one of the summer's busiest weekends, such as Independence Day or Labor Day.
A common misconception among many first-time visitors is the island is completely gay -- far from it. Ocean Beach, the island's largest community, is one of several that is popular with families. Other communities, such as Corneille Estates and Kismet, have a straight singles scene.
Largely empty beaches, warm surf and an abundance of nature, however, are among the many things that greet post-Labor Day travelers.
Wendy Lewis has come to Fire Island since the 1970s. Lewis cites the weather, which often features balmy days and crisp nights through mid-October, as one of the reasons she is fond of the off-season. She also cites the still-warm ocean and the autumn leaves as among the reasons she prefers Fire Island post- Labor Day.
"The people who come in the fall are the real Fire Island lovers," Lewis says.
The centuries-old Sunken Forest, roughly half a mile west of Cherry Grove, is among the best places within the Fire Island National Seashore to see the brilliant fall foliage. The wooded area appears as though it is below sea level because of an optical illusion created by the dunes. The Sunken Forest contains a number of trails on which visitors can explore Fire Island's unique flora and fauna. Deer, fox, turtles and an abundance of birds are among the animals that can be spotted within this protected area.
The off-season isn't for everyone. Those who like the easy socializing of the summer months may be put off by the mostly deserted boardwalks in the fall. Many of the businesses in the Pines and Cherry Grove close, meaning there are fewer options for meals or nights on the town.
In Cherry Grove, a mostly straight crowd competes in the Miss Fire Island contest at the Grove Hotel on the second week of September. The Belvedere hosts the popular Bana party, an aquatic-inspired gathering of hundreds of men on September 12. The Arts Project of Cherry Grove stages theater productions through the end of September. And Cherry's On the Bay and the Island Breeze are among the local restaurants that stay open on weekends through Columbus Day (if the weather cooperates, of course).
In the Pines, DJs spin at the Pavilion/ Glo Lounge through September 12. The uniquely Pines experience known as tea also runs through the second weekend in September. And a large number of Pines residents commemorate the Jewish High Holidays on the beach. Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on September 18 and Yom Kippur begins at sundown on September 27.
"People think summer is over as soon as Labor Day hits," says Adam Weaver, marketing director of Fire Island Pines Operations. "Really, Fire Island has some of its most beautiful beach days in September. I know because I finally get to go because I'm not as busy."
Even though September and early October often features beautiful weather, hurricanes and nor'easters periodically wreak havoc. A hurricane dubbed the Long Island Express decimated Cherry Grove and other Fire Island communities in September 1938. Hurricane Gloria caused widespread damage across the beach when it made landfall on Long Island in September 1985. And the Halloween nor'easter of 1991 destroyed more than 40 homes on Fire Island.
"There were hot tubs floating in the ocean," Lewis recalls.
Ferries to and from Fire Island become less frequent after Columbus Day. There are only a handful each day by the end of November. In spite of this, an increasing number of Fire Islanders have begun to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas and even New Year's Eve on the beach.
Nicole Pressly-Wolf has lived year-round in Lonelyville, Ocean Beach, the island's main village, and Saltaire. She feels the beach's true essence emerges after the summer crowds return home. And the less hectic pace draws a particular type of visitor.
"These people who come to Fire Island after Labor Day really have a connection to Fire Island," Pressly- Wolf says. "It changes the mood."

Getting here
For most visitors, getting to Fire Island requires taking a train, then a van, then a ferry. Long Island Railroad provides train service to from Penn Station in Manhattan or Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn Sayville ($21.50 off-peak roundtrip.) Islip Limo (631-567-8888) and Colonial Transportation (631-589-3500) are among the companies that offer $5 jitney rides between the train station and the ferry terminal. Sayville Ferry Service (631-589-0810) takes passengers between the mainland and the Grove and the Pines ($14 roundtrip.) The ride across Great South Bay takes between 15 and 20 minutes, but departures become increasingly sporadic after Columbus Day.
Macarthur Airport is roughly 10 miles from the Sayville Ferry terminal in Sayville. Both New York City airports are within two hours of Fire Island.

Author Profile:  Michael K Lavers

Michael K Lavers is the national news editor for the EDGE Media Network and managing editor of the Fire Island News. His work has appeared in The Advocate, the Village Voice and many gay and mainstream publications.

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