The Heart of Fire Island

There are few restaurants and no cars, and many homes still have rotary phones. Fire Island, just 60 miles from Manhattan, quietly but fiercely maintains its right to live in the past. And that’s why its future looks so bright.

By Peter Greenberg

But this nostalgic gem almost wasn’t: In 1962, master builder and municipal power broker Robert Moses wanted to build a four-lane highway along the beach for 20 miles. Plans were drawn, and Moses had a great track record of getting just about anything he wanted. But the residents here mobilized—they quickly picketed and appealed to elected representatives, and they won. A new bill was introduced making Fire Island a national seashore, and it’s now managed by the U.S. National Park Service.

Happily, Fire island remains under the radar. Sure, celebrities have been flocking to the island—discreetly—for decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was the mecca of the hip Broadway and movie crowd who avoided the Hamptons. Henry Fonda built a house here, as did Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s here, and Diane von Furstenburg showed off her latest wrap dresses to an audience that included Halston, Giorgio Sant’Angelo, and Geoffrey Beene.

Today, it’s not unusual to bump into actress and comedian Tina Fey having dinner at Le Dock in Fair Harbor, or Calvin Klein entertaining down at the Pines. But the real thrills, especially for me, involve running into the friends you haven’t seen since last summer—while climbing up the 156 steps of the Fire Island Lighthouse for a stunning ocean view.

In the most populous community on the island, Ocean Beach, family traditions thrive: Kids walk with their parents to get their favorite ice-cream flavors from Scoops—served in traditional waffle cones. And on Sunday mornings, Rachel’s Bakery in Ocean Beach is a bustling haven smelling of warm, fresh bread, scones, and muffins, and fresh eggs.

And thanks to the fight against Robert Moses, there is still no road linking all the communities, but in a given day you can walk the entire island on the hard sand along the beach, from the original Fire Island Lighthouse on the west end all the way to the Moriches Inlet on the east end (which takes an entire day—but you can hop a water taxi back).

The population of Fire Island fluctuates wildly—from 292 year-round residents to around 100,000 in the days before and after Independence Day in the summer. But for me, the longest awaited holiday is “tumbleweed Tuesday,” the Tuesday after Labor Day. That’s when summer visitors and renters vacate the island, and everything seems to exhale with the ocean breeze under the most memorable golden sunset.

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