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.
Geologically, it is just a sandbar—a 32-mile-long strip of a barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean that separates the sea from New York’s Long Island. But the separation goes well beyond the ocean. Fire Island has been my refuge from the very first day I can remember.
My parents took me here on vacation when I was 6 months old, and on through the summers of my teenage years. Childhood afternoons were spent in the sun on my bike, swimming, and crabbing. In late August, when the bluefish were running, we would grab our makeshift bamboo poles, go to the dock, and wait for the little red-and- white bobbers to suddenly submerge and (hopefully) emerge with a baby bluefish.
It was on Fire Island that I saw my first sunset. It’s where I had my first kiss, and when I fell in love, it’s the first place I wanted to share with my significant other.
If this sounds a bit overly romantic, it’s because that’s what Fire Island does. Time stands still here. Doors aren’t locked, shoes aren’t worn—rotary phones still exist (and work!). It’s a place where children can be children for as long as they want, and where I often return to relive my youth.
In fact, every time I come back to the island, I revert to being 13 years old again, and my teenage rituals return. I’m still guided by the Fire Island Lighthouse, first built in 1858. I follow the exact route of the original ferry boats (and former rum runners) and pull in to the Seaview Market in the community of Seaview to stock up on snacks, beverages, line-caught tuna, and sweet Long Island corn. The small, squat structure is the only commercial building here, and it’s the market where I worked for four summers to start a savings account and buy my first boat, which I still have today. The Little family runs the place, now in its third generation—and thinks nothing of me going behind the counter to get what I need. But it’s not just me: To those in Seaview, this isn’t a grocer-customer relationship; it’s an extended family.
From Seaview—within minutes of my house—I’m on my bike with the rusted handlebars to meet up with old friends, and sail down the bay for an early lunch of crab croquettes in the Pines on the eastern end of the island.
With no cars (except emergency vehicles) on the island, you get around the old-fashioned way—on foot. I’ve spent hours at the beach watching couples pedal to the ocean with picnic essentials, and helping friends pull their small children in red wagons to the store.
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.
At night, I will meet up with other residents and order a draft beer at Houser’s Bar in Ocean Beach, established in 1930. The pool table and the precarious dart board haven’t changed in 40 years. The floor sags in places, and there is no dress code—just common ground among friends, and another spot on Fire Island that feels like home.
Fire Island is accessible via ferry or private vessel. Fire Island Ferries provides service from Long Island to Ocean Beach, Seaview, Ocean Bay Park, Fair Harbor, Dunewood/Atlantique, Saltaire, and Kismet; fireislandferries.com.
THE PALMS HOTEL FIRE ISLAND
On an island of casual beach cottages, The Palms Hotel stands out as a more upscale resort. In its Palms Bay East annex, rooms include kitchenettes. Rates start at $245; 631/ 583-8870 or palms hotelfireisland.com.
Situated in Cherry Grove’s eclectic down- town of boutiques, bars, and restaurants, the Grove’s rooms may be small and basic, but you’re within walking distance of all the action and the beach—with very reasonable prices year-round. Rates start at $75; 631/597-6600 or grovehotel.com.
FIRE ISLAND HOTEL & RESORT
This historic property in Ocean Bay Park (an area of mostly vacation rental homes) used to be part of a Coast Guard station; it has plenty of cozy charm, plus a heated pool. Rates start at $235; 631/583-8000 or fireislandhotel.com.
Go for the seafood, linger for the bayside views on the deck. The Hideaway in Ocean Beach is one of the pricier options on the island, but well worth the money. Start with mussels with saffron chorizo, and then move on to the Berkshire pork chop with bourbon sauce; 631/583-8900 or housersfireisland.com.
CHERRY LANE CAFÉ & RESTAURANT
Cherry’s is a classic Cherry Grove institution. With a dance floor and decent cocktails, it can get crowded at night. By day, it’s a great spot to sit on the deck with a drink and a bucket of shrimp, clams, and mussels—or satisfy late-night weekend cravings with a basket of fried calamari; 631/ 597-7859 or cherrysonthebay.com.
THE KISMET INN RESTAURANT AND MARINA
This quirky beachside staple has been around since 1925 and still serves just what you want afer a day at the beach—seafood both fresh and fried. The blackened mahi mahi and the baked clams shouldn’t be missed; 631/583-5592 or thekismetinn.com.
In the tiny hamlet of Fair Harbor, Le Dock puts an Asian twist on fresh calamari, tuna tartare, and sof-shell crabs. The intimate dining room isn’t inspiring, but the bay views outside are stellar; 631/583-5200.