In the Land of No
Where the cars can't go
And mosquitoes stick like glue
In the Land of No
Beaches are for show
And policemen follow you
To my knowledge, Spike Milligan never visited Fire Island, a sandy outpost of New York. But, with apologies to the late wit, this bastardised version of his nonsense rhyme sums the place up nicely.
Anyone who has travelled beyond the homogeneity of the European Union will know that welcome signs often signal bizarre warnings, not warm greetings. They indicate the law of the land before visitors have a chance to transgress. "Welcome to Indonesia ... please do not import tricycles" was one of my favourites. But I've yet to find anywhere that beats Fire Island for sheer volume of these welcome warnings.
This car-free sandspit, colonised by deer and low-rise wooden houses, should be as spiritually far from Manhattan as you could hope to get in a little over two hours. But it's clear the minute you step off the dinky ferry that makes its 30-minute journey between the mainland and Fire Island's Ocean Beach that locals may have sand between their toes but they also have it lodged somewhere more uncomfortable.
Testy would be a way to describe Ocean Beach's welcome sign. Long would be another. It's the "list of nos" that accompanies the sign, also pinned to every pillar, post and pine tree, that has given the island, or more specifically the resort of Ocean Beach, its nickname: the Land of No.
"No Cars" isn't on that particular list, but the sandy paths trafficked with Radio Flyer wagons (children's toy carts) indicate this is a motor-free zone. Much of this little island, measuring 32 miles long and half a mile wide, comprises sand dunes, rare maritime forest and protected National Seashore. Fire Island might be a short boat hop from the Hamptons but it feels a natural world away.
Among the other unwritten "nos" is "no hotels". Tourists here are usually day-trippers or long-stay renters. Between each of the island's 17 hamlets, there are few hotels, most catering to Fire Island's largely gay clientele.
We stay at Clegg's decidedly un-gay by any definition, where bedrooms smell brinier than the beachfront and bathrooms are shared. The receptionist, though, is very friendly; starts up effusive conversation with my companion about relatives they might have in common in Europe. Turns out they almost share the same surname. My companion mumbles something about Americans being callow and I escort her out for pancakes. She would have run but there was a sign saying you weren't allowed.
The tower of cooked blueberry batter on our plate is so enormous we consider doggy-bagging it, but among the top offences in this resort is consuming food or beverages on the beach. Add to this frisbee throwing, kite flying and disrobing and we spend the first hour on the beach lying obediently still on the sand dressed in shorts and T-shirts.
Of course, you can be bikini clad on the beach. The mystery was how you got to this state without incurring a fine. But the Atlantic, the clearest of azure blues, was calling us. Facing into shore, the near-white sands, grassy dunes (topped by a sign reading "stay off the dunes") and elegant timber beach houses suggested Key West, not New York. I find myself considering how to buy a house here.
We pass the afternoon catching water taxis to visit the island's different communities. Each has its distinct character and slew of prohibited actions: no dog walking, no balls, no bike riding on weekends. In some areas a noise ordinance means residents don't open windows.
West of Cherry Grove, Fire Island's liveliest gay community, is the Sunken Forest. It sounds too fantasy-fiction to resist, so sarong-clad we set off to explore. Minutes into the brush and we're streaking back across the beach squealing like seagulls. Mosquitoes. Hundred, nay thousands of them, apparently with Super Glue stuck to their proboscis. Five minutes in the ocean and the buggers are still adhered to us by the dozen.
In an itchy-scratchy state we reach into the beach bag for a beer. Rookie mistake. Fire Island's beaches are open from May to September when the local police force grows from two to 28. One of this seasonal army pops up from behind a dune and issues us both with an $80 fine, one for holding the beer and one for drinking it. My companion hadn't yet got her lips to the bottle.
Dinner is more successful: local lobster with Long Island wine, on the terrace of Maguire's, a rustic restaurant overlooking Ocean Beach's modest marina. Honeysuckle bushes scent the air; the sunset is spectacular and it's cooled down enough for our bites to stop itching. This place, we decide, is a kind of paradise, albeit the kind administered by the army. We pad home barefoot along sandy tracks followed by a tiny white-tailed deer, which sniffs at our pockets. With $250 as penalty for feeding the beast, it goes home hungry.
It's tough love in the Land of No, but somehow I still dream of buying a house there.
How to get there
The Long Island Rail Road ( lirr.org) runs from Manhattan's Penn Station to the three Fire Island ferry ports of Bay Shore, Sayville and Patchogue for $9.50 (4.75) each way.
Tommy's Taxi (001 631 665 4800, davidbroscarservice.com) offers transfers to Bay Shore from Manhattan, from $15 one-way.
The ferry between Bayshore and Ocean Beach costs $15 return. Visit fireislandferries.com.
For water taxis go to fireislandwatertaxi.com.
For accommodation go to fireisland.com