New York: Fire Island attracts tourists like moths to a flame

Manhattanites gay and straight flock to Fire Island in summer. It's got rustic charm, nudist beaches and a remarkably prim approach to oversized ice-creams.
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The Independent Travel

Once, I saw a man walking down here totally naked." This is Dave's story and he is sticking to it. We are on foot, approaching The Pines, one of a string of small communities the length of New York's Fire Island, and it doesn't seem the sort of place for someone to be strolling without a stitch. But then again, why not? We are, after all, only steps away from the beach, where just about everyone sheds their togs.

While only an hour's drive away from Manhattan – plus a 20-minute ferry ride from the southern shore of Long Island – this 32-mile sliver of sand lives to quite a different rhythm to the mainland. Dave, it turns out, is on Fire Island this weekend for a gay beach-volleyball tournament. The players sometimes bare all, too, he wants me to know, but his team will be staying clothed. It includes two (straight) women.

The Pines is a natural venue for Dave's tournament. For decades, it has been a summer refuge for gay men and women from the city, many of whom take rental shares in one of the homes that lie mostly hidden away in the island's vegetation of lush grasses and (of course) pines, gnarled by salt and the ocean wind. Its sister community, Cherry Grove, which lies just a mile to the west, is also predominantly gay.

Only The Pines and Cherry Grove, it should be said, are so flamboyantly outside the sexual mainstream. "All the towns on the island are pretty much the same when you first seem them," one friend, and a Pines-dweller, informed me before my visit. "They all have a general store, a post office, and a restaurant or two. The difference is that The Pines also has a dog-grooming parlour and two nightclubs."

It doesn't matter much where you base yourself on the island, the elements that make it special will be the same. (Of course, there are straight people in the gay towns as well, though not, I suspect, too many). Above all, you will appreciate listening to the crash of the Atlantic surf. Something about the island, which measures barely half a mile across its whole length, seems to enhance your power of hearing. The reason is this: for all of the summer, cars are banned from Fire Island. You walk or take a water-taxi.

In The Pines and Cherry Grove, this means wandering back and forth from the beach to either your rented house (or small hotel) or one of the bars on a series of elevated wooden boardwalks. (Elsewhere, the paths are cement.) The boardwalks add to the sense of rustic charm and remoteness. The only animal life straying off the walks are the multitudes of friendly but slightly motley-looking deer that roam the island.

And the beach is consistently pristine the length of Fire Island, even though recent storms have threatened to destroy it. While most of the human development is on the north side, looking towards Long Island, the south shore is all empty white sand and rollers crashing in from the Atlantic. By July, the sea is warm enough to swim in and Fire Island becomes a body-surfer's paradise. For those fearful of the undertow, however, the water can be a tricky proposition.

It is the proximity to the big city that makes Fire Island so surprising. It is even nearer to Manhattan than the Hamptons, the collection of super-prosperous summer resort towns on the eastern end of Long Island favoured by the Porsche-driving, polo-playing set. You go to the Hamptons to be seen. Fire Island, by contrast, is really a place to escape to. A place to hide and not be seen.

So, it may be true that the clothing-optional stretch of beach near The Pines can get a little crowded. (And being seen – every inch of you – may be the reason for spreading your towel out just there.) But leaving humanity behind entirely here is perfectly doable. Fire Island, which was protected from further development by an act of Congress in 1964 and named a National Seashore, has the only federally designated "Wilderness Area" in all of New York State. It starts a few miles east of The Pines. Walk the seven miles of beach that fringes the Wilderness, and you will almost certainly not see another person.

Probably the busiest spot on a summer weekend is Ocean Beach, a town popular for family breaks. The beach is just as beautiful here and the sky is as blue, but the laid-back values of The Pines and the Grove are definitely missing. "You don't want to go there," warns Ruthie Graham, who is visiting her son in his summer rental in the Grove. "It's so restrictive, you can't even eat a pretzel on the street." I thank Ruthie for her advice, but decide to take a water-taxi to Ocean Beach to take a look for myself.

If you have small children, Ocean Beach or nearby Ocean Beach Park are probably the places to head for. There are more ice- cream shops and more restaurants, and a small community hall even has metal chairs laid out and hooked together so that at night it becomes a makeshift cinema. (Pearl Harbor was showing the night of my visit.) And if you don't want to commit to renting a house for a week, there are a few more hotels, as well as B&B options, here. Among them is the small, but apparently well-run Cleggs Hotel, just steps away from the ferry dock and the main street (still no cars) for shopping and pottering.

"Oh, yes, we have plenty that sound like you," notes Jane Formont, who is looking after reception at Cleggs when I drop in. There is a slow trickle of British visitors through the hotel all summer. Rooms for the weekend cost $300 (£210) per couple, and the rate rises to $400 for a suite for two nights. It seems like a lot and it is – but high prices are the norm on Fire Island, so consider yourself warned. It is partly the extra trouble required to bring supplies over by ferry that justifies the outrageous pricing, and partly the shortness of the summer holiday season. By October, and through winter, Fire Island will be mostly empty.

Ms Formont confirms that Ocean Beach is defined partly by all the rules that Ruthie was talking about. It has been nicknamed the "Land of No". There is no eating of oversized ice-creams while wandering about the town, for example. Actually, there is, because I did. And no one threw me in jail. But I am missing the Grove and The Pines and decide that instead of going back the way I came, on a small water-taxi, I will head to the beach and head back east on foot. I see from my National Park Service map that this will take me past the "Sunken Forest", an expanse of holly trees that for generations have been growing beneath sea-level.

But I skip the forest, preferring instead to leave my prints in the sand along the water's edge and watch the colours subtly change on the foam of the breaking waves in the fading evening sunlight. I am quite alone for the hour-and-a-half walk, and grateful for it. I will be back in Manhattan quite soon enough.

Getting there: At this time of year, the cheapest non-stop flights from London to New York's JFK are likely to be on Air India, for around £400 return through discount agents such as Welcome Travel (020-7439 3627). From Kennedy airport, the best way to get to Fire Island is by shuttle bus to Jamaica station, then a Long Island Rail Road train to either Bayville or Sayville, followed by a ferry ride to the island itself.

Trips to Ocean Beach run every hour from 7am until 10.30pm every day, and an adult return ticket costs $12.50 (£9). Ferries to The Pines and Cherry Grove are slightly less frequent, leaving Sayville from 7am-5pm, except at weekends when the last ferry is at 7.30pm. Tickets are $11 (£8) return for adults. More information on ferry travel can be found at www.fireislandferries.com.

 

Accommodation: David Usborne stayed at the Cleggs Hotel (001 631 583 5399), where rooms cost as little as $80 (£60) per weekday night for couples, between $300 (£210) and $400 (£280) at weekends. Bookings at the weekend are for a minimum of two nights. Hotels on the island tend to be extremely busy during the summer season, so you could also try The Seasons (001 631 583 8295 or www.fivacations.com). Double rooms are $375 (£265) for the weekend, including breakfast and lunch, and $150 (£105) per night during the week.

 

Information: Good online guides to life on the island and general holiday information can be found on the internet at www.fireislandbeaches.com and the rather more specialised government site (www.nps.gov/fiis) gives information on the landscape and nature of the area, which is a designated national seashore.

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