A Trip To Fire Island, New York

by James Andrew Scott on September 6, 2012

in Guides

A Guide to Fire Island

US Airways CRJ200 at Islip.

Fire Island is located just over 5 miles across Long Island Sound from the mainland but feels hundreds of miles away. The absence of roads and private cars (except on the extreme southern part of the island) goes a long way toward making Fire Island a unique place. Despite visiting on a crowded Labor Day weekend, I was immediately struck by how quiet Fire Island seemed. The absence of road noise and roads created an unexpected tranquility and connected-ness. Without roads, houses were separated only by sidewalks and boardwalks and people walked and biked everywhere. It was enough to make us feel immediately at home.

Getting to Fire Island

It’s not particularly easy to get to Fire Island, though that might add to location’s appeal.  The best option from Washington, DC was a quick 1 hour direct flight from Reagan-National (DCA) to Islip, Long Island (ISP) on a CRJ200.  US Airways and Southwest serve this growing airport on Long Island.  From Islip, it was a 20 minute cab ride (about $55) to the ferry docks in Bay Shore. During the summer season, ferries run about once at hour to various towns along Fire Island. The cost of a round-trip ferry ticket to Ocean Bay Park, where we stayed, is $17. The ferries are fast and on-schedule. A very enjoyable ride across the Sound took a mere 25 minutes or so. Once we arrived in Ocean Bay Park, it was a short walk to our vacation rental.

Map of the central portion of Fire Island.

The Beaches

The beaches on Fire Island are pretty spectacular and are protected as part of the Fire Island National Seashore. The clean, white sandy beaches stretch 31 miles along the Atlantic.  Because of the low density on Fire Island, even during the peak summer months, it’s easy to find a nice patch of beach to claim for yourself, if you so choose. We actually enjoyed the somewhat rowdy but fun-loving beach crowd on the stretch of beach nearest our house. On Labor Day weekend, day-trippers from New York City filled the beaches nearest the ferry docks. We stayed and enjoyed their company, but we could have ventured a short distance in either direction on the beach to find a less crowded spot.

Beach on Fire Island at Ocean Bay Park.

The Towns, Getting Around, and Dining

There are several distinct communities on Fire Island. While Ocean Beach is the largest, perhaps the most well-known are the gay-centered communities of Cherry Grove and the Pines. Due to the lack of roads and length of the island, lateral island water taxis are often the best (or only) way to get around the island. While pricey (a one way trip from Ocean Bay Park to the Pines was $14), the water taxis are very fast and fun. Communities that are next to one another such as Ocean Bay Park, Seaview, and Ocean Beach can be reached simply by walking or biking.

Dining options on Fire Island are fairly limited, generally overpriced, and underwhelming. We experienced lousy service and a forgettable meal at the Schooner Inn in Ocean Bay Park. Another night we tried Castaway Bar and Grill in Ocean Beach which was somewhat better. The service was friendly, drinks were good, but the food only slightly above average. Grocery stores and liquor stores are also very expensive. The best option for longer-term stays is to order your groceries on the mainland and have them shipped over to Fire Island on the ferry.

A Fire Island lateral water taxi. These ran until about 3 am on busy Labor Day weekend.

On our third day, we took a 15 minute water taxi ride to the Pines.  The Pines has some of the most expensive real estate on the island. The center of the Pines is dominated by a small picturesque harbor.  Here, you can find a small grocery store, restaurant with lively bar (the Blue Whale), small quick-food cafe (the Canteen), and a small hotel (Hotel Ciel) with a large pool deck. The party atmosphere here is legendary. Despite the club (Pavillion) having burnt down 2011, the social schedule remains full. Nearly every day, a large crowd gathers at the Blue Whale for a cocktail “hour” known as Low Tea from 5-8 PM.  Expect sticker shock as “call” drinks are $12, though we discovered that ordering mixed drink pitchers at the Cateen to be a reasonable value by comparison (A $42 pitcher of 5-6 glasses is about $7-8 a drink).

A new Pavilion is under construction and due to open for the 2013 season. The Pines is a fun, unique place that really has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

The Pines Harbor.  Source: Wikipedia.

Fire Island Pines typical boardwalk.

The Pines Harbor at Dusk.

Homes in the Pines.

Staying on Fire Island

Vacation rentals on Fire Island vary widely in price depending on the community and size and amenities of the home.  One week rentals in Ocean Park Beach, which consists of smaller, less ostentatious rentals, run from about $1,600 to $5,000/week. Monthly and seasonal rentals are also readily available. Weekly rentals in the Pines run from about $3,000 to as much as $25,000 a week.  Seasonal rentals in the Pines will set you back 50-75,000!

There are also a few small hotels on Fire Island.  Rates are typically high.  Be sure to plan and reserve your room well ahead of time. Camping on Fire Island is another, less costly option.

Fire Island is a unique and unforgettable beach destination. I enjoyed my trip and hope to visit again soon.

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