Hit the Beach in Fire Island

Hit the Beach in Fire Island

Cindy Grabeau
Cindy Grabeau
Returning to Fire Island, New York, the summer place of her childhood, Reggie Nadelson rediscovers a Long Island hideaway.
(PLUS) Three seaside resorts destined to become classics

30 Summer officially begins for me when I see my friend Polly waiting at the Seaview ferry dock with her red Radio Flyer. I was practically raised on Fire Island; my parents had a summerhouse among Seaview's dunes in the 1960's and 70's. As a kid, my job was to meet the weekend ferries (the "daddy boats") with my wagon. People would pay you a dollar (or was it a quarter?) to haul their stuff home. "Wagon?Anyone need a wagon?"

On Fire Island, everyone still uses wagons for carting stuff around; there are no cars on this skinny spit of sand six miles off the south shore of Long Island. As a result, the air smells sweet and nights are deliciously silent.

"I thought I had hit on an open door to paradise," says Polly, recalling the first time she saw Fire Island, more than 40 years ago. Though things have changed—it's fancier, more expensive, more crowded—the sheer physical beauty remains: white-sand beaches, sea that's as smooth as glass one day, roiling with surf the next. Since the 32-mile-long island is only three blocks wide, you're never more than five minutes from the bay or the ocean. And despite its accessibility—it's only 50 miles from New York City—there's a sense of utter isolation about the place.

"You grew up on Fire Island," people say to me, knowingly, as if I'd been raised in a hotbed of sin. With its gay communities, its singles bars where people sometimes hang out until dawn, and its bohemian past, the island has always had a louche reputation. The reality is that most people come here to dig clams, write books, raise kids, and be in bed by nine.

Strung along the sand like shells are some 17 tiny summer communities that are each distinct, tribal, self-protective. Usually, the only way to get from one to another is by foot on the beach or by water taxi. Running from west to east, there's Kismet, which has a barefoot charm, then Saltaire, with its groomed walks and silvery wooden houses; Saltaire's neighbor to the east is Fair Harbor, where New York media professionals tend to congregate. Ocean Beach, just over three-quarters of a century old, is the largest hamlet on the island, small-town America crossed with Greenwich Village. Next door is Seaview. My town. The houses are all wooden, some brown clapboard and some white saltbox. Ever since big money rolled in during the nineties, some of them have begun to resemble Tara on the Sea—Seaview on steroids. Still, it's a quiet place, with a lone grocery store and a synagogue.

Moving on, there's Ocean Bay Park, populated by "groupers" (people who share rentals and are despised by those who own), followed by Point O' Woods, a tight-lipped town with gabled turn-of-the-century houses, a yacht club, and a chain-link fence to keep strangers out. East of the Sunken Forest—a spooky, 300-year-old nature preserve—are the villages that, for some, define Fire Island. Cherry Grove, with its fanciful houses, is largely lesbian, and Fire Island Pines almost entirely attracts gay men. Beyond the Pines there's only Water Island, a minuscule scrap of a hamlet beloved by actors and writers.

The various Fire Islanders display a feisty attitude toward communities other than their own, though it's pretty good-natured stuff. I remember the summer when some wag catapulted matzoh balls onto the beach at Point O' Woods, which was (and still is) resolutely WASP—and waspish about letting outsiders in. As kids, when we found the gate to Point O' Woods open, we daringly (and perhaps not quite legally) rode our bikes into the mysterious village. Sometimes we made up what we considered Waspy names for ourselves, in case we were caught.

Saltaire and Point O' Woods were built for summer visitors around the beginning of the 20th century, but it wasn't until the 1920's that Fire Island first stepped into the spotlight. New York theater people came first, followed by writers, artists, and, a little later, refugees. My friend Polly, herself Belgian, remembers many of them, German Jews who'd fled Europe during World War II: "It reminded them of the Baltic's savage seas and dunes." By the fifties and sixties, the island was thriving, frequented by the likes of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Harry Belafonte.

Back then, in my childhood, bare feet were a way of life. I took my shoes off on the weekend of July Fourth and didn't put them back on until I went home to the city after Labor Day.

Today, as we make our way toward Polly's house, we run across three deer looking for something to eat. Civilization comes up against nature everywhere on Fire Island, though increasingly, it's nature that surrenders. Over the years, new residents have planted gardens where none should be. The result: deer that used to keep to the Sunken Forest have come to town to forage, bringing Lyme disease. And the houses have gotten ever larger, although it takes a certain to-hell-with-it daring to build big on Fire Island: in 1938, a hurricane wiped out almost everything, and many houses were wrecked by flooding during the furious storms of 1991.

After I dump my bag at Polly's and go for a swim, the two of us head into Ocean Beach for dinner. On midsummer nights the crowds can be overwhelming, but the rest of the time, Ocean Beach is a sturdy little village, American flag flying on the green. At Matthew's Seafood House (near the entrance to Ocean Beach; 631/583-8016; dinner for two $80) Polly and I laze on the dock overlooking the bay. The tables are covered with flowered oilcloth, Frank Sinatra is playing on the sound system, the steamers are succulent, and the fish is fresh. You can have it cooked any way, deep-fried, sautéed, broiled, or Mediterranean-style, with olives and tomatoes. It's the best place in town for lunch or dinner—you can also dock your boat here. Maguire Bayfront Restaurant (631/583-8800; dinner for two $80), the old standby at the other end of the village, also has a dock. As kids, we were taken there by our parents for lobster; as grown-ups we still come to eat—and reminisce.

For a casual visitor who wants to spend a day on Fire Island, Ocean Beach is a good place to begin; another is the Pines. On my second day I take a water taxi to the Pines, six miles from Ocean Beach. With its roller-coaster walkways, dense woods, tunnels of greenery, and a harbor that could be in the south of France, it's the prettiest village of all. I stop at Marco (36 Fire Island Blvd., Fire Island Pines; 631/597-8888; dinner for two $80), an Italian restaurant near the harbor, for fresh mozzarella-and-tomato salad and snippets of conversation.

That night, back in Seaview, I sit on Polly's deck, listening to the crackle of driftwood under the feet of the deer in the backyard and the tinkle of ice from the house next door. Later, a glass of wine in hand, I walk to the dunes and sit on the wooden steps that lead down to the beach. The moon is up. There's no sound at all—no cars, no voices—except for the surf hitting the sand, and Fire Island seems, to me, dreamlike and wrapped in blissful memory.

THE FACTS GETTING THERE Take the Long Island Rail Road (www.mta.nyc.ny.us/lirr) from New York City's Penn Station or drive to the ferry station in Bay Shore (for Ocean Beach, Seaview, and Ocean Bay Park) or Sayville (Fire Island Pines, Cherry Grove). Water taxis run regularly from Ocean Beach (near the ferry dock) to various towns, including the Pines, and cost about $12 round-trip. You can also call South Bay Water Taxis (631/665-8885). WHERE TO STAY For rental listings, go to www.fireisland.com. Hotels can be underwhelming (shared baths; no air-conditioning). Recommended: Houser's Hotel (Ocean Beach; 631/583-8900; doubles from $100 weekdays) and the Botel (Fire Island Pines; 631/597-6500; doubles from $90 weekdays).


31 In a natural harbor between Lakes Charlevoix and Michigan, Charlevoix is a surf-and-turf playground for monied Midwesterners. Victorian houses, old-fashioned ice cream parlors, and antiques shops dot the downtown district, which offers concerts, art fairs, and fireworks throughout the summer (peak week: the Venetian Festival, July 20-26). Modern resort living is accented by days spent fishing, sailing, and hitting the links—golf enthusiasts swear by the Belvedere (5731 Marion Center Rd.; 231/547-2611). GETTING THERE Charlevoix is an hour's drive northeast on U.S. 31 from Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City. The trip from Detroit on I-75 takes four hours; the drive from Chicago on I-196 takes 5 1/2. WHERE TO STAY The Edgewater Inn (100 Michigan Ave.; 800/748-0424; www.edgewater-charlevoix.com; doubles from $275) has fantastic views of the harbor. WHERE TO EAT Stafford's Weathervane (106 Pine River Lane; 231/547-4311; dinner for two $66), set in an 1800's flour mill, serves up the town's specialty—whitefish broiled on a seasoned oak plank. DON'T MISS Architect Earl Young's unique, mushroom-like stone buildings, all over town.
—David A. Keeps


32 Worlds away from Waikiki, Haleiwa is a laid-back town on Oahu's bucolic North Shore. Snorkelers and sun-seekers gravitate toward Waimea Bay, where cliff divers hurl themselves into the turquoise waters; neophyte surfers learn to "hang ten" on Alii Beach's placid waves. Board rentals and lessons can be arranged at Surf & Sea (62-595 Kamehameha Hwy.; 808/637-9887). GETTING THERE Haleiwa is 28 miles north of Honolulu International Airport. WHERE TO STAY The surfside Sunset Homes (66-030 Kamehameha Hwy.; 808/637-2400; www.sunsethomes.net) rents beach cottages and airy three- and four-bedroom houses. The renovated cottages at Turtle Bay Resort (57-091 Kamehameha Hwy.; 800/203-3650; www.turtlebayresort.com; doubles from $525) have private lanais overlooking the sea, as well as personal butlers. WHERE TO EAT Hit Matsumoto's (66-087 Kamehameha Hwy.; 808/637-4827) for the quintessential Hawaiian treat: shaved ice in tropical flavors. Haleiwa Joes (66-011 Kamehameha Hwy.; 808/637-8005; dinner for two $50) is the place for seared ahi tuna. DON'T MISS The kite surfers at Mokuleia Beach Park, where adrenaline junkies perform aerial acrobatics.
—Ann Wycoff

33 WATER'S EDGE Groove Bag's pleather iPod tote, $145; The Architecture of Leisure, by Susan Braden, the story of Florida's signature beach resorts, $35; Solar Exchange SPF 15 sun spray and SPF 25 sun balm, $32 each, by Erno Laszlo; SunStuff SPF 50+ cotton bucket hat, $50; Shield sunglasses with platinum frames, $250, by Montblanc.

Sullivan's Island

34 Any given afternoon, you can hear a screen door creak from 10 blocks away on Sullivan's Island, a three-mile-long spit of land off Charleston. Palmetto trees shade whitewashed houses built as officers' homes in the 1800's. There isn't much to do besides sip iced tea on high-front porches or relax on the fine blond sand with Travel Scrabble, but that hasn't deterred the generations of Southerners who return year after year. GETTING THERE Sullivan's Island is a 20-minute drive from Charleston International Airport. WHERE TO STAY There are no hotels, but a four-bedroom oceanfront house rents for about $3,500 per week in high season (off the beach, prices drop to about $2,200). Contact Great Beach Vacations (800/344-5105; www.greatbeach.com) or Island Realty (866/843-7909; www.islandrealty.com). WHERE TO EAT Casual restaurants line Middle Street, two blocks from the sea. Order the cornbread-fried oysters at Station 22 (2205 Middle St.; 843/883-3355; dinner for two $60). DON'T MISS Fort Moultrie (1214 Middle St.; 843/883-3123), dating from the Revolutionary War and now an outdoor museum.
—Christian Wright

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