As a straight guy living a good part of his life in San Francisco, and just a stone’s throw from the Castro District, I figured that I’d seen it all, if from a safe distance. But New York’s Fire Island, specifically the small hamlet of Cherry Grove, gives San Francisco a run for its money, and in parts makes some of the flamboyant areas of the City by the Bay more resemble Pittsburgh during the height of the steel trade.
I set out with a friend for our day trip on a Friday morning in August, taking the subway to Penn Station and buying two round trip tickets for Sayville on the Long Island Railroad. Despite rousing the displeasure of those with a taste for the architectural glory of its predecessor, Penn still provides a respite from the relative tranquility of midtown and a foray into a space with some serious urban crowding.
The train ride to Sayville takes about ninety minutes and provides one with a gradual sense of decompression, as Manhattan and Queens drop away from sight, replaced by Long Island’s comparatively bucolic charms. We found ourselves forgetting the intensity of the city, and eased into the calm, psychologically-relieving aura of the island.
It’s a brief cab ride or shuttle from the train station to the ferry, and the adult price for the round-trip boat ticket is $14. The ride to the island was brief, though many passengers appeared to be stocking up for an extended stay, with ample Costco supplies of beer, food and paper towels loaded onto the boat. A strong sense of community prevails on Cherry Grove yet we were welcomed as friends from the other side.
Cherry Grove’s immediate impression is somewhat intimate, if festive and slightly decadent. The party atmosphere is emphasized with a varied and casual assortment of bars, restaurants and clubs. The community is big on bulletin boards and fliers for drag shows and musical benefits abound. A notice posted outside a club read “Caution – Floor becomes slippery during midnight foam parties.” One gets the feeling that the resort is ripe for previously unimagined forms of litigation. It’s a short trek from the ferry landing to the beach, and before hitting the surf we had a somewhat pricey, average lunch at the last spot on the walkway. Apparently, the food-toting lot on the ferry had the correct idea. An emphasis on exotic cocktails seems to trump the demand for high-end cuisine and fuels the Grove’s appeal for the young and young at heart. There are some nicer and more expensive spots for dinner, but for a midday meal, packing your own lunch is advisable.
The beach is clothing-optional, which can be a good, bad or neutral thing depending on who is opting and varying aesthetic preferences. Several discarded condom wrappers littered the sand at the bottom of the descending wooden stairs, and this may have unfairly swayed initial impressions. It isn’t the first thing you want to see at the seaside. Closely spaced groups of sunbathers made things appear somewhat crowded at first glance, but there was plenty of room to stretch out just fifty yards down shore.
While Fire Island is an established destination for the gay community, the beach itself is a popular spot for families and folks of all orientations. Despite the initial littering the rest of the shore was quite pristine and inviting. We tossed around a Nerf football before dark clouds began to threaten, persuading us to explore some of the summer homes just off the main drag.
Wandering the residential section turned out to be the highlight of the afternoon. Though we encountered few people, the homes themselves offered a decent introduction to the island’s real inhabitants. The cottages and houses presented a wide variety of architecture, landscaping and gardening while a consistently campy and gay-proud theme dominated the hand-carved signs outside of various residences. Most of the places are spaced closely together and separated down the middle by a narrow boardwalk. Lush vegetation is everywhere, and while we were admiring the setting, we had a glimpse of a deer stepping across one yard into another. The gardens range from well manicured to exotic and–a bit strange–one prime example featured a large assortment of detached doll heads buried in the soil. A certain Alice in Wonderland quality permeates the neighborhood and the collective imagination of the inhabitants is on full display. Though I did have the distinct feeling of being an outsider roaming someone else’s turf, the prevailing sensation was one of pleasant curiosity; it was neither threatening nor unwelcoming.
We took our cue from the increasingly consistent thunder claps and headed back in the direction of the ferry around five o’clock. The boat was just pulling out, so we sat at a covered outdoor bar just off the main dock and waited for the next one to come. An elegant group of swans circled the harbor as rain began to fall and flashes of charged blue lighting accented the late afternoon sky. An enthusiastic bartender sporting impressive biceps and a Rip Taylor rug clanged an overhead bell in acknowledgment of each tip. The sound system played show tunes, “Mambo Italiano”, “New York, New York”, and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The atmosphere was relaxing and engaging and we watched locals chat it up in a Jimmy Buffet-meets-Judy Garland manner. This is not a destination where the word “uptight” comes to mind very often.
For a day trip and for first time visitors interested in exploring new things, comfortable with non-traditional environments, Fire Island offers plenty to see and do. It is lively and restful, adorned with humorous touches and a true sense of character. Nights in the town of Cherry Grove appear more suited for those favoring the disco-laden pickup scene, but with easy and frequent access by boat and water taxi, milder mannered folks needn’t worry. It’s a good spot for a long afternoon retreat from the big city, and allows for a slightly different and potentially more entertaining visit than your average trip to the shore.
How to get there: For trips to Cherry Grove, take the Babylon Line from the LIRR at Penn Station (7th Ave. and 34th St.) to Sayville, making train connections at either Jamaica or Babylon station (make sure to check with the conductor on the way). Commuter vans to the ferry terminal are available at the Sayville train station. To explore other shores, go to www.fireisland.com for directions, costs, and ferry info.