Travel: A Fire Island Summer

It’s closer than you might think

Photos by Natalie Hope McDonald

Rehoboth, Del., has long been a popular gay and lesbian vacation spot for Philadelphians looking for a little fun in the sun. Same goes for Atlantic City, even sweeter now that Resorts opened the first gay casino nightclub this summer.

But for a real escape from the city (and from the run-of-the-mill beach and boardwalk scenes), Fire Island is one of the best LGBT resorts on the East Coast – specifically the two gay-friendly areas Cherry Grove and The Pines. New Yorkers have known this for years as Fire Island has long been a gay mecca for movie stars and city folks hoping to connect with nature. Less than three hours away by car (and a short ferry ride), it’s very much within reach – especially during a long holiday weekend.

Getting There

There are two ways to get to Fire Island. The first is driving. Just follow the New Jersey Turnpike through to New York (via Brooklyn and then Long Island). If you have GPS, your destination should be the Fire Island Ferry in Sayville, N.Y., on Long Island. There’s ample parking (less than $10 a day) and a bar and restaurant just a few feet from the ferry pickup ($24 round trip), so you can enjoy a gin and tonic before boarding the boat for the scenic 20-minute ride across the bay (best seats are on top if you like that wind-blown look).

The other option is taking New Jersey Transit to the Long Island Railroad. There’s a stop off in Sayville where you can either walk to the ferry or catch a bus that commutes between the train station and ferry port. If you forgot an essential, Sayville also has a few shops in town that will save you from some of the more outrageous F.I. prices.

Helpful Hints

Wooden planks - not streets - dominate the island community

When you get to Fire Island, whether you decide to stay in Cherry Grove or The Pines, you’ll want to make sure you pack light (we know this is a hard thing for all the label queens out there). And you also want to make sure that if you do pack more than a shoulder bag (to the tune of a suitcase or two), that you have wheels.

Cars are not allowed on the island. And unless you have a dutiful friend waiting at the dock with a little red wagon, trust us, you don’t want to haul too much stuff. You won’t need it anyway as most people keep it very simple for summer (save a sweater for cool nights). Leave the cowboy boots and hot pants at home.

What you may want to pack are snacks and other food essentials, especially if the place where you stay has a kitchen. While there are restaurants in both Cherry Grove and The Pines, the menus are limited (and pricey – as in $24 for a large pizza). You’ll end up paying plenty for that morning bagel and coffee, too. And a case of beer? Forget about it. Better to BYOB or just hit up the bars where paying New York drink prices is somehow more acceptable when you throw in a drag show, DJ and exceptionally attractive clientele.

An exception: Floyd’s, a sandwich shop in the heart of Cherry Grove that serves up breakfast and lunch. It’s well worth a visit to chat with locals and pick up one of the better egg-and-cheese sandwiches on a rosemary panini we’ve ever had.

Staying Here

Cherry Grove is home to several bars and restaurants

Unless you have a share at a house (or some generous friends) you’ll want to stay at a rental. We like the pet-friendly Dune Point in Cherry Grove. Most of the rooms and apartments have been remodeled with new furniture and some very attractive updates, like sleek new kitchens and bathrooms. A few of the rooms also have private patios and decks just a few yards from the ocean. Petra and her staff are top notch – and if you stay during the week, Wednesdays are free.

First timers sometimes opt for the Grove Hotel, which is in the process of renovations. But truth be told: Many of the rooms have seen better days. And the atmosphere is definitely more for the party boy (the pool is a popular cruising spot).

In The Pines, where it’s much more residential (there are fewer places to drink and eat out), the houses are bigger with ocean-front views and private pools (the sorts of places that would dominate the cover of Architectural Digest). The Madison is a good choice for short stays thanks to airy rooms and a huge pool deck. Hotel Ciel is also popular because of its proximity to the clubs and restaurants.

Nightlife

The Atlantic Ocean is just a few yards from Dune Point

Cherry Grove has a wealth of bars to choose from, including Cherry’s on the Bay and Jumping Jack’s (with great views of the ocean). The Grove Hotel also has a bar with special theme nights, like “Whip it Out Wednesdays” (yep, it’s exactly what you might think). One of our favorite New York queens Porscha also performs live at the Grove through the summer. Do not miss this show.

The Pines hosts some wild dance parties in season at Pavillion, a legendary nightclub that’s home to famous DJs, artists and their dedicated followers of fashion (definitely check out the weekly tea parties). And for a dip, there’s Deck with its 9,000-square-foot pool and cabana bar. It’s truly a scene among the gay men.

Afternoon Delights

Meander the wooden paths and beaches by day. The “Meat Rack,” a popular cruising spot between The Pines and Cherry Grove, makes for a gorgeous walk through native shrubs. Don’t be surprised to see deer everywhere you go. They’re friendly – and they’re all over the island. We also came across a few large turtles during our adventure in some of the boggy areas just off the beach. Fire Island, for all of its lively gay nightlife, is also a nature lover’s paradise.

The Meat Rack is a popular cruising spot

It’s also an architectural wonder – especially in The Pines where sprawling houses overlook the Atlantic (don’t be surprised to run into a gay celebrity and his secret boyfriend as you meander the wooden planks around this upscale enclave).

Off season, Fire Island feels almost like a private getaway – the resort is quiet until the official invasion on Memorial Day weekend which introduces a busy summer season with dance parties, drag shows and all the gay guys and gals looking for an escape from the city (most come from New York). In season, things can get pretty busy as the beautiful people strip down and head to the nude beach.

If you’re looking for down time, consider a stay during the week or a bit off season in late May or early September.

Shopping

People don’t visit Fire Island to shop, but there are a few retailers that caught our attention, like Pines Supply, where you’ll find everything from flowers and hardware to apparel and snacks. Oak is also a sensation since it opened this spring (the main outpost is in Manhattan). The shop carries sophisticated fashions with minimalist looks (think swim trunks and housewares) from labels like Comme des Garcons, Eddie Bargo and Alexander Wang.

Essential Travel Tip

Bring a flashlight. Navigating the wooden planks at night (especially after spending happy hour in Margaritaville) can be tricky as there are no “street” lights. And the heels you hear clicking in the distance, while they could be the platforms shoes belonging your favorite drag queen – most likely they belong to the hooves of a deer. Watch for ticks!