Return to Fire Island

Fire Island beach sign, New York

Beach sign on Fire Island, New York

Every once in a while, I have a wonderfully peaceful sleep in which I dream I’m strolling the wooded lanes of a tranquil island. There are no cars, only little red wagons and the occasional golf cart. Surf roars onto a beach as fine as white powder, and my feet look sugar-coated after only a short stroll, during which I’m greeted by deer who’ve all but lost their fear of humans. In the distance blinks a lighthouse.

During my years of living on the East Coast, I visited Fire Island roughly a dozen times, including a long weekend spent with a close friend in lieu of attending prom. On each of my visits, I usually managed to drag along at least one or two newbies, friends who had yet to experience the island’s charm. On the return ferry ride after one such trip, my friend Zi turned to me, a contented smile on her face, and remarked, “How have I lived on Long Island all my life and never visited here?”

No motorized vehicles? No problem. Pizza delivery via golf cart, on Fire Island, New YorkI’ve often wondered the same thing, but I’ve also been glad that Fire Island has remained somewhat unknown, somehow forgotten, and often avoided by the less open-minded due to its reputation as a haven for alternative lifestyles. These factors, plus the half-hour ferry ride that separates the island from the “mainland” of Long Island, have kept it less crowded than it might otherwise be. And after 10 years of being away from one of my favorite spots on the planet, I finally returned this weekend.

Red wagons -- the official transportation of Fire Island, New YorkMy friends had, for various reasons, flaked, but I decided to go anyway. I’d missed out on visiting the island too many times in the past, and I wasn’t about to let this opportunity escape as well. After so many years, I not only remembered driving directions to the ferry, but I also recalled my frugal parking secrets (opt for the free lots on Gibson and share a $4 cab to the ferry, in lieu of the $14/day parking at the terminal). Once the ferry had docked and I’d set foot back in the main town of Ocean Beach, the layout of the terrain came back to me as well.

There was Rachel’s Bakery, where I’d learned not to be afraid of vegetables in desserts via the utterly decadent carrot cake. Across the way was The Albatross, which used to serve comforting warm bread and a decadent garlic butter as a freebie appetizer, but has, according to another Fire Island friend/aficionado (who just shot a music video here), since stopped. The community house that doubles as the island’s only movie theater announced screenings of WALL-E on hand-written posters, while some budding entrepreneurs begged passersby to buy their hand-painted shells and rocks.

Despite the hubbub of the arriving ferry crowd and a few off-leash children, the island was relatively silent on the bay side. After contenting myself that the old-school arcade was still there, I set my sights on the ocean side, roughly half a mile away. Strolling the island’s many walkways has always been one of my favorite island pastimes, and I planned to spend a good portion of my day wandering the trails like an aimless deer (minus the pit stops to feast in unlocked trash cans). Hiking would commence, however, after I got in my beach time.

Sea grass gone wild, on Fire Island, New YorkWhen I reached the surf, I watched as a gaggle of teenage lifeguards hauled ashore a girl who’d been caught in the riptides. Some people may not realize it, but there’s nothing due south of Long Island until you reach the Caribbean. Sure, a trade current will most likely drift you ashore, but why leave your fate in the hands of the Oxy Squad? I’ve experienced Long Island riptides in the past — one in Amagansett was what I consider my first brush with death — so I wasn’t about to chance it again. Thus was the reason I ditched my swimming plans in favor of flopping onto my borrowed Tweety Bird towel to read my National Geographic Adventure magazine. Oh, and the Arctic-like water also played a small role in my decision.

Before diving into my sand-dune-sized pile of reading material, I slathered myself with SPF 45. As many fond memories as I have of Fire Island, I also recall it as the site of My Worst Sunburn Ever, a burn so severe that the pressure of cold shower water on my skin caused me pain, so long-lasting that the burn lines were visible nearly six years later. So sunscreen I applied. And applied. And applied some more.

Fire Island Lighthouse, Fire Island, New YorkAfter flirting with skin cancer long enough, I set off for my stroll, heading down through the smaller town of Seaview and over as far as Ocean Bay Park, where Flynn’s was a-jumping with Sunday-night reggae. I popped in for the half-price Corona special, then set back to Ocean Beach to see when the next ferry would be. I’d had my fill of house-gazing, for the time being, and I’d suddenly remembered one of the many attractions that I needed to visit before sunset.

The Fire Island Lighthouse is four miles from Ocean Beach, which was too far for me to hike before the light had gone. So back to Bay Shore I’d have to journey, where I’d pick up Eartha KITT in time to cross the many bridges of the Robert Moses Causeway to the lighthouse. I made it just in time to hike the extra mile or so from the parking lot, snapped my shots, and, reluctantly, left.

But I’ll be back.

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