Fire Island: An eco-friendly paradise close to Manhattan

As close as Fire Island is to New York City, my family and I felt like we were setting off on a grand adventure when we arrived at Sayville, Long Island to buy ferry tickets for the journey to The Pines, a hamlet of Fire Island.

The diving and squawking sea gulls added to the aura of our three-day, two-night getaway. So did the anticipation of the ferry’s arrival and the chug chug chug of the motor when it left the shore..

We watched our car in the ferry’s parking lot become a dot in one direction, while in the other, the island I had heard about as the magical place that my uncle went to as a young man came into view.

Fire Island, a barrier island off Long Island, is part of the National Seashore and highly protected in order to nurture the diverse plant and animal life and keep the waters pristine. The result is a haven to escape from busyness, noise and almost every other activity humans have been known to do to wreck havoc on the environment. That doesn’t mean that people are not part of the habitat. They are. However, the people are the ones asked to adapt. I suggest the trip for anyone looking to beat the heat of a New York summer and mindful slow down.

When the ferry docked and we stepped of the boat, I was struck by the care that was being given to this fragile ecosystem. At The Pines, wooden boardwalks lead everywhere creating walkways between the buildings of weathered wood, sand and vegetation. Walking off the boardwalk, or outside the bounds of a public access to the beach, or any other designated areas are forbidden.

Because there are not any cars on most of the island, the aura of quiet and calm permeates. In the middle of the week when we were there, many of the houses were vacant which added to the allure of the habitat.

The wooden walkways aren’t all that protect the environment. As we headed to the beach, we passed by the slim wooden slat fences that protect the sand dunes and the birds’ nests hidden from view by the tall grasses.

Although we spent most of our time hanging out near where we stayed, a humble beach house of sun-roughened wood that belonged to a friend of a friend of my brother’s, we did go, via water taxi, to Cherry Grove one afternoon. Cherry Grove is another hamlet community of Fire Island.

Water taxis on Fire Island are not particularly cheap, but they do go to each of Fire Island’s sections. The fare depends upon how far you go. Because our son was small, I took the taxi both ways, but my daughter and brother walked along the beach back to The Pines. It’s not particularly close, but doable.

At Cherry Grove, besides visiting art galleries, one of its signature features, we wandered along the maze of walkways to take in the variety of private homes. No, we weren’t peeping Toms, just casual admirers.

Staying on Fire Island is not generally budget travel by a long shot, but you can reduce the sting if you can share the cost of a hotel room with someone or rent a house with several people. If you wait until fall, prices go down. The middle of the week has less expensive options.

I did look for a hotel room for this summer using the info on this link, but plans changed so I gave up. Many people who own homes do rent them out on short term basis because most folks only come out on weekends.

If you rent a house similar to where we stayed, there are places to buy groceries. Cooking your own food, also what we did, is one way to cut down on costs. Also consider bringing food to prepare with you to trim costs further. The store at the harbor has what you might need for most any meal, but everything costs more than if you bought it elsewhere.

For the cheapest option of enjoying the ecological balance of Fire Island, take a day trip there. Jeremy mentioned a visit to Robert Moses State Park in his post on New York beaches. It’s possible to drive to it via the Robert Moses Causeway.

Because part of Fire Island is a National Park there are many free programs that highlight aspects of the environment to take in. Here’s a link to those happening in August.

If your aim is to find an area that is the least tamed, the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness is where to head. It’s the only protected wilderness in New York state. Camping is permitted, and permits can be obtained at the Watch Hill Visitor Center. According to the national park Website, late fall and early spring are the best times to camp. Summer, frankly, sounds dreadful. Mosquitoes and ticks in droves don’t sound like relaxing company.

As a note: Although The Pines and Cherry Grove are considered to be the predominately the gay sections of Fire Island, I found both to be both straight people and family-friendly. Again, we were there during the week. On weekends, both The Pines and Cherry Grove are more of a party scene. However, according to my brother, the hoopla is mostly at the bars and restaurants.

There are other Fire Island communities to consider, although I didn’t go any further than Cherry Grove. Here’s a link to a list and their descriptions. From what I can tell, some of those communities are not as open as The Pines and Cherry Grove are to outsiders –meaning people who don’t own property there. Others are. Some options also turn into party scenes so consider what will suit you best when making a decision.

By the way, the Sayville Ferry is the one that goes to Cherry Grove and The Pines. If you’re planning to head to other sections, here’s a link to a Website with a comprehensive overview of options.

When I left The Pines I knew exactly why my uncle was so happy there. It’s a paradise that’s close to one of the most exciting cities in the world.

[My uncle is on the book cover.]

Ode to world traveling: In Kentucky, it’s called traipsin’

While I was growing up, my uncle Lige was traipsin the world. In one year, he traveled to five continents. In between his travels, he’d swing by our house for a quick visit bringing my brother and me coins, paper money and small souviners from the places he’d been. He grew up in a tiny town in southeastern Kentucky and traipsed out of the mountains right after high school.

Lige was the type who saw the entire world as home, although he kept his belongings in his apartment in Manhattan. The first time we visited him in Greenwich Village was my first experience seeing a place quite different from where I lived in neat boundaries USA. I loved it. Standing with him in the front car of a subway so I could watch the tracks as we sped underground, I got a taste for traipsin myself.

Three summers ago, my husband, kids and I went to hang out at the beach with my brother on Fire Island, an island near Manhattan, for a couple of days. He was renting a house part-time in The Pines, a place my uncle had loved. While we were there, I thought about my uncle’s influence. Without him, I might never have taken that first trip to Europe–or joined the Peace Corps. My kids might not be growing up to be the traipsin type themselves.

When I talked with my mother earlier today, she told me today was my uncle’s birthday (February 22–George Washington’s birthday). It seemed fitting to pay a tribute to the person who is most responsible for putting that first suitcase in my hand and for the fullness of my passport pages.

**Unfortunately, my uncle was killed several years ago, ironically, the day after Lincoln’s birthday, while he was traveling in Mexico. Uncle Lige would be pleased that I haven’t broken my stride. The book Welcome to Fire Island chronicles the development of gay culture in Cherry Grove and The Pines. My uncle is on the cover.