Visiting Fire Island
As part of the biggest worldwide celebration of LGBTQ Pride, New York is welcoming visitors from around the world with a bevy of events and attractions this coming June. Anyone looking for a day at the beach during Pride Month should consider a trip to Fire Island. This long, slender strip to the south of Long Island offers white beaches, friendly atmosphere, and a historical LGBTQ hideaway, now out and proud. Here’s a brief rundown of what to expect at Fire Island, whether you’re there for a day or a weekend. Topics covered include transportation, activities, and major communities to visit on the island.
Fire Island is a long, narrow strip of land hugging the southern rim of Long Island. It’s about 60 miles from Manhattan and a longtime beach retreat for wealthy New Yorkers who like sun and sand. The 17 beach communities that make up Fire Island range from the crowded (Ocean Beach, Cherry Grove) to the visitor-allergic (Saltaire, where an insular population discourages outsiders). One unwelcome visitor throughout the island is the automobile. The communities along Fire Island contain few roads, and people must travel by foot, bike, or water to get around.
During the year, Fire Island has about 300 residents; during the summer, this number swells to 20,000. Because its primary attraction is the pristine white beach, Fire Island’s busy season begins on Memorial Day in May and ends on Labor Day in September. The day after Labor Day is colloquially known as “Tumbleweed Tuesday,” as Fire Island finds itself newly empty after months of crowds. An LGBTQ refuge for decades, Fire Island welcomes queer residents and visitors every year, particularly to communities like Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove.
Outdoor activities on Fire Island range from simple sunbathing to picnicking, boating, surfing, fishing, hiking, and birdwatching. The area also hosts a raucous party culture, signified by Rocket Fuel cocktails: a Fire Island specialty.
If you’re looking to stay on the island, there are a range of home rentals and a few hotels available. The towns listed below all welcome visitors and tend to provide more lodging options. We recommend starting your lodging search with areas like the Grove, the Pines, and Ocean Beach.
Cherry Grove, or “the Grove,” is the oldest and best-known LGBTQ community on Fire Island. Before the modern gay rights movement began in the late 60s, the Grove was home to an open and proud community of queer residents. Its half mile of beachfront property is a National Historic Landmark, and its Community House & Theater bears the same honor. While sunbathing and other beachy activities are the most popular attractions at The Grove, there are bars like Cherry’s On the Bay and Ice Palace Nightclub for raucous fun, day or night. For a spectacular view with your seafood dinner, check out local favorite The Sandcastle at The Ocean, an oceanfront restaurant. A short walk from Cherry Grove is Sunken Forest, a natural wonder on the bay at Sailors Haven. This rare evergreen grove grows out of shallow seawater and is also home to unique wildlife species.
Fire Island Pines
Like Cherry Grove, Fire Island Pines attracts a large LGBTQ population to its community of boardwalks and beaches. Fire Island Pines, or “The Pines,” is the community immediately east of the Grove and is twice as large. Since the mid-20th century, the Pines has been home to wealthy homeowners and renters, as well as a large boating community. In 1976, a Pines bar turned away a man in drag, which prompted immediate local backlash. Today, this event is commemorated with the annual “Invasion of the Pines,” a promenade of men in drag. As with most of Fire Island, the best activities are found on the beach. Order a Rocket Fuel at the Pines’ gay bars: Sip N Twirl, Blue Whale, and Pavilion.
The most popular destination on Fire Island is Ocean Beach. On such a fiercely residential island with so few businesses, Ocean Beach seems like a bustling downtown area in comparison. In addition to a crowded beach, the town center has restaurants, bars, shops, and galleries to visit when you need a break from the sun. Popular stops include Scoops ice cream parlor, Rachel’s Bakery, and Houser’s Bar. Dine bayside at Hideaway Restaurant, where you can have a plate of lobster risotto and glass of rum punch. In addition to local house rentals, there’s also Palms Hotel Fire Island for upscale lodging. Ocean Beach is the most family-friendly of all Fire Island communities, with local children roaming free and selling decorated shells from red wagons.
Fire Island National Seashore
The parks on Fire Island are collectively known as Fire Island National Seashore. Features like Sunken Forest and Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, a federally designated wilderness area, are part of the National Seashore. There are beaches at Sailors Haven and Watch Hill, the latter of which also has campgrounds. At the western end of the island is Fire Island Lighthouse, built in 1858. Its flashing light can be seen for 24 miles and is available to view up-close for a small fee. The facilities are open to the public daily and are located inside Robert Moses State Park.
If you’re traveling from Manhattan to Fire Island, budget 1.5-2 hours of travel time. Most visitors get there via the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and a ferry. The LIRR departs from Penn Station in Manhattan. Depending on where you’d like to go on Fire Island, you can get off the LIRR at Bay Shore, Sayville, or Patchogue. From there, you’ll need to walk or take a car to the ferry. Alternately, you can drive to Bay Shore, Sayville, or Patchogue and take the ferry from there.
Fire Island is famously anti-car (which makes its small towns all the cozier), but both ends of the island have parking lots for visitor use. You can park at Fire Island Lighthouse on the west end or on the east end at Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness.
Keep in mind that although the island is a quarter-mile wide, it is 32 miles long. Meaning, if you’re planning to park at one end of the island and walk to the Grove, it’ll take half a day. Once you park, you can walk, bike, or take a Water Taxi to your destination. Water taxis cost between $10 and $30, and they stop about once per hour at each of the 17 communities on Fire Island.