According to estimates from the National Park Service, about 2.2 million people visit Fire Island, New York each year. The busiest times, of course, are during July and August. We stayed at a rental property with friends for a few days, mid-week in late July. What’s its allure?
Fire Island is a 32-mile-long barrier island located off the southern coast of Long Island in Great South Bay. It is just about 65 miles east of—but a world away from—New York City.
Getting the lay of the land
Visitors typically arrive by train, bus or car before embarking on the last common path of their journey, the half-hour ferry ride (departing from Bay Shore, Patchogue or Sayville in Suffolk County) to the shores of Fire Island. That ride provides just enough time to begin decompressing from the stresses and pressures of the mainland before reaching a destination where the air seems fresher and the ambiance tends to be friendlier than wherever else you came from.
Fire Island is covered with white sandy beaches, grassy dunes, marsh grasses, flowering plants, shrubs and forests. During our stay, purple vitex were in bloom in every direction.
The island plays host to an abundance of wildlife, too, and has the distinction of being the only developed barrier island without roads in the United States. Cars (other than service or emergency vehicles) aren’t permitted, which also slows down the pace.
To preserve the natural beauty of the island and protect it from overdevelopment, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation creating the Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) in 1964. In 1980, Congress designated 1,400 acres on a seven-mile stretch of the island, called Smith Point, as a national wilderness area.
Although Fire Island has a reputation as a mecca for gay visitors (two of its hamlets, Cherry Grove and The Pines, are considered among the most welcoming LGBTQ destinations in the U.S.), the demographics of Fire Islanders are actually quite diverse.
Fire Island is a mosaic of 17 different communities, each with its own identity, character and appeal. This offers the possibility of gravitating to a place on the island that feels just right.
First-time visitors realize that wherever they stay, they don’t have to worry about what to wear or what to do. Grid-like paths between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay—and the east and west sides of the island—invite walking or bicycling. Boardwalks lead to the ocean.
The weather beckons visitors to take advantage of the wide beaches and inviting waters. There simply aren’t too many other distractions. Evenings are just as relaxed: dinner in or dinner out, or simply spending time chatting with friends over cocktails on a patio overlooking the bay.
Perhaps, it’s by design that there simply aren’t too many things to do on Fire Island—except read, think, enjoy nature and refresh. Compared to other destinations, even the TripAdvisor activity listings are sparse, without many “activities” to recommend.
For those who just can’t settle down and need to do something, here are five low-key options:
What to do on Fire Island
1) Visit the Fire Island Lighthouse
This might be the highpoint of Fire Island, literally and figuratively. If you climb the 182 steps up the tower, the reward is finding some of the very best views of Great South Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island, and Fire Island. From atop the historic Fire Island Lighthouse (located on the western side of the island), on a clear day, you might even see the New York City Skyline. Measuring 74 feet in height, it is the tallest lighthouse on all of Long Island. Visitors can also experience two floors of interactive exhibits at the lighthouse keeper’s quarters.
2) Search for elusive beach plums
Locals say that golden beach plums grow wild in bushes along the dunes. The plums are only ripe for a week or so and you’ll need a local to tell you where to find them. Adding to the challenge: They are likely to be consumed very quickly by the island’s white-tailed deer population (estimated to number 400), which almost equals the number of all-year human residents on the island.
3) Take a lateral ferry around the perimeter of the island
In addition to the cross-bay arrival ferries, the Fire Island Water Taxi is a lateral ferry that travels between the east and west sides of the island during peak season, making stops at different communities.
4) Explore the wilderness
The FINS operates a Wilderness Visitor Center on the east end of the island with ranger-guided programs and events. For example, one program allows participants to head out after dark to look for signs of nocturnal wildlife on the beach and dunes.
5) Tour the Sunken Forest
The Sunken Forest is a “globally rare” holly maritime forest, just east of Point of Woods, that is dominated by hollies that are said to be more than 300 years old. Visitors can walk along on a 1.5-mile boardwalk trail through the guided forest or take a guided ecology tour that starts at the Sailors Haven Visitor Center.
As wonderful as Fire Island is in summer, many say the best time to visit and make memories is off-season, after Labor Day. That’s when the weather is crisp and average highs of 77° and lows of 60° make for warm days and cool nights with less humidity.
You’ll find more solitude with fewer visitors and you may even snag a bargain on accommodation rentals.
All photo credits (unless otherwise noted): Jerome Levine
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