Easily accessible from New York is Fire Island, located less than 100 km (60 miles) from Manhattan. It’s an easy drive but it’s also a relatively painless train ride to the Sayville township, a bus transfer to the ferry wharf, then a boat ride to the hamlets of Fire Island Pines or Cherry Grove. Access to the other townships and hamlets along the 50 km-long island is via other ferry routes.
When people mentioned Fire Island to me in the past, I automatically thought of a small place that was very much LGBT-centric. An island known for its dance parties. What I didn’t know is that much of this crowd is localised to The Pines and neighbouring Cherry Grove hamlets, most popular with visitors from the end of May to early September.
We arrived for our short stay well after the party-gowers had packed their bags and returned to the mainland, leaving the island peacefully crowd-free and much more enjoyable. More enjoyable for us, as our party days are well in the past.
The main commercial area of The Pines centres around its small harbour. This is where the ferry comes in and where you can find the only grocery store in town, a couple of places to eat, drink, grab a coffee, or pump a few weights at the gym in the impressive mixed-use Pavilion building. Hundreds of houses are built over the leafy dunes, interconnected with wooden walkways and paths and not a car in sight. Only service and emergency vehicles are allowed on the island; so that means no traffic, no pollution and the occasional golf cart whizzing past.
Home for us was located a mere one minute walk from the harbour. The Madison is an intimate guesthouse with a handful of comfortably modern rooms, a swimming pool and roof deck. The guesthouse is built on a tight block of land that feels secluded from its neighbours; with clusters of bamboo and even the occasional white-tailed deer that wanders in to graze on the greenery.
Not all that far away is the hamlet of Cherry Grove, similar in size to The Pines, but with more on offer in terms of restaurants, shops, galleries, bars and grocers. To get there from The Pines it’s a quick water taxi or ten minute walk along the sandy Judy Garland Memorial Path through the dunes and brush.
It seems that more of the artistic residents live in this hamlet, decorating the town with mosaics, murals and some rather interesting garden landscaping. One of my favourites was the garden filled with heads from a variety of kids toys. There’s one way to freak out the kids!
Thanks to the better choice of restaurants and bars, it was here that we did most of our eating. Starting at Cherry Lane, a cafe-cum-bar-cum restaurant that overlooks the ferry wharf and South Bay. It may be home to drag shows, theme parties and cocktails but it was a relaxing lunch upstairs above the boats for this pair. The menu is very much your typical American variety, featuring the likes of baked clams, buffalo wings, burgers and salads.
Order one of the lunch specials like we did and you get a free bloody mary or mimosa. Bloody Mary it was and bloody hell there was way too much Worcestershire sauce in it. The other half tucks into a chicken & avocado wrap (12.95) and I’m completely caught off-guard by the fried chicken basket (11.95).
It may look like your regular fried chook, but man, this was one fine bird I was eating. The best I’ve had anywhere. Why so good? The thin batter that caused an audible crunch when you sunk your teeth into each seasoned and deliciously juicy piece of flesh. It was a lunch I wished would never end.
Exploration of the hamlets is made easy thanks to those raised wooden walkways that are great to explore and suss out the variety of houses on the island. Wood is very much the building material of choice, used quite creatively in many of the luxurious houses that take full advantage of the ocean and beach views. The beach is quite nice as well, whether you choose to wear clothing or go au natural as many of the people seemed to prefer.
Coffee addicts aren’t spoilt for choice back in The Pines. Canteen is a bright and airy eatery that sells drinks, a small selection of breakfast items, sandwiches, burgers and Mexican-style edibles. There’s espresso as well, which only comes in paper cups. The macchiato sure needs some fine tuning.
Later in the afternoon we head back to Cherry Grove for sunset drinks at Island Breeze, soaking in the balmy weather and cool ocean breeze. It’s clearly a popular thing to do, with many people gathering on the jetty and waterfront to catch the last rays of sun before it hits the horizon.
With the weather so perfect it was a given that we sit outside and have dinner. As it was with neighbouring Cherry Lane, it’s a very “standard” menu with the same kind of offerings you’d find at a diner.
An open-faced chicken sandwich (16) comes served on those ubiquitous poor-quality bread buns that crumble when you try to pick them up. The chicken is cooked quite well, pairing nicely with avocado and a Jamaican-spice aioli. The smokehouse burger (22) is very much the same deal. Same dry spongey bread bun, meat patty with melted cheese, crispy/overcooked bacon, fried onion rings and bbq sauce. Not bad for a burger, but for $22 I’d prefer to see a real bread bun used rather than those highly processed things you get almost everywhere.