Fire Island by Zipcar

For the past year, I’ve had a serious itch to see a beach, and it only intensified as summer approached. Plans were hatched to go to Far Rockaway for tacos and even the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain, but in the end a semi-sucessful expedition to Coney Island was all I had accomplished by mid-August. Spain aside, what I really wanted didn’t exist: A quiet, windswept and affordable marriage of sand dunes and ocean somewhere along the Eastern Seaboard.

Quiet. Affordable. Delusional.

I zeroed in pretty quickly on Fire Island, which my trusty Let’s Go guide says “feels more distant from New York City than anywhere on Long Island.” In fact, the island is home to the Otis Pike Wilderness area (emphasis mine), which stretches for 7 miles along skinny Fire Island, the entire 31-mile length of which has no roads and only a handful of small communities.

I set my sights on a weekend near my 30th birthday and started looking for places to stay, but even tacky B&Bs were $300/night with a two-night minimum. Air B&B wasn’t much better. Any Google search for Fire Island will tell you it is crawling with ticks, mosquitos and gay men, so we quickly ruled out camping. Because of the bugs, obviously, not the gay men. So a day trip it was.

I joined Zip Car shortly after we sold our Honda, but we hadn’t found a reason to use it yet, so picking up our little green Mini Cooper was a treat on its own. The plan was to grab a ferry to the Watch Hill Visitor’s Center near the center of the island, on the edge of the wilderness, where we could park our car for a few hours while exploring the empty beach, then walk the other direction at the end of the day to find some great seafood shack with a lobster roll on the menu. Then we would trek back for the car and call it a day.

I didn’t want to stress over the specifics, so I didn’t plan an exact time to leave the house or which ferry we would catch, reasoning that surely on a Saturday in August ferries left the two terminals at regular intervals and planning would be moot anyway considering the wildcard that is NYC traffic. The various ferry schedules were also a bit convoluted, and even a call to the visitor’s center wasn’t much help. The drive took a little over 2 hours, and when we got to the ferry, we found there wouldn’t be another boat for two hours. Oddly, both ferry companies had similar schedules, which seems like bad planning to me.

Plan B involved driving a couple miles up the coast to the William Floyd Parkway Bridge, driving across, and parking the car at the Fire Island Wilderness Visitor’s Center. This was successful and saved us money in the end. The parking lot is perched on the far end of the wilderness (emphasis still mine), so I hoped to walk a few miles in where I imagined we would have the beach to ourselves, as in “not another human as far as the eye can see.”

As a side note, I love the crowds in New York. I love that I can get on an F train at 1:30 in the morning and there will be a car full of people riding with me. It makes me feel safe, herd animal that I am. But when I go to the park, I miss being alone. I miss the ability to find a quiet space where I can hear the trees move. So I wanted this beach empty.

It was empty, mostly. By New York standards. And there were lovely dunes with grasses and scrubby foliage. Impressively, there was also a very nice boardwalk that cut through the dunes for quite a ways, making the walking easy but disturbing my wilderness. Jeff was recovering from the flu, so he wasn’t up to the walk I envisioned, and after a mile or so we decided things were as empty as they were going to get, so we spread our towels and set up camp.

We weren’t alone, however. First of all, there were naked people strolling by at semi-regular intervals, mostly men. There were also a few other encampments on the beach near us, each contained by a strange arrangement of canvas, like a tent with no roof. We caught people on both sides of us looking over the top of their canvas with binoculars. At us.

That ocean doesn’t look angry, but trust me, it is.

But things were good. The day was a little cool for August, but not too cool to enjoy lying around in a bathing suit. The only other problem was that the ocean was angry. A mostly solid, opaque mass, it threw itself on the beach and pulled at our legs with startling force. The locals weren’t going in. The great crisis of my day was whether or not I would try body surfing with Jeff, and in the end my half-ass attempt sent me under, soaking my hair for no good reason.

Surely finding seafood and beer would be easy. Because we were miles from the villages on Fire Island, the only way to find food was to walk back to our car and drive to the mainland, where we could either find a place nearby or hop back to the island via a ferry or a bridge on the other end. But even with all of the apps at my disposal (and a surprisingly strong internet connection for a wilderness area), we couldn’t find a seafood place that sounded like a sure-thing. Not on the island, not anywhere.

The island is famous for its deer population (thus the ticks). We saw a few of them as we were leaving, including some fawns that put on a nice show.

We finally settled on a place with a local—almost country—vibe called Varney’s that felt like a Long Island version of Bill’s Catfish in Oklahoma, which is to say, it was a little nicer and more Italian, and the people next to us were talking about theatre. No lobster rolls (I’m not sure I like them much anyway), but the mussels in garlic broth and the dessert were amazing.

And that was it. The extent of my beach-going for 2012. Would I go back to Fire Island? I think so. We actually didn’t see a single tick or mosquito. The naked men, gay or otherwise, didn’t speak to us. I might trade the car for a train ticket next time to cut down on the cost, and I would make sure to take a ferry so we would have better access to a small amount of civilization since, at the end of the day, wilderness is generally improved by beer and the ability to wash the sand out of your bathing suit.

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