If you could set sail for a place that combines the windswept beauty of the Hamptons . . . with the funky, come-as-you-are charm of Key West . . . then throw in the laid-back vibe of a barefoot Caribbean island . . . and finally, swap out modern conveniences like cars for little red wagons, paved roads for a patchwork of narrow boardwalks, and cell phones and iPads for messages etched in driftwood and painted on sea shells . . . you'd surely wash ashore on Fire Island.
Just 40 miles from New York City, Fire Island feels both miles and years away, like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting of an idyllic, 1950s-era beach haven. Thirty-two miles long but less than a half-mile wide, Fire Island consists of just over a dozen small, seaside communities with fanciful names like Saltaire, Atlantique, Summer Club, Kismet, and Lonelyville, all connected not by roads, but by narrow wooden boardwalks and sandy paved paths.
Cars aren't permitted on the island; neither are taxis. Luggage, groceries, children, and beer are hauled by old-school Radio Flyer wagons. Eighty percent of the island is public park land and can never be developed; the remaining 20 percent is occupied by less than 500 people year-round.
Children enjoy a carefree existence here, liberated from the ever-watchful eyes of their parents. Their days are spent riding bikes or learning to surf; the more entrepreneurial among them run lemonade stands or sell hand-painted beach stones. When the first fireflies of the evening appear they return, smelling of salt and sunscreen, to lived-in beach houses that haven't been locked all day (if they have locks at all), for charcoal-grilled burgers on the deck or a clam bake on the beach. Cozied up in oversized sweatshirts against the evening's ocean breeze, they wave sparklers in the air and are lulled to sleep by the sound of the crashing surf.
All of this sounded so delightful that we didn't hesitate when our friends Mika and Cliff rented a beach house for a week over the Fourth of July and invited us to spend part of it with them. And after a little more research, I learned that in addition to old-time charm and unspoiled natural beauty, I should also be prepared for lots of tiny, tame deer in the woods, and lots of raucous, ready-to-party gay guys in certain Fire Island villages. And so I responded to Mika's invitation with a text that read, "All I really want is to pet some deer and see some hot gay guys. And maybe pet them, too. Also, I pulled my hamstring at the gym so if there is a lot of walking, there must also be a lot of vodka."
She could only promise one of the three, but luckily it was the one I was most concerned about. And so we left Manhattan on a glorious Friday morning bound for Bay Shore, Long Island, then hopped the ferry over to the town they apparently named after they used up all the good names: Ocean Beach.
Mika and Cliff met us at the dock with their adorable daughter Maddy in tow, then loaded our bags onto their wagon and led us back to the house.
The short walk from Ocean Beach to Corneille took us past woods, dunes, and houses tucked away into both.
Typical of most Fire Island summer houses, Sand Off was beachy and lived-in, with floral bedspreads, 1970s-era electronics, a rustic outdoor shower, and easy décor meant to withstand myriad renters and house guests.
It was also just a stone's throw from the beach.
Best of all, there was a beach ball for Maddy - the Fire Island equivalent of an empty cardboard box.
The weekend's guests included Cliff's friend Neal, who was celebrating a birthday. It's just a shame that Maddy doesn't like him.
After settling in at the house, Cliff and Neal took Maddy to the beach, while Angel, Mika, and I picked up a couple of bikes before heading to lunch at one of the handful of bayfront restaurants in town, The Hideaway.
Not that we really needed the bikes to travel 23 feet and 103/4 inches.
After lunch Mika showed us around Ocean Beach, along with neighboring Seaview and Ocean Bay Park.
One of the many charms of Fire Island are the houses, most of them featuring weathered wood or salt-worn shingles, and stubbornly left un-renovated since their heyday in the 1960s. This gives the island a lived-in, beach-weathered look that defies time, trends, and, presumably, termites.
Like the owners of grand estates everywhere, Fire Islanders take great care in selecting the perfect names for their abodes.
I think you know which one I would pick.
After a few hours spent doing exactly that, it was time for refreshments. And so we ended our bike ride with drinks at another of the town's salty haunts, Maguire's.
The day's gorgeous weather found everyone outside on the waterfront deck.
There, we were introduced to Fire Island's unofficial beverage of choice: Rocket Fuel, an amped-up piña colada with amaretto and Bacardi 151 that's served at virtually all of the island's bars and restaurants.
Mika headed back to the house to check on Maddy, while Angel and I stayed in town to do a little shopping.
The kid drove a hard bargain, but I still had a few dollars left to explore Ocean Beach's other offerings.
Beware trying anything on, though: Some of these places will really soak you.
Eventually I ran out of money and Angel ran out of patience, and we made it back to the house just in time for Neal to serve up some Fourth of July-themed cocktails.
Maddy got a snack, but it seemed that she would have preferred a cocktail, too.
Or at least a new iPhone.
On second thought . . . she'll take that cocktail after all.
A round of quick showers, and soon it was time for a sunset dinner at the Island Mermaid.
We skipped the stroller and loaded Maddy into the wagon, figuring that anyone who got too tipsy at dinner could ride back in it.
The Island Mermaid summed up the Fire Island dichotomy pretty well: It is welcoming, beachy, and one of the island's best spots to take in the sunset, but it also serves Rocket Fuels to anyone who can still prop themselves up and slur the words, "Rickets Full."
We were joined by Neal and his buddy Pete, and during dinner I made the mistake of relating to them a story from Mika's last visit to the Hamptons. We'd been at a nice waterfront restaurant, and after a few rum punches, it was time to use the ladies room. Only, the person who used the stall before me had clearly had more than just a few, since they'd managed to break the toilet seat completely off, leaving it discarded on the floor next to the toilet. I couldn't stop laughing at the mental picture of someone being so ripped as to literally rip the thing clean off its hinges, and thus a new standard was born: Did you have fun, or did you have break-a-toilet-seat fun? The guys were clearly in a break-a-toilet-seat (and maybe even a rip-a-hand-dryer-off-the-wall) kind of mood, because I'm pretty sure our dinner consisted of fresh seafood, frosty Rocket Fuels, and hours of spirited debate about whether something was just regular fun, or break-a-toilet-seat fun.
The next day was July 4, and the entire house (except for Pete, who was presumably still out destroying restrooms) awoke bright and early to make our preparations. Outfits were carefully chosen, as were coordinating headgear and eyewear. Out came the streamers, balloons, banners, bunting, glitter, and flags. Were we preparing for the RuPaul Drag Race? A Mariah Carey concert?
No. We were entering an 18-month-old in the Fourth of July Kids Parade.
And she could not have been less interested.
Mika and Cliff lined up at the parade's start . . .
. . . while Angel and I staked out our seats along the route.
Soon the parade was under way, kicked off by animated marching bands and antique fire trucks.
Next up, the wagon-floats, most of which stuck with the "Independence Day" theme . . .
While others went with "Star Wars" instead.
Naturally, there was an abundance of mermaids, both large and small.
And then there were the killer sharks . . .
And the deadly serious killer sharks. Complete with limping, bleeding "survivors."
The kids generally fell into one of three camps. There were those who were happy to be there:
Those who were distracted by more pressing concerns:
And those who looked like they'd have preferred being attacked by one of the killer sharks to being in the parade.
Finally we spied Maddy's wagon and got ready to cheer her on. Unfortunately, however, if Maddy was uninterested in the parade before, by now she thought it was a real snooze-fest.
Of course, that just made her the sleeper hit of 2015.
After the parade we made a quick stop at Maguire's for a couple of drinks.
Then, as if the parade hadn't been small-town-charming enough, we headed to the local ball field for lunch. That's where the entire island gathers every year for an old-fashioned Fourth of July cookout, complete with hamburgers, hot dogs, and watermelon, all for $1 each.
Back at the house, we lolled around for a bit, finally willing ourselves to check the ferry schedule and get ready to depart.
We hopped the ferry back to the mainland, picked up our car, and headed to our cottage out east. Back amid the hustle and bustle of the Hamptons, that evening we got dressed up for dinner at one of the area's many chi-chi restaurants, where we enjoyed local duck pâté, coquilles St.-Jacques, and a good bottle of crisp Sancerre.