I have been going to Fire Island since I was 5 years old, to a lesser known community called Davis Park. In the last few years, I haven’t had as many chances to get out there with my family as I used to, but this summer I vowed to change that. Davis Park wooed me back with its creaky boardwalks and stretches of dune.
Fire Island is unlike most East Coast area beaches. It’s a 32-mile long and mere ¼ mile wide (on average) little barrier island off the coast of Long Island that maintains a detached-from-the-mainland feel. Hurricane Sandy actually breached the island and physically divided it into two, way down at one of its uninhabited tips. My mother (who had double knee surgery a year and a half ago) likes to remind me that she was able to walk the 14 miles round trip from Davis Park to the site of the breach, which inevitably reminds me that I am too lazy.
The narrow, car-and-road-free nature of the island is part of its charm. You can only reach it by ferry or private boat and it’s soothing to feel separated from the chaos. That’s probably why so many New Yorkers flee there as soon as they’ve flipped their calendars to June. You are surrounded by nothing but beachy wood houses and boardwalks with gritty sand underneath. Most beach houses there are minimalistic in nature—cozy, un-insulated, and lack air conditioning—which means that it’s too hot during the day to stay inside and you become a genuine beach bum. Not only are there no cars allowed, but shoes are generally optional. Most people scamper around in damp bathing suits with towels flung over their shoulders, avoiding splinters in the ground with moderate success. In Davis Park, a quieter and less tourist-laden community, the only services available are a basic beach side restaurant and outdoor bar, a general store, a small snack bar, and a 4-foot wide post office coupled with a lending library. I’ve walked into the grocery store without shoes on more times than I have with shoes on.
This year, I joined my family and good friend Daphne for a few nights to enjoy the shoe-less freedom. My mother rented a new house for a week this year, and it took me all of 8 seconds to find the outdoor counter and bar stools conveniently located next to the kitchen window. Express drink service? We celebrated in true Fire Island fashion that night by whipping up an oversized clam dinner that included cocktails on the little wooden roof deck (a super cool feature of this particular house). When we were kids, we used to compete for who could eat the most steamed clams, a record that I proudly held at 50 before my little brother left me in the food-competition dust with a feat of 80. These days, I don’t care for seafood as much, but I’ll happily gulp down the seasoned clam juice with a bowl of pasta and several glasses of wine. I think that I probably fulfilled my clam quota too early in life.
My “little” brother, who is now 22, played bartender for the first time this summer and insisted on whipping up fresh mojitos for the crew throughout the evening. Obviously, there were no objections. There may have been
muddled mint and sticky lime juice on every surface of the tiny kitchen table and walls after that, but no objections. I am the last person to criticize somebody for making a mess while preparing food and drinks (I couldn’t get the stains off my stove at home if I pounded it with a rock). The evening is typically completed by a tipsy walk to the ocean to throw our clam shells back into the water, but instead we made a rare appearance at the beachside bar for Wednesday night trivia. A handful of other mixed-age trivia players sipped drinks and pla
yed alongside as 80’s hits played overhead and waves crashed on shore. While we did not win the coveted Bud Light blow-up table trivia prize, we did enjoy the moonlit (shoe-less) trek back home along the beach, kicking up sand.
Weekdays in Davis Park tend to be on the quiet side, even in prime summer months. It’s easy to find a spot for your towel and spend the afternoon swimming through the surf. The temperament of the ocean in this area changes yearly, if not monthly, or even weekly. Sometimes it’s choppy, deep, and too rough for un-seasoned swimmers. Sometimes it’s glossy and rolling, with gentle whitecaps that you can dive underneath. Every year it’s a gamble. There were times growing u when
we would get to the island just before or after a tropical storm, when high tide would reach the edge of the dunes and reveal the stilts that supported beachside homes. I have more memories of being pummeled by unpredictable wave
s and slamming into the sand as a kid than I’d like to remember. I had a beat-up boogie board and no fear. This week I spent more hours floating (sinking) over warm waves than I had in the last several years combined. On my final morning, we swam following an overnight thunderstorm which left the sky looking dynamic and the water oddly serene.
When I reluctantly left for home, I waited to put my shoes back on until I was 3 feet away from the ferry entrance, standing on the dock and procrastinating in a stubborn child-like fashion. Stay safe through hurricane season, F.I.