Day Trip to Fire Island from New York City
The Fire Island National Seashore is committed to protecting its environment and the happiness of its residents.
Unlike Jones Beach State Park and Robert Moses State Park (which is on the western tip of Fire Island), Fire Island itself does not promote day-tripping. Instead, its primary visitors and occupants are its landowners and the people who rent from them.
If you want to swim, surf, fish, or simply observe nature in this area, your best bet to do so is in Robert Moses State Park. That said, after you find out how Fire Island’s “natives” live, and if you love the atmosphere, immediately contact realtors to find out what’s for rent!
I so anticipated seeing Fire Island that when I broke my left wrist while walking to the Bay Shore ferry dock, I decided to skip seeing a doctor and, holding my arm close to my chest, continued with the trip. The following day, X-rays confirmed the break and now, almost a month later, I am writing this article single-handedly with my wrist in a cast.
No matter what happened to my wrist, I had a wonderful trip! It helped, of course, that Phil, my husband, assisted by taking photos and waitstaff at two restaurants gave me bags of ice to reduce swelling.
Our destination was the Village of Ocean Beach, which is the largest community on Fire Island and the one most appropriate for day trips. Its commercial district features several small shops, restaurants, a few small hotels and inns, and a few bars with live entertainment.
The ferry building at Bay Shore features ticketing windows, places to sit, and a tiny shop that serves creamy homemade ice cream, moist fudge, and a few necessities. Make a point of sampling its goodies before or after your trip.
Next to the boarding platform are numerous benches, which, under peak conditions, quickly fill up. To get the best seat on the ferry, however, its good to forsake the benches and line up early. On warm sunny days, the first ones in get their choice of top-side seats, and on rainy days, interior seats.
On popular weekends, passengers clutter boarding lines with luggage and huge crates of food and beverages.
The entire trip from the mainland to Fire Island takes about 45 minutes (including boarding). As you leave the pier, you’ll see the wide expanse of water and to the west, the Robert Moses Causeway.
During peak periods, it is better to see the graceful, 8+ mile Robert Moses Causeway from a ferry than to be driving on it. Crowded road conditions can bring this deluxe stretch of highway to a crawl.
On Friday’s, many people head to Fire Island for the weekend or longer stay. Luckily, we lined up and boarded early. Soon thereafter, all upper deck seats filled up.
While travelers brought luggage, most were carrying supplies – food, beverages, cleaning products, and snacks. The island exists for living pleasure, not commerce. If you want the comforts of home (at a low price), you need to carry them in.
The harbor at Ocean Beach is exciting to approach. To the east, you’ll see the Island Mermaid (631 583-9724), where you can get reasonably priced lunches, dinners, and drinks. Make a point of stopping there, or at one of the few other shore-front restaurants.
To the west of the harbor is the dock. Because no cars and only a few motor vehicles are allowed on the island, private carts (formal dollies to kids’ wagons) are used to carry goods. Hundreds of these private wagons are stored next to the ferry dock. As passengers debark, many head straight for their wagons. Soon, the community’s Central Walk fills up with people pushing or tugging carts as they trudge toward their housing.
Central Walk is Ocean Beach’s main street. It is here where you’ll find its shops, boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and bars, along with special events like craft fairs.
I particularly liked The Gallery, a multi-room gift shop that contained enough gift ideas to fill your giving needs for the next few years. On the low-priced end were $1 rubber duckies, each a different character. Many items in the shop were $10 to $20, with my particular favorites being tile coasters. More expensive items included lamps, small furniture, and a nice selection of jewelry.
TIP: Do not get hurt on Fire Island! When I arrived, I tried to buy an Ace bandage or sling for my broken wrist. Not only were none available, the people assigned to assist in medical emergencies did not know what to do with me other than say “head back to the mainland.” As it was a nice day, I remained on the island. But a word of warning – if you have medical needs that can suddenly appear, Fire Island is not the place to visit.
At maximum, the island is only a half-mile deep. While some homes are built along the shore, most are located along walkways that span the island’s width. Here you’ll see residents pulling wagons, riding bikes, or just strolling to and from the beach.
In the areas we visited, the homes along the walkways were mostly cottage-sized; not mansions like you’d see on the mainland such as in the Hampton’s. Many of these homes featured stunning landscaping and gardens.
The picture above shows a small cottage with an imaginative front yard.
For those of you who seek small-yard landscaping ideas, you’ll definitely find them on Fire Island!
A pastime enjoyed by Fire Island children is shell painting. We saw several examples of painted shells placed next to the road that served as signs. I understand that children often sell their work, although I don’t know where.
When pedestrian traffic is low, it is easy to see from one side of the island to the other.
At the end of several walkways on the Atlantic Ocean side are stairs that lead to a bridge over the dunes. On the bridge, you will find a chart containing information about the ocean (tide tables, temperature, winds, etc.) and beach rules.
Not all rules are in print, however. Among the things you need to obey in the Ocean Beach area are:
- Do not bring food onto the beach.
- If you must bring something to drink, it can only be bottled water.
- Snorkeling is not allowed.
- When coming to or going from the beach, you must be fully dressed. Women must wear a dress or other swimming suit cover-up, and men, a shirt and appropriate pants or shorts.
- Bikes are restricted to walkways during peak hours at which time they are not allowed on Ocean Beach’s commercial district.
- Don’t walk on the dunes!
- Don’t swear (at least not loudly)!
As I’ve seen on residential area beaches in other communities, people often leave their shoes and flipflops by the stairs.
The beach itself is extremely clean and considering its expanse, not particularly packed. Day trippers who are not Fire Island guests, however, usually do not join the locals for a dip as there are no bathhouses or public restrooms.
Larger homes border the beach, all of which had nice yards.
Getting to Ocean Beach on Fire Island
There are five ports on Fire Island, each one serving a small village and its surrounds. Ferries to these ports leave from Bay Shore and Sayville, Long Island. Bay Shore’s ferries go specifically to Ocean Beach and its western neighbor, Saltaire.
If you drive and arrive at Bay Shore on a popular day, park in a free field (parking lot) on West Main Street to avoid the highly congested parking areas next to the docks. Carefully read the field signs. Two fields allow you to park all day, while the remaining fields are limited from two to four hours.
Take the Long Island Rail Road to Bay Shore if you do not have a car.
For more information on Ocean Beach and transportation to and from Fire Island, follow these links:
- Village of Ocean Beach: www.VillageOfOceanBeach.org
- Fire Island Ferries: www.FireIslandFerries.com
- National Park Service: www.nps.gov/fiis
- Transportation: Long Island Rail Road via the MTA
- Fire Island Water Taxi: www.FireIslandWaterTaxi.com
- Accommodations and Other Information: www.FireIsland.com
Ask Karen at Karen@littleviews.com, the author of this article. Photos by Philip Little. Originally published in 2009, and updated here. All rights reserved for Littleviews.com.