Long Island Staycations: Fire Island

Where to Eat, Stay, and Play on Fire Island

32 miles of clean, white sand beaches, no cars, spectacular sunsets, and a casual, friendly atmosphere bring families back to Fire Island again and again. The island is all about relaxing; enjoying sun, sand, and water; and maybe getting up the energy to take a hike through a weird twisty wood or up the steps of the old historic lighthouse. For kids, it's days filled with sand castles (the sand is just perfect for molding), clamming, crabbing, fishing, swimming, and body surfing.

Fire Island is a long, skinny sandbar stretching from Babylon to Center Moriches, protecting the South Shore of Long Island from the Atlantic Ocean. It is only 1,300 feet across at its widest point. The entire island falls within protected parklands. Its west end is Robert Moses State Park. The eastern end is Smith Point County Park. In between lies the Fire Island National Seashore administered by the National Parks Service. It's made up of 17 distinct communities. While Ocean Beach and Ocean Bay Park are the largest and among the most popular and great family destinations themselves, Davis Park, Saltaire, Fair Harbor, and Seaview are the most family-friendly of the communities.  An excellent map of the island can be found here

IMPORTANT TO KNOW
Bring plenty of cash with you. There are very few ATM machines on the island and the water taxis and many businesses are strictly cash only.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO
The National Park Service has an excellent activity book all about the National Seashore that you can pick up from any of its visitors’ centers. It also offers a wide range of fun educational programs and tours for families and children from July 1 to September 3. The 2012 Summer Program Guide has the complete listing of kid-friendly activities at all of the Fire island Visitors' Centers. Most programs run about 1 1/2 hours. Highlights are:

Catch of the Day
Saturdays 11am 
All ages
Sailors Haven and Watch Hill Visitors' Centers
Have fun learning to use a seining net and discover what lives in the sea. Participants should be able to walk a half mile.

Junior Ranger Path to Discovery
Saturdays 2pm 
Ages 8–12
Sailors Haven, Watch Hill, and Wilderness Visitors' Centers
This program varies each week as kids learn all about Fire Island and its unique ecology and history.

Lil' Rangers: Fox Kit Adventure
Sundays 2pm 
Ages 5–7
Sailors Haven, Watch Hill, and Wilderness Visitors' Centers
Rangers teach younger children all about the seashore with games, activities, and stories.  

Secrets of the Seashore: Rangers Choice
Sundays 11 am 
All ages
Sailors Haven and Watch Hill Visitors' Centers; 10:30 am at the Wilderness Visitors Center

Annual Labor Day Sand Creation Contest
September 2
Watch Hill and Sailors Haven
Come and create a sand sculpture to celebrate the end of Summer.  The theme of this year's contest will be Seashore Life. For more information, call Watch Hill at 631-597-6455 or Sailors Haven at 631-597-6183.

Sailors Haven
Visitors Center: 631-597-6183, 631-597-6171
Sailors Haven is part of the NPS Fire Island National Seashore. A visitors’ center, a snack bar, a shop, a picnic, and BBQ pits are conveniently located right near the dock. A quarter-mile boardwalk leads to a safe lifeguarded beach that is ideal for swimming and beach combing. You are allowed, in the Park Service's words, to “gather and take home up to two quarts of unoccupied seashells per day.” Be prepared to pack everything you need with you and to carry everything out again. Glass containers and dogs are not allowed. There are bathrooms and showers available at the beach.  

The Sunken Forest at Sailors’ Haven
Tours: 11am daily; 2:30 pm Saturdays and Sundays
Meet at the Visitors' Center
The Sunken Forest is a rare 40-acre maritime holly forest that appears to be “sunken” because tall dunes surround it. The trees here are fantastically gnarled and twisted by the elements and none grow any taller than the dunes, which protect them. Some of the trees are estimated to be over 300 years old. It takes about an hour to stroll through the forest along well-maintained paths and boardwalks. 

Watch Hill
Visitor Center: 631-597-6455
Open Monday to Thursday 9am–5pm, Friday through Sunday 9am– 6:30pm 
There is a visitor’s center, lifeguarded beach with cold showers and bathrooms, a small store, a snack bar and a full-service restaurant at Watch Hill. In addition to the programs listed above, the rangers also offer:

Exploring the Salt Marsh: a guided canoe tour 
Thursday– Sunday 11:15 am 
This is a two-hour guided trip. Paddles and life jackets are provided.  Participants must be able to swim, and children under 6 are not permitted. Reservations are first-come, first-served and are taken at 10am at the Visitors' Center.

Otis Pike Fire Island High Dunes Wilderness
NPS Visitors Center: 631-281-3010
Open Monday–Friday 9am–4pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am–6:30pm
This NPS visitors’ center can be reached via the William Floyd Parkway and is adjacent to the Smith Point County Park on the eastern tip of Fire island. The center has a summer aquarium and a touch table, offers a seashore orientation film, and has a range of ranger led tours and activities for kids including the popular Seaside Stories and Crafts Program.

The Fire Island Lighthouse
Information: 631-661-4876
Main office: 631-321-7028
Open daily 9:30am–6:30 pm
Adults $7; seniors, military, and children 12 and under $4
This is one of the taller lighthouses in the country and offers terrific views of the island from the top. Tower tours are available until one hour before closing. Children must be 42 inches tall to climb. The lighthouse also offers a Junior Lighthouse Rangers program starting July 11th. You can access the lighthouse from Parking Lot 5 of the Robert Moses State Park.

Robert Moses State Park
Open 7am–6pm until August 16th, 7am–5pm until October 3rd
$10 per car
Umbrella and chair rentals are $10 plus a $10 deposit.
The Park includes some five miles of white sand beaches for swimming and surfing, and a pier for fishing. There are four lifeguarded beaches, showers, several picnic areas, and even a small golf course. Chairs and umbrellas are available for rental. For swimming hours at the various beaches, click here. For hours of the golf course click here

Smith Point County Park
631-852-1313
Open Saturday to Wednesday 8:30am–5:30 pm, Thursday and Friday 8:30am–8:30pm 
Nonresident parking fee $10 per day
The park lies at the very end of the William Floyd Parkway and includes a lifeguarded beach with restrooms and showers, a playground, and a Beach Hut restaurant with a good seafood menu and often live music. 

DINING
There are a number of restaurants on Fire Island and all are quite casual—no jackets or ties required. The island is famed for its party scene, so plan on dining early with kids and expect that you may find the bar-hopping with a happy hour of some sort. Just a few restaurants worth mentioning:

Maguire's
This is one Mommy Poppins staffer's faves for dinner with her family on Fire Island. It's definitely pricey (though the children's menu is relatively decently priced), but as the restaurant is situated in Ocean Beach right on the bay, you can't beat the restaurant for its views. After watching the boats while they eat, the kids can go off and play in the playground, clearly visible from the outdoor deck, while the grown-ups enjoy an after-dinner cocktail.

Michael's
This Ocean Beach restaurant is a good bet for a hearty, crowd-pleasing Italian meal or pizza.

Town Pizza
The place for a slice or a pie on Fire Island. It also delivers.

Flynn's
Flynn's in Ocean Bay Park is known for its party vibe, but in the early evening, it's the perfect place for a family meal.

Schooner Inn
In addition to a delicious menu and kid-friendly atmosphere, this Ocean Bay Park gem has Hermit Crab Racing at 6pm every Wednesday with prizes for all the children.

The Casino Cafe
This Davis Park restaurant serves delicious family fare and has a great kids' menu.

WHERE TO STAY
Most summer visitors to Fire Island rent houses (see below), but if you have never been before and want to try it out for just a few days, you may want to try a hotel in Ocean Beach or Ocean Bay Park. Be aware that none of these, despite the prices, are luxurious venues. They are clean, have basic amenities, and generally friendly and helpful staff. Most rooms have private toilets but many have shared baths and showers. 

The Palms Hotel Fire Island 
168 Cottage Walk, Ocean Beach
631-583-8870
The Palms offers suites and efficiencies as well as rooms. 

Houser Hotel on the Bay
785 Evergreen Walk, Ocean Beach
631-583-8900
This is a  fairly simple hotel with a good restaurant, Houser’s Hideaway, and a nice outdoor deck. There are shared baths on some floors and the rooms are small.

Clegg’s Hotel
478 Bayberry Walk, Ocean Beach
631-583-5399
Clegg's Hotel was built to resemble a sailors’ boarding house.  Single rooms share baths, studios have private baths. The hotel offers Continental breakfast, bicycles, beach chairs, umbrellas, and board games. The hotel is conveniently located beside the main ferry dock. It also offers van service from Manhattan for a fee.

Blue Waters Hotel
622 Bayberry Walk, Ocean Beach
631-583-0375
This small hotel has a nice roof deck and the Landings restaurant.

Seasons Bed and Breakfast
482 Bayberry Walk, Ocean Beach
631-583-8295
Cozy and clean country home with tea and light food included. On weekends fees include a backyard BBQ.  The same company also offers six condo-style apartments at the Bay House.

Fire Island Resort & Hotel
25 Cayuga Walk, Ocean Bay Park
631-583-8000
This hotel is very pleasant but not a luxury resort in the traditional sense. The hotel sits on a dune overlooking the ocean at the end of a quiet street and has modest cabins, studios, and suites. It is one of the only hotels on the island with a pool. There is a bit of a singles scene here on weekends. 

Sea Shore Condo Motel
78 Bayview Ave., Ocean Beach Park
631-583-5860
The Sea Shore is close to everything in town, and the rooms have kitchenettes with refrigerators and microwaves. There is access to a BBQ grill and a grocery store nearby.

RENTING
If you want to spend more than just a few days on Fire Island, or if Ocean Beach and Ocean Bay Park are just too crowded for your taste, you will need to find a place to rent. The villages of Fair Harbor and Saltaire are particularly family-friendly. There are many agencies that deal in Fire Island properties but here are three to consider:
Fire Island Living
Fire Island Homes
Fire Island Beach Rentals

A list of other agents on the island may be found here.

CAMPING

Camping is not precisely relaxing, but it sure is fun. Fire Island has wonderful campsites right by the beach where you can let the waves lull you to sleep as you gaze at the stars overhead. Sites book up fast in the summer though. Remember to bring long tent stakes suitable for anchoring your abode in soft, deep sand.

Smith Point County Park Campground
Camping Reservations: 631–244–7275
The campground is right by the beach with running water at all sites and electricity and sewage hookup at some of the sites. The campground is accessible by car and RV as it lies at the very end of the William Floyd Parkway. Campsites are first come first serve. For more information and reservations call:

Watch Hill Campground & Marina
Camping: 631-567-6664
Marina: 631-597-3109
There is quite a nice campground at Watch Hill, and campsites have picnic tables grills and running water. The campground has showers and bathrooms. There is an on-site restraint, tiki bar, and shop as well as a full-service visitor's center. There are also 140 overnight boat slips with water and electricity and 29 day slips. Dogs are allowed on leashes. The catch is that there are only 26 spots and you must apply for a reservation in writing. The campground is accessible only by ferry from or by water taxi from other points along Fire Island. It is a ½ mile hike to the campground from the ferry dock.

Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness
Wilderness camping is possible year round in this National Park area by special permit.  But to quote the NPS website “heat and abundant ticks and mosquitos make this a less desirable option during the summer.”  You can obtain permits from either the Watch Hill (631-597-6455) or Wilderness (631-281-3010) visitor's centers. There is no fee for a permit but availability is limited.

GETTING THERE

Transportation to Fire Island is not entirely straightforward. There are no roads on Fire Island and no cars, except for emergency and service vehicles. Both Robert Moses and Smith Point parks are accessible by car, but cars cannot drive beyond their parking lots.  Robert Moses State Park lies at the far end of the Robert Moses Causeway. Smith Point County Park lies at the far end of the William Floyd Memorial Parkway.

To reach the rest of Fire Island, you must travel by ferryboat. There are three ferry companies that run to Fire island. If you are heading for any of the main villages you must take the Fire Island Ferry from Bay Shore. If you are headed for the campgrounds and beaches at Watch Hill, you'll take the Davis Park Ferry from Patchogue, and if you want to go to the Sunken Forest and beach at Sailor’s Haven or the eastern villages, you'll need the Sayville Ferry Service. Be aware that most of the ferries will not accept bikes and that dogs are charged as children. There are also fairly strict luggage allowances.

GETTING AROUND

Walking and taking a water taxi to get from point to point are probably your best bets for exploring Fire Island. There are sandy paths and boardwalks throughout the parks and communities. Within the communities people generally use hand-pulled wagons to tote luggage or groceries around, and local children do a brisk business in wagon pulling.

Water Taxi
631-665-8885
The water taxis operate much like a bus service and run laterally along the island stopping at various villages and park docks. They are your best bet for getting to the different villages and beaches, the lighthouse, the Sunken Forest and any villages you wish to explore.  They are also a lovely way to get out on the water for a bit and see a different view of the island. The taxis run on a regular schedule among the larger villages. They run on demand, with a two-person minimum, to the campgrounds and park at Watch Hill, the Sunken Forest and Beach at Sailor’s Haven, or the Lighthouse. Rates run from $7 one-way for short hops to a maximum of $30 one way from one end of the island to another. Children ages 2–12 and dogs pay half fare.  Children under 2 are free. For the full schedule and 2012 rates click here. The water taxi can also get you back to Long Island if you need to leave earlier or later than regular ferry operating hours. 

Bike Riding
Bike riding is strictly regulated on Fire Island, and getting a bike to the island is not always straightforward. Most of the ferries either charge extra for bikes or require that they be shipped over by separate freight carrier. Bikes cannot be ridden across the Robert Moses Bridge. Many of the paths around the island are sand, and it is often deep, making biking difficult. There is no biking allowed on the boardwalks within the parks or across the Robert Moses Bridge. Each community also has its own set of biking rules. For example: bikes are not allowed in Ocean Beach on weekends or during holidays and must be licensed. The National Park’s website has a good summary of the rules with links to the codes in specific villages here.

Bikes can be rented on Fire Island at the Schooner Inn near the ferry dock in Ocean Bay Park 631–583–8937.  They can also be rented from the hardware store in Ocean Beach.

PUBLIC MARINAS

If you have your own boat, there are a number public marinas on Fire Island. 
Watch Hill Marina 
631-597-3109
Sailors Haven Marina
631-597-6171
Town of Brookhaven Davis Park Marina
631-597-9090
Town of Islip at Atlantique Marina
631-583-8610
Village of Ocean Beach Marina
631-583-5153

Fire Island is also great for a day trip if you cannot find a place to stay or don't have the time or money to stay overnight. Try a day trip by car to Robert Moses State Park or Smith Point County Park, or take a breezy ferryboat to the beaches at Sailors Haven or Davis Park. Fire Island is also quite marvelous, less crowded, and a bit less expensive after Labor Day. The ocean is at its warmest in early fall, and many folks think that this is the best time to visit.

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