There are likely no communities in the world with a higher percentage of gay residents than Cherry Grove and Pines, the two neighboring summer resort communities on Fire Island, a barrier island about 50 miles east-southeast of New York City. From May through October, this narrow, shrub-shrouded island buzzes with activity, as thousands of gay and lesbian visitors descend for beach vacations lasting anywhere from a weekend to the entire summer. Here's a gallery of gay life on Fire Island.
The tiny commercial district in the Pines encompasses a small, protected harbor on the north side of the community, fronting Great South Bay across from Long Island proper. The ferry boats from Sayville dock along the harbor, which is lined with a handful of shops, restaurants, and gay bars. This is very much the see-and-be-seen spot in the Pines, apart from the beach and the many private homes that host parties all summer long. In the background, you can see the three-story Hotel Ciel, the only full-size accommodation in Fire Island Pines.
Sayville Ferry, en route to Fire Island Cherry Grove (plus 2013 ferry info)
A Sayville Ferry Service (631-589-0810) boat chugs south from the Sayville ferry terminal out toward Fire Island's Cherry Grove community. The company offers regularly scheduled ferry service from Sayville to both of Fire Island's main gay communities, Cherry Grove and the Pines. This is the primary manner in which most visitors to Fire Island get here, and the service is economical, reliable, and actually pretty fun (there's always a festive vibe aboard these boats).
Detailed schedules (to both Cherry Grove and The Pines) and fare info are posted on Sayville Ferry Service's website (the round-trip fare is $16), and there's also information about reaching the ferry terminal from New York City via Long Island Railroad (this is an especially convenient and affordable way to get here, as ), and directions for getting to the ferry, at 41 River Road in Sayville, by car (there's a long-term parking lot across the street from the terminal, and the charge is about $7 per day).
Cherry's gay bar, Cherry Grove
With a breezy deck strung with hundreds of festive, little red lights, Cherry's Pit (631-597-6820) is one of The Grove's great little hangouts, its back deck overlooking the Great South Bay and the community's main dock. The bar attached to the complex that includes the Cherry Lane restaurant and Bay Gulls cafe. Cherry's receives a steady flow of traffic from morning well into the evening, and it's a bit more guy-oriented than the other nightlife options in Cherry Grove.
Gay Beach at Cherry Grove
The beautiful clothing-optional beach at Cherry Grove runs along the southern fringe of the Cherry Grove community and is separated from the beach at Fire Island Pines by a less-crowded swath of sand backed by the so-called "Meat Rack" forest. As with the beach at the Pines, the Cherry Grove beach draws a mostly gay crowd, although this section tends to see more of a mix of lesbians and gay men. It's also bordered by a fun restaurant and bar, Jumping Jacks.
Boats at Cherry Grove Marina
Boats docked in the harbor at Cherry Grove, near the village dock.
House along Great South Bay, Cherry Grove
One of the more elegant beach houses in Cherry Grove, this property is at the eastern end of Bayview Walk and overlooks Great South Bay and the coastal towns along Long Island's southern shore.
Belvedere Castle hotel on Cherry Grove (viewed from ferry boat)
With its fanciful turrets and over-the-top baronial furnishings, the Belvedere Castle (eastern end of Bayview Walk, 631-597-6448) stands out as arguably the most unusual architectural landmark on Fire Island and one of resort's most distinctive hotels. The clothing-optional, men-only hideaway is rife with ornate chandeliers, lushly landscaped decks and patios, artful fountains, and fine antiques. Rates vary greatly depending on the season and the room, but they start at a quite economical $125 on summer weekdays (and just $60 on weekdays in early or late summer). On Friday and Saturday nights, there's a two-night minimum, and rates run much higher, but this is still a pretty good deal consider the limited supply of and high demand for rooms in Cherry Grove, and the wonderfully distinctive furnishings and uber-fun vibe. Owner John Eberhardt has been an icon in Cherry Grove since he began visiting in the mid-1950s, and Belvedere Castle (viewed here from the Sayville ferry) is one of the community's great treasures.
Grove Hotel, in Cherry Grove
The social hub of Cherry Grove and the largest accommodation on Fire Island, the Grove Hotel (aka the Cherry Grove Beach Hotel) has always been popular because of its central location, fabulous swimming pool (pictured here), and rollicking Ice Palace Nightclub. It also has a pizza cafe, and it's steps from the ferry dock in Cherry Grove and several other restaurants and gay bars (here's an aerial view; the phone number is 631-597-6600). These have always been the hotel's assets, but the actual size and decor of the guest rooms have never been much to write home about.
As of summer 2008, the hotel's rooms had really fallen into a state of shabbiness - I check out a standard unit in July 2008 and found it stuffy and cheaply furnished. However, management has undertaken a significant renovation, and I've heard reports that linens, TVs, and furniture have been greatly upgraded, and that the hotel is looking better than it has in years as of 2009. Keep in mind that this is still largely a place to lay your head at night, not the sort of resort where you're going to want to lounge about in your room all day. With rates starting around $150/night in July and August and $95 or so during the spring and fall season (on weekdays - rates are always higher here on weekends), the Grove isn't cheap compared with comparable properties in mainland beach towns, but it is reasonably priced by Fire Island standards (and, for that matter, it's in line with what you'd pay at a basic motel out in the Hamptons this).
Arrive with modest expectations, the knowledge that management is working hard to improve some of the Grove Hotel's flaws, and a plan to spend most of your time out and about, and you'll be fine. After all, your room is just off the hotel's large pool and steps from the Ice Palace disco - in other words, this is a swell choice for social butterflies, but might be a little busy if you're seeking a quiet getaway (for that, the Dune Point or Belvedere are better Cherry Grove options.
A deer in Cherry Grove, near the entrance to the "Meat Rack"
Deer are a common sight along the boardwalks in both the Pines and - pictured here near the entrance to the "Meat Rack" - Cherry Grove. The Meat Rack is the scrub-forested section of wilderness that divides Cherry Grove from the Pines. You can walk along the paths through this lightly wooded area to get between the two communities (or walk along the beach, or take a water taxi). More infamously, the Meat Rack is a popular place for men to cruise out in the open for sex. This practice isn't legally sanctioned, but it's largely accepted and condoned. While we're talking about safety precautions in the Meat Rack, watch for deer ticks - Lyme disease is not uncommon in this part of the world.
Water taxi stopping at Cherry Grove landing
The Fire Island Water Taxi stops at the landing at the Cherry Grove ferry dock to pick up passengers, before departing for the Pines.
Guys playing volleyball at the gay beach in the Pines
Just a gratuitous picture of attractive gay guys playing volleyball on the beach in the Pines community on Fire Island.
Cherry Grove Pizza, adjacent to Ice Palace Nightclub and Grove Hotel
A cheap (by Fire Island standards) and cheerful pizzeria adjacent to the Ice Palace Nigthclub and Grove Hotel, Cherry Grove Pizza (631-597-6766) is a great bet not only for tasty pizza and light Italian fare - the outdoor dining area is also a fun spot for people-watching, and the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner. It's also handy for take-out, if you're staying nearby, and it's just across the boardwalk from Cherry Grove's grocery store, Grove Market - here's an aerial view.
Tree-Shaded Boardwalk, Cherry Grove
In Fire Island's narrow beach communities of Cherry Grove and the Pines, there are no conventional roads but rather wood-plank elevated boardwalks that form a grid through each village. You get from place to place by walking along the boardwalks, and those carrying groceries or supplies from nearby shops pull along Radio Flyer red wagons. Pictured here is a typical boardwalk in Cherry Grove. The white-painted stripes along the edges of the boardwalk are intended to help strollers keep from falling off at night. There are very few public lights, so it's advisable to carry a flashlight around in the evening, or at the very least, walk carefully and slowly. Plenty of Fire Islanders have twisted or sprained ankles (or worse) stumbling off boardwalks, often after an evening of carousing at the Ice Palace Nightclub, Cherry Lane, or one of the other bars.
"Welcome to Cherry Grove" sign, at the ferry dock
As you disembark from the ferry boat that carries passengers between Sayville (on the Long Island "mainland") and Cherry Grove (the ferries also run to The Pines community), you're greeted with this scene: boats in the marina, a "Welcome to Fire Island" sign, and a long dock leading into Cherry Grove's tiny commercial neighborhood of eateries and shops. Note that the dock here is also where you pick up the Fire Island Water Taxi.
Sunbathing on the beach in the Pines
Sunbathers congregate on the sand in The Pines, on Fire Island. This stretch of surf leads west-southwest to Cherry Grove, which has a similarly popular beachfront - together, these are two of the leading gay beaches in the country.
Cherry Grove, viewed from Sayville ferry boat
Hotel Ciel, overlooking Pines marina and harbor
With a central location overlooking Pines Marina (it's the lighted building at the left-center of this photo) and steps from the community's several restaurants, gay bars, and shops, the three-story Hotel Ciel (on the marina, 631-597-6500, ext. 35) has been transformed from dumpy to quite sleek and inviting, thanks to a major renovation a few years back. The place still kinda lacks curb (or dock?) appeal, but inside, rooms with blond-wood floors, low-slung beds, and spare but attractive mod furnishings are perfect if you just need a place to lie your head at night. The cinder-block walls and compact room dimensions will remind you that the Hotel Ciel is more about utility than luxury, but the decor is pleasant, and the staff fun and generally helpful - rooms are also nicer than any you'll find in Cherry Grove, so it's worth considering a stay here even if you plan to spend part of your time in the Grove, as it's not far to get back and forth by water taxi or walking (15 minutes or so).
This is a busy summer resort, of course, with very few overnight accommodations, so keep in mind that rates tend toward the steep side (mid $300s per night, and up). It's also advisable to book well ahead for weekends. There's also a gym nearby, and as with just about any spot on the Pines, the beach is never far. The Pines has a few other noteworthy, though much smaller, overnight accommodations - here's a good overview of places to stay both in the Pines and Cherry Grove.
Top of the Bay restaurant, Cherry Grove
The most upscale of Cherry Grove's several restaurants, Top of the Bay (631-597-6699) occupies an airy second-floor perch with a patio overlooking the dock at the village marina. You can dine or sip wine from a well-chosen list at the long bar, and enjoy such contemporary American fare as rosemary-roasted half chicken or cioppino at tables spaced closely in the narrow, softly lit room. This is definitely the most romantic restaurant in Cherry Grove (and it's not cheap, either).
Dune Point Guest House and Vacation Rentals, Cherry Grove
A fixture in Cherry Grove since 1968, the Dune Point (631-597-6261) is a popular compound of 19 studio, 1-bedroom, and 2-bedroom vacation rentals, many with private patios or decks, and some with direct ocean views. Even the units in buildings not directly facing the ocean are just a short walk from the gay beach at Cherry Grove, and the location is also very close to the community's tiny commercial center, with its several restaurants, shops, and gay bars. Yet, Dune Point is on a quiet stretch of boardwalk - here's an aerial view of its location, at 134 Lewis Walk.
New owners took over the Dune Point in 2009, and have begun renovating rooms, which is great news for a property that had become a bit worn over the years. I rented a non-oceanfront apartment for a few days in summer 2008 with a friend of mine. I was very happy with the location, and also that my unit had a small but pleasant kitchen (fully equipped with basic cutlery, plates, glasses, etc.) and a nice-size deck with comfy outdoor furniture. I also found the check-in staff friendly but a little disorganized (they'd lost my reservation, but also quickly rectified the problem). Room furnishings were a bit dated and certainly not at all luxurious, but everything was comfortable and adequate (keeping in mind fairly small bathrooms).
What I notice when I read reviews that past guests have left on websites like TripAdvisor, is that some are thrilled with the place, and others quite disappointed. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that visitors to Fire Island arrive with greatly differing expectations, especially given that room rates out here are steep, even when compared with other beach towns on the East Coast.
I had relatively modest expectations of Dune Point, having come out to Fire Island several times before and realizing that short-term accommodations are limited out here, and demand can be quite heavy. Cherry Grove and the Pines have a short season, and business owners have an added cost of having to ferry everything to and from the island by boat. Given these realities, I find the rates at Dune Point (which start around $179 in July or August, but that drop to as little as $99 per night during the spring and fall shoulder seasons) fairly reasonable. And again, if the new ownership continues to renovate and improve Dune Point, it could really shift from being merely a convenient if basic place to stay to something rather fabulous.
Dune Fencing, by the beach at Fire Island Pines
Dune erosion is a prevelant problem on Fire Island. Here at the gay beach in Fire Island Pines, wooden fencing is set along the dunes between the residential area and the sand, in an effort to protect the dunes from erosion. Similar fencing runs all along Fire Island, including the beachfront at nearby Cherry Grove.
Fresh Market gourmet grocery, in the Pines
Opened in 2007 in the new Pavillion Building in Fire Island Pines' scenic harborside commercial center, A Fresh Market (631-597-6500) is the swankiest grocery and gourmet-foods retailer around (it carries fresh seafood and other delicacies from the legendary Citarella market, with stores in Manhattan and the Hamptons). Foodies find plenty of delicious items here, including Niman Ranch meats, beautiful produce, and quite a few organic items. Of course, A Fresh Market is on the spendy side, too, but the high quality merits the steeper prices. The market is located at the southwest corner of the harbor.
St. Ann's Episopal Church, Cherry Grove
On Sundays at 10:30 am, St. Ann'e Episcopal Church in Cherry Grove provides all-welcoming religious services to the Cherry Grove community. The church is right in the village center, close to the Grove Hotel.
Tides Cozy Bar, Cherry Grove
An intimate, two-floor cabaret and cocktail bar in Cherry Grove, the Tides Cozy Bar (631-597-3744 is a great spot for early evening drinks on the deck (especially if there's a breeze), or late-night drinks or watching cabaret and piano in the small theater area. The Tides is at 177 Ocean Walk, a short stretch of boardwalk behind (south of) the Grove Hotel, and just north of Jumping Jacks Seafood Shack. Pictured here, from the air, you can identify the Tides from the blue rectangular canopy roof (which is over the open-air bar).
Sign advertising vacation rentals with the Dune Point in Cherry Grove
There aren't a ton of short-term (i.e., fewer than one week) vacation rentals available in either of the gay communities on Fire Island. Most rentals are available for a week minimum, at least during July and August high season, or as a seasonal "share" in which you can buy into a certain number of nights throughout a season. Here's a sign advertising the 19 rentals available from Dune Point Guest House, and these are available nightly, weekly, monthly, or even seasonally. Here's my account of renting a Dune Point cottage in summer 2008.
Ice Palace Nightclub, at the Grove Hotel, in Cherry Grove
Cherry Grove's definitive gay and lesbian bar, the venerable, campy, and always-fabulous Ice Palace Nightclub (off Bayview Walk, near ferry dock) is part of the Grove Hotel complex, its indoor dance floor and outdoor bar overlooking the property's expansion pool. The Ice Palace is always a fun bet for cocktails and dancing, but it also hosts numerous weekly parties and events and also hosts comedy and music acts, weekend pool parties, and plenty of other special theme nights and parties. As is typical of Cherry Grove establishments, the Ice Palace draws a very eclectic mix - lesbians, gays, and straights, of all ages.
Cherry Lane Cafe, part of the Cherry's bar and dining complex
A long-time fixture in the Cherry Grove community, and a favorite spot for casual noshing, the Cherry Lane Cafe (631-597-7859) is attached to Cherry's gay bar and Bay Gulls breakfast spot, right in the center of the Cherry Grove business district.
Wagon Park, in Cherry Grove
Where do residents of Cherry Grove park all those gleaming red Radio Flyer wagons they use to transport goods and luggage around the island? In the Cherry Grove Wagon Park, of course. The diminutive wagon parking area is right in the community's small commercial center, near the post office.
Island Breeze restaurant and bar, Cherry Grove
A laid-back hangout near the dock in Cherry Grove, Island Breeze (631-597-6570) serves reliable and inexpensive -if predictable - American food but has lovely views of Great South Bay and is a fun spot to meet for drinks, especially during the afternoon and early evening.
Fire Island Water Taxi stop, at the Cherry Grove ferry dock
Although it's possible to walk between Fire Island's main GLBT communities, Cherry Grove and the Pines, a much faster and more convenient options is traveling by way of the reliable Fire Island Water Taxi (631-665-8885) - pictured here is the water taxi stop at the Cherry Grove ferry dock. The Fire Island Water Taxi (here's a photo of the actual boat) actually transports passengers throughout the many communities of Fire Island, from Fire Island Lighthouse and Kismet to the west, clear to Watch Hill Visitor Center to the east.
Rates are set according to how many zones you're traveling through - if you're taking a water taxi between Cherry Grove and the Pines, you're remaining within one zone (Zone 6), and so the cost is the minimum of $6 per adult. For longer trips, say from Cherry Grove to Ocean Beach, you'd be traveling four zones (which costs $12 per adult). This is the fare situation for traveling laterally, that is, east to west or west to east among the Fire Island communities. Regular water taxi service is offered daily throughout the season (late May through early September), from 9 am until 9 pm, but it's a good idea to call for the most up-to-date times.
Fire Island Water Taxi also operates a charter Cross Bay ferry service between the Long Island town of Bayshore and most of the communities on Fire Island (rates start at $125 for first six fares, and $15 per person beyond that). It's an expensive way to get across the bay, but if you miss the Sayville Ferry or simply want to travel according to your own schedule, this is a very handy service.
Cherry Grove Fire Department
Sure, the Cherry Grove Fire Department (631-597-6697) sounds like a quaint concept - on a little island with boardwalks and wagons instead of streets and cars, you might think so-called "low-incident" firehouse isn't all that important. But consider that virtually every structure (and boardwalk) in Cherry Grove is constructed out of wood, and that Fire Island is geographically isolated, and you start to understand what a critical component of the community this is. The department not only plays a vital part in keeping Cherry Grove safe, it's also one of the focal points of the community, with a full slate of drills, meetings, and even fundraising events.
The Cherry Grove Fire Department building is along Bayview Walk (here's an aerial view. It's just west of the Cherry Grove ferry dock and right by St. Ann's Episcopal Church.
Floyd's Sandwiches, Cherry Grove
Looking down from the deck outside Top of the Bay restaurant, you can see Cherry Grove's favorite little gourmet sandwich shop, Floyd's, which is along a row of businesses that include A Summer Place Realty and Cherry Lane Cafe - along Bayview Walk. This is a great little stop to grab a quick bite for lunch, or grab a sandwich to take to the beach or on the ferry back to Sayville.
Boardwalk leading toward Cherry Grove's gay beach
One of the boardwalk "street" leading to the gay beach at Cherry Grove - this is Ivy Walk, facing south, which empties out onto the beach on the community's eastern side, not far from the entrance to the infamous Meat Rack area, toward the Pines community.
Boats in the marina at Fire Island Pines
Throughout the summer, the marina at Fire Island Pines is packed with pleasure boats of all kinds.
Jumping Jacks Seafood Shack
A relaxed, festive restaurant and bar with the best (well, only) ocean views of any hangout in Cherry Grove, Jumping Jacks Seafood Shack (140 Lewis Walk, 631-597-4174) has both an indoor dining room (hung with a hodgepodge of local paintings) and an outdoor section overlooking Cherry Grove's gay beach. The kitchen here turns out credible seafood and other American fare - it's reliably good and very fun, though more about the vibe and view than the food.
Grove Market grocery store, Cherry Grove
The only grocery store in the Cherry Grove community of Fire Island, Grove Market (631-597-6239) is adequate for food supplies, if rather pricey and unremarkable in terms of produce and other fresh items. It's the only game in town, and it does have a handy location beside the Grove Hotel (in this picture, the hotel, Cherry Grove Pizza, and Ice Palace on on the right of the boardwalk, and Grove Market is on the left).
If you're trying to save money, buy groceries in Sayville and ferry them over. Another option is buying groceries at Pines Pantry or A Fresh Market, which are also both a bit pricey but far exceed Grove Market in selection and quality - then you can haul your supply back to Cherry Grove via the Fire Island Water Taxi.
Pines Harbor's restaurants, gay bars, and shops
You'll find the main cluster of shops, restaurants, and gay bars in Fire Island Pines set around the community's scenic harbor. Top picks for dining include the Blue Whale, Bay Bar Cafe, Pines Pizza, and Pines Bistro & Martini Bar. For gay nightlife, check out Sip N' Twirl (the old Pavillion nightclub was torn down to make way for a new entertainment complex), and grab grocery provisions at Pines Pantry (which is pictured in the center of this photo), A Fresh Market and Peter's Marina Meat Market. You'll pretty much find everything you need within a 10-minute stroll. The harbor is also home to the largest accommodation in the Pines, Hotel Ciel
U.S. Post Office, Cherry Grove
Right in the center of Cherry Grove's tiny business district, the Cherry Grove Post Office (Bayview Walk, no phone) is a popular place for locals and visitors to mingle.
The postmaster for the office has written to me and provided some general information on Cherry Grove Post Office: "The Cherry Grove Post Office is open May 1 - October 31 on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 A.M. to 12:00 Noon and 3:00 to 4:00 P.M., and on Saturdays from 10:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. Since we send our mail to Sayville by boat, and are dependent on the ferry schedules, the last collection time is 3:45 on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 12:45 on Saturdays.
Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines are Contract Postal Stations of Sayville which is a full-service Post Office operating year round. Three major differences: we do not sell money orders, handle Passport applications only by mail and do not have a computer. Except for the Zip+4, telephone and fax numbers, the information for Fire Island Pines is close to being accurate.
Bayview Walk's Restaurant Row, Cherry Grove
Most of the several restaurants in Cherry Grove are clustered along Bayview Walk, including Cherry Lane, Bay Gulls, Floyd's Sandwiches, Top of the Bay, and Island Breeze - and just around the corner, Cherry Grove Pizza.
Turrets on the Belvedere Castle hotels in Cherry Grove
One of the fanciful turrets that rises from Cherry Grove's ornate Belvedere Castle hotel.
Bay Gulls Cafe, at Cherry's on Cherry Grove
Perfect for a light breakfast or a latte, espresso, or coffee to kick off your walk to the beach or ferry ride back to Sayville, Bay Gulls is part of the Cherry's Pit complex that includes Cherry's bar and Cherry Lane Cafe. The cafe serves not only tasty bagels but Starbucks coffees and specialty drinks.
Couple strolling along a boardwalk in Cherry Grove
A couple strolls along one of the many tree-shaded boardwalks in Cherry Grove.
Pride Flag and U.S. Flag, on the dock in Cherry Grove
At the end of the dock off Cherry Grove's tiny commercial center, on a cool rainy day in July, both the U.S. flag and the Rainbow Pride flag wave in the breeze as a couple of passengers await a water taxi.