Every summer, New York lesbians pack up their swim trunks and flip-flops and jump on the Long Island Railroad, headed toward Fire Island. On a short jitney ride from the train to the ferry dock, the men are generally traveling to the Pines, while Cherry Grove is the preferred destination for the women.
The trek from Manhattan or Brooklyn to Fire Island may be long, given the wealth of closer beaches, but for diehards, there is no substitute.
Fire Island's getaway for women is an evergreen lure
“It is unlike anywhere else, really,” said Allison Steinberg, a writer and Fire Island aficionado. “It ain’t Tahiti, but it’s the nicest beach in New York, and the only place you can go to where folks pass you on the street and say hello. It’s like they have transplanted New York metro culture somewhere without cars, where everyone is friendlier. It’s a pain to get there, but it’s always worth it.”
Steinberg is part of a group of women who regularly pay $2,000 to rent the same house for the week that includes Memorial Day. She said that price is low considering it includes the holiday weekend, but that the owners know her and her friends and have kept the cost constant for years.
According to Ector Simpson, director of cultural programs and volunteer management for the LGBT Community Center, the price range for summer shares varies widely, depending on location and amenities. The Center has just completed its annual series of Share-A-Thons –– a program now in its 20th year –– to help prospective Fire Islanders find housemates for the summer.
“Individual homeowners determine their own rates and criteria; it is a reciprocal relationship,” said Simpson. “Part of the Share-A-Thon is allowing folks to really connect, and see whether the person and house meets their needs. One of the wonderful things about coming to the Center and meeting face-to-face is that exchange, that organic conversation when you meet the people that you are going to be spending your vacation with. People may come to the table with two or three friends, or they may come there for the first time, wanting to meet friends.”
Simpson also noted that in recent years, the poor economy has forced homeowners to be more flexible, allowing renters to take a half-share, or even just two weeks.
Steinberg agreed, admitting that her own plans for the season were still up in the air. She recommended A Summer Place Realty (631-597-6140 or asummerplacerealty.com), a reputable real estate company in Cherry Grove. While she had done online searches on Craigslist in the past, she has found greater reliability with realtors, because they were experts on renting shares.
“It is not too late; we still have properties available,” said Sofina Terzo, a sales agent at Summer Place. “But if you want to be sure of a space, you should think about it at the end of the year, before you leave. We even put it on our leases, to remind people to put a hold on next year’s property by August 15.”
That said, Terzo noted that in Cherry Grove there are still a good mix of studios, one-, two-, and three-bedrooms — everything from charming beach cottages to luxury rentals with pools. Prices for a 20-week share can range from $9,500 for a studio to $22,000 for luxury accommodations. Her boss, Evelyn Danko, who has been dealing with Fire Island real estate for 24 years, has one of the best reputations on the island. Terzo said the company puts a premium on customer service, moving its office operations to Fire Island over the summer to maintain the properties and be available to trouble-shoot issues brought to them by renters.
For overnight guests, Terzo recommended the Grove Hotel, where economy rooms range from $40-$400 daily, with higher prices during summer weekends. According to operations manager Wendy Lewis, the 50-year-old hotel offers about 65 rooms, the largest pool in Fire Island, and many other amenities, including day pool passes and bag checks.
“We have free entertainment just about every night in the summer, a huge disco, a tiki bar, the Island Breeze restaurant that offers discounts for guests, and a store, pizza place, and ice cream shop on the property,” said Lewis. “We attract a mixed clientele, and although many summer weekends are already sold out, during the week, we almost always have rooms. People also take advantage of day passes to the pool and showers, and we hold their bags while they go out at night.”
The Ice Palace, part of the Grove Hotel complex, often holds thematic weekends catering to leather women, gay film festivals, and in June, Women’s Pride in the Pines, a Fire Island benefit for The Center.
For information on the Grove Hotel, call 631-597-6600 or email [email protected]. For men, the historic landmarked Belvedere Guest House is a Cherry Grove favorite. For reservations, call 631-597-6448 or visit belvederefireisland.com.
Although Cherry Grove has seen recent competition from other gay resorts geared toward middle-aged professional women –– including Provincetown and Greenport, located toward the east end of Long Island’s North Fork –– Steinberg said, “Fire Island is for the rest of us. You can even go for a day, but there’s something about not having to make the trek back.”
That is the one of the big draws of Fire Island –– decade after decade it has remained a gay and lesbian oasis accessible by public transportation to any who have the train fare.
Simpson noted the spur of the moment allure of Fire Island.
“It doesn’t require a reservation,” he said of the Long Island Railroad. “You can make it a day trip. You don’t necessarily have to have a rental to enjoy the beach in a queer environment. And it is very different from Jones Beach or Riis Beach.”
Steinberg took note of the transformation in cultural norms and relations among gay men and lesbians along the island’s gorgeous beach.
“Fags rushing down Eighth Avenue in Chelsea are not going to take time to say hi to a chubby lesbian,” she said, “but in Fire Island, they are glad to share a happy hour drink with you.”