Fire Island: My First Real Vacation in Years

Laying on the beach and watching the waves was a great stress reliever.

Posted Aug 28, 2016

I returned this past Thursday from what may have been my first real vacation since 2005, when my brother generously sent me and my cousin Jamie to Paris for a week-long see- all-the-sights in the City of Lights.

Again, the best brother a sister could have came to the rescue when he and his girlfriend rented a house for a week on Fire Island which is on the tip of Long Island in New York State.  I went out with them and their children on Monday, staying four days, while they are staying until Sunday.

The following description is from “A Beginner’s Guide to Summer on Fire Island,” written by Timothy Bolger which appeared in the May 21, 2016 issue of the Long Island Press.

“Fire Island is home to Robert Moses State Park on the west end, Smith Point County Park on the east end and a national park featuring an eight-mile wilderness preserve. And in the middle, accessible by ferry only, are 17 car-free communities—most of which are strictly residential with a few having downtowns offering shops and nightlife.  

   “It’s a special place unlike any other place certainly within an hour and a half of New York [City],” Suzy Goldhirsch, president of the Fire Island Association (FIA), previously told the Press. “It’s a place where time has stood still to a certain extent because there are no cars and because you still have a small town ambiance where you walk or ride a bicycle and you see people and you stop on the corner and you talk to each other. You are not whizzing by your neighbors at 50 mph in a car on your way to the mall. That quality of life itself is worth preserving not only for residents, but for people who come to visit our Island—for a day trip, or a stay at the Fire Island Hotel or perhaps to rent a house.”

The 32-mile-long, ¼-mile wide strip of sand is the longest of four barrier islands that protect the South Shore of Long Island from the Atlantic Ocean. It has about 4,000 homes and its year-round population of about 400 residents swells to an estimated 20,000 during summer months—plus daytrippers. Without cars, the primary modes of transportation include bicycles, private boats, water taxi, golf carts and wagons. 

The view looking west in downtown Ocean Beach (Long Island Press photo)
Source: The view looking west in downtown Ocean Beach (Long Island Press photo)

Ocean Beach is the island’s most populous village and is home to its biggest downtown, making it the unofficial capital of Fire Island that’s also among the area’s most popular destinations for visitors.

Aside from its lifeguarded oceanfront, bayside marina and family friendly small town charm, the village is additionally home to about a dozen restaurants and bars with at least as many boutiques and gift shops—all of which welcome bare sandy feet.

“Fun in the sun” is scrawled across the village’s antique street lamp banners, although Ocean Beach’s many rules also made it known as “The Land of No.”

Among the strict ordinances earning visitors’ summonses from village police are rules against eating on the beach, bicycling at restricted times and eating on streets outside of the downtown strip.

Like its conflicting descriptions, the village has different vibes depending upon the time. On summer days, children hawk painted seashells from red Radio Flyer wagons on street corners and bands play free concerts on the dock. Come sundown on summer weekends, the nightlife crowd packs the streets thirsty for dancing and Rocket Fuels—Bacardi 151-infused piña coladas invented in Ocean Beach.”

The house my brother rented for the week was in the community of Ocean Beach because of its reputation for being family friendly.  The kids had their bikes and rode as they pleased, enjoying their first taste of freedom and independence.  My niece sold rainbow-colored bracelets that she wove on her loom from a wagon in town and earned an astoundingly large amount of money for an eight-year old — close to fifty dollars in four days. 

My brother took us out for dinner and we ate at restaurants that had outdoor dining on the water and as we devoured our meal, the sun was setting in pink and orange hues on the Atlantic.  On the nights that we ate at the house, we took walks into town after dinner and licked ice cream cones as they melted into a sticky mess.  One morning I went into town alone and purchased an overpriced Fire Island tee-shirt as a memento of my trip.  I got lost on my way back, trying to find the house we were staying in, taking a wrong turn at the small church with the stained glass windows.

We reclined in lounge chairs on the beach from mid-morning until late afternoon and I never got tired of watching the waves roll in and crash against the shoreline.  Teenagers dove headfirst into the waves and disappeared, only to emerge seconds later grinning.  On my last day, the ocean which had been placid, turned rough, the undertow more threatening and still the kids, now fearless continued to fling themselves into the enormous waves.  On that day, as the flags posted by the lifeguards raged yellow into the wind, where before they had hung a limp green. Parents stood anxiously where the water met the sand, waiting for a glimpse of their offspring as their heads popped up from the ocean.

I ventured into the water briefly, hesitating, not on the last day, but on the day before when the waves were more forgiving.  The water felt cold at first, but when I stayed in for long enough turned refreshing.  Initially, I fought the surf as it rose up to my chin, trying to stand my ground on the ocean floor which was covered with a rug of broken seashells that cut into the soles of my feet.  The harder I fought, the more my muscles tensed and the more I felt the jagged edges of the shells.  Eventually, I learned that it was easier and less painful if I went with the allure of the waves and allowed myself to ride on my back or my stomach, whichever way felt right.  Whichever way allowed me not to have to make a decision.

I took walks on the beach, sometimes listening to music on my phone, sometimes just listening to the sounds of the waves, the birds and the young children, gleeful as they discovered the joys of the water as it curled up to the edge of the shore, tickling their toes and then receding back into the vastness of the ocean.  The children, tanned golden, wearing water wings, dug fiercely in the sand with plastic shovels as their older brothers and sisters helped them make sand castles and then wiped tears when the magnificent structures were washed away by the waves at high tide.

Whichever direction I went on my walks down the beach — and I took several — my attention couldn’t help but be drawn away from the ocean to the houses that lined the shore.  They weren’t so much houses as sculptures; varying shapes, each constructed from a different kind of wood, each magnificent with oval decks, square decks, swimming pools, sloping roofs, every imaginable type of architectural device.  I lost myself strolling, feeling my toes in the sand, the occasional wave brushing my feet and I didn’t realize how far I had gone.  Turning around and retracing my steps, I scanned the shoreline for my brother and his girlfriend, for the familiar umbrellas and chairs and in doing so, I saw people of every conceivable type, all enjoying themselves in the sun.  And I was one of them.  Finally, I glimpsed our familiar blue umbrella and collapsed in the beach chair, exhausted but still smiling.

Thursday afternoon I waited for the ferry on the dock with the sun beating down on all the Fire Islanders who soon would be transported back to reality.  On the beach earlier that day, I thanked my brother for his generosity in inviting me, expressing my appreciation.  I also voiced that watching him and his girlfriend with their combined brood, I had no regrets about not having had a family.  “it’s a lot of work,” my brother acknowledged.

The last time I saw my psychiatrist, Dr. Adana (not her real name) before this vacation which started on August 22nd was August 10th.  Due to our combined schedules, my next  appointment is September 10th, a four-week spread.  I’m looking forward to seeing her, telling her what a great time I had and showing her the photographs that I took, and a couple of other things, but other than that, I’m not missing our sessions.

It’s hard for me to believe that a year ago I sat in her office, seated in a chair across from her and I told her week after week that there was no way I could imagine ending therapy, that I would need to have her to talk to about my problems for the rest of my life because she was the only one who would understand and who else could I speak to about the dirtiest, darkest secrets that lurked deep inside my psyche?

And now I’m going four weeks without therapy, planning to terminate this December and feeling as though I could end earlier, but December seems like a tidy time to wrap things up. Who could have predicted this?  Not me.  Progress is a good feeling.  So is being able to enjoy an ice cream cone.