Mom may tell you to wait 30 minutes after eating before you can take a swim, but does that apply to those of us on a liquid diet, too? Aquatic expert Katie Kime, a 22-year-old lifeguard from New Jersey, sounds positively appalled at the very notion. “Drinking?!,” she scolds. “It’s never good to put yourself in the water where you are not 100 percent in control.” How Red Cross–certified of Katie. Nevertheless, while the blissful combination of sun, surf, and Sauza tequila may seem an enviable one, do yourself (and those nubile lifeguards) a favor and wait till your dip is done before hitting up the drinking joints we found along New York City’s sandy bits.
Bars don’t exactly overwhelm Staten Island’s east coast—at least not within walking distance of the shore. Don’t expect to get too far without a set of wheels (and a designated driver, of course). But the S51 bus departs every half hour from the Ferry Terminal, and after 45 minutes reaches Sand Lane, the stop for South Beach. Miami fantasies won’t last too long; instead of the chiseled chests of Cuban hunks, this South Beach is more likely to have dog-walking wives with fake-tanned arm jiggles.
For a city shore, South Beach is relatively pristine—Great Kills and Wolfe’s Pond, two beaches a little further south are filthy. (Did we expect anything named “Great Kills” would be clean? We’re just thankful it’s not blood-drenched.) Yet its position on the Lower New York Bay doesn’t let sunbathers forget where they are: The Verrazano Bridge looms large and the whimsical spires of Coney Island gleam in the distance.
Seeing as how Staten Island is nearer the Jersey Shore than most of New York, it ought to know a thing or two about throwing a good beach party. Yes, the newish construction on South Beach is a boardwalk in the sense that it’s a place to walk and it’s made of boards. It’s named after FDR, but Roosevelt liked a bit of fun as much as the next polio-stricken, wartime pres. Were he here to see it, he might bemoan his namesake’s grievous lack of beer, corn dogs, and unwinnable ring tosses. The sole drinking establishment on the boardwalk is South Fin Grill (300 Father Capodanno Boulevard, 718-447-7679), a seafood restaurant that shares a front porch with a catering hall popular with the Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation crowd. A man in top hat and tails will direct you to the correct entrance and settle you in the lounge section where you can perch fruity drink on one of the checkered, sand-strewn chairs. On Fridays and Saturdays, the outdoor deck becomes a “tiki bar” with live music, cocktails in the $8 to $11 range, and perfect views.
If Staten Island disappoints with its pristine and nearly alcohol-free planks, dirty, boozy Coney Island is another story. Yes, there’s litter on the sand, cigarette butts on the seesaws, toothless women offering palm readings, and men who scratch themselves before handing you a paper basket of fried shrimp. Let’s face it—you don’t come here for good, clean fun.
One block from the Stillwell Avenue subway station—a sprawling depot meant to evoke Europe’s massive train halls—stands a crumbling façade at the corner of Surf Avenue and West 12th Street. The windows of the two-story structure are plastered over with newspaper, and penny pinchers pick aluminum cans out of the trash in front. Under a plain black awning, it’s easy to miss the glowing “Open” sign and the doorway leading to the Coney Island Museum, where, for 99 cents, visitors can glimpse historic ephemera from the beach’s heyday. By Memorial Day, the building will boast a ground-floor Freak Bar expanded from eight stools to 20, plus ice-cream-parlor-style tables, a vintage jukebox, a Coney Island pinball machine, and an upright piano. For now, enter on West 12th, and grab a bottle of Coney Island Lager before watching the fire eater and sword swallower at the upstairs freak show.
With the threat of its demise, there’s lots of talk about what makes Coney Island such a great place. Mermaids and indie-music shows aside, there’s no better pleasure than walking in the sun on a city block with a beer in your hand. Better yet, make that a $4 pint. Better yet, make it a two-foot-tall piña colada in a plastic cup shaped like a naked man’s body—available at the beachside refreshment stands.
Your anthropomorphic beverage should last you long enough to cruise over Brighton Beach. Hang a left at Coney Island Avenue, and stop in for a game or two at Club Boardwalk (3200 Coney Island Avenue, 718-934-7777). The five ping-pong tables are hard to snag, but ten 42-inch TVs, 20 billiard tables, four Russian-pyramid tables, and two snooker tables make this one of the best-equipped halls serving South Brooklyn. Boardwalk carries bottled beers (all $4), and games start at $4.50 per person per hour. As you stroll back to the subway, grab a snack on Brighton Beach Avenue, a thoroughfare dotted with Slavic grocery stores and restaurants.
No scent of piss and pretzels? No disgusting sights? Is this even New York? Set within the woods of Pelham Bay Park, itself a tranquil destination on a sunny day, Orchard Beach is a little over a mile of smooth sand and jewel-blue sea. There’s barely a tide due to its Long Island Sound setting; the beach is man-made, built by Robert Moses in the ’30s with sand from the Jersey Shore and the Rockaways.
The area is a popular mating spot for horseshoe crabs—the prehistoric sea creatures come up onto the beach to frolic in May and June. The beach itself resembles a horseshoe, and a monumental two-story pavilion spoons it. The crumbling structure houses stands selling cheap beer and ice cream. Beyond the beach, Pelham Bay Park offers facilities for volleyball, canoeing, paddleball, barbecuing, and lazy days on the grass.
From the beach, the islands of the sound dot the horizon. City Island is the most prominent, its wooden shanties lit by fluorescent signs noting “LOBSTER” served within. If this tantalizes, hop back on the Bx29 bus (which connects with the No. 6 train) or bike over the bridge to this fantasy world of stately homes, valet parking, and strong Mafia feel. The main avenue has no shortage of restaurants with fully stocked bars, and there are even a couple of dives mid-island. Every establishment at the south end of the island is part of the Sammy’s conglomerate: Shrimp Box, Lobster House (currently closed for renovations), and Fish Box (41 City Island Avenue, 718-885-0920). Just for sitting down at a Sammy’s, would-be diners are presented with a “relish tray,” including a warm loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, fresh cornbread, and a plate of pickled vegetables. The drinks here and at Sammy’s Tropical Bar—a hole-in-the-wall with a takeout counter—are pricey and weak, but the freebies are a nice touch to soak up the cooling alcohol while you broil in the scorching sun.