Last month, Hulu’s film Fire Island brought the summer resort into everyone’s living rooms, upping mass awareness of a getaway spot whose magic I’ve long been privy to. Simply all the gays have! It’s a well-known fact that if you haven’t been to Fire Island, they take away your gay card even faster than if you can’t name Lady Gaga’s Golden Globe nominations without a Google search. But going there is not enough; you have to know just how to work the place, especially on weekends, when it sizzles. And so, as a gold-card member of the rainbow, I’ve compiled my insider’s alphabetical guide to what’s so fiery about the island—specifically, the wildly popular Pines and Cherry Grove communities, as they continue to explode out of lockdown. Learn it!
Allies are part of the experience, especially in Cherry Grove, to the chagrin of purists who crave an old-fashioned gay ghetto. But the reality is that admirers have always tried to flock around the queers because we’re flamboyant and out there and they feel cool by association. In return, we do allow some heteros into our resorts, nobly realizing that they’re people too, and probably deserve some rights! Unfortunately, regardless of your sexuality, “A” also stands for Ambulatory hell, since there is an Absolute Absence of streets or cars Anywhere on the island. There are simply miles and miles of wooden planks, and as you traipse across them, feeling like the world’s most underappreciated supermodel, it becomes one long “sashay to the cocktail tray” routine, with occasional stops to pull discarded tit clamps out of your sandaled feet. At least you don’t have to worry about spending money on gas or Ubers for a few days.
The Belvedere Hotel (33 Bayview Walk, Cherry Grove) describes itself as “a sprawling, Venetian-palace-style property,” and it’s really something to see, from the ornate white exterior to the Liberace-esque lobby full of architectural kitsch to the pastoral patios that adjoin some of the better rooms. But no matter how glorious the all-male, go-for-baroque palace looks, it’s basically the kind of hotel where you regularly glance down the hall to find a husband for the next two hours.
Celebrities such as John Waters, Alan Cumming, Ada Vox, and Wanda Sykes can be spotted on the island, and Liza Minnelli has spent time there, while Tommy Tune, Sam Champion, and others have owned houses there. And they’re all pretty accessible, since it’s not that easy to run away on those damned planks!
The Daytripper plan is a must for anyone who doesn’t have a house, a share, or a hotel room, and doesn’t feel like trying to get picked up just so they’ll have a bed for the night. For only $43.25 at the LIRR ticket counter in Penn Station, you get round-trip tickets for the train, the ferry bus, and the ferry itself. The thing is, you must use those tickets all in one day (on a weekend) and they can’t be used after 5:30 p.m. on Friday nights, but that’s no biggie—I’ve managed many a cheapo day trip thanks to this package, and it’s allowed me to haul my package to Fire Island for some dizzying fun on a deadline.
Etiquette is all-important on Fire Island, because complete strangers generally say “Hello” when they walk past each other, even in the supposedly snooty Pines. It’s a lovely tradition, and in the Grove, they’re even more ebullient (“HEY, GURL!!!”). Of course, returning to the city, it’s right back to staring at the ground or the phone, so enjoy it while it lasts.
Fauna are also friendly, but as adorable as the Bambi-like deer that pop up around the wooded areas may look, please don’t give them a “Hey, gurl!” Kindly keep walking and avoid the awful risk of getting Lyme disease. Okurrr?
The Grove is my favorite of the two communities because it’s diverse and almost honky-tonk. The place radiates lively energy and boasts optimal people-watching, especially right across from the Grove Market, at 161 Bayview Walk. The al fresco Cherry Grove Pizza (179 Ocean Walk) also allows for gawking and schmoozing, and Sweet Licks (181 Bayview Walk) has the yummiest ice cream options of the summer. But more important, the historic Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre (180 Bayview Walk) is the nexus for shows and grassroots organizing, giving the seasonal hedonism some gravitas.
“Helga, I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt,” Joan Crawford (played with bulging eyes by Faye Dunaway) simpers to her put-upon maid in the camp classic Mommie Dearest. Also: Helen Lawson is the show biz battleax, played by Susan Hayward (who replaced a faltering Judy Garland) in Valley of the Dolls, another over-the-top mess-terpiece. And Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the de rigueur gay musical about an “internationally ignored” rock star who’s been victimized by a botched gender reassignment operation. And that’s all you need to know to pass Hilarity 101 and walk the island with your campy Head Held High.
The Ice Palace Resort (1 Main Walk, Cherry Grove) is the crown jewel of the Grove, a long-running party hub complete with dancing, cocktails, and drag shows—including by the pool. Stretch out on a beach chair, order a daiquiri, and prepare to get splashed by one more drag queen. Long and involved special events, like the Mr. Fire Island Leather contest and the Miss Fire Island drag competition, also attract crowds with a lot of stamina. And inches away—the Ice Palace is part of a complex—the Grove Hotel has closet-like rooms shaking all night from the thumping dance music. The place seems to exist strictly for gays who want to party and have sex nonstop. Appalling! See you there.
July 4th is always a choice day to go to the Pines, because that’s when the Invasion—a boatful of gussied-up drag queens—arrives from the Grove in a riveting eruption of ceremonial pride. After speeches and songs on the pier, the hairspray-heavy vessel floats in, then each queen disembarks to applause from the assembled celebrants. This annual ritual started way back in 1976, as a reaction to a drag queen being refused service at a Pines boîte. Today, they would be instantly named manager.
Kamilla Kockman—one of NYC’s feistiest and most political drag performers—is a regular entertainer at hotspots like Cherry’s on the Bay (158 Bayview Walk), mixing polished numbers with Black Lives Matter mantras. Give her your eyes, ears, and tips.
Lesbians are integral to the scene, especially in Cherry Grove, where they are queen. It’s great to look around and actually spot a cross section of the LGBTQ community (and the aforementioned allies, who adore the drink specials), not just the 32-year-old white twinks you tend to see in certain NYC bars. Hello, lesbians.
The Meat Rack is the formerly infamous dunesy area between the Pines and the Grove. It used to be an anonymous sex playground rife with acts straight out of Genesis—sort of like the Central Park Ramble once was—but sex apps changed everything, and now the Meat Rack is simply a place to dutifully trudge through en route to something else. Wear resilient but comfortable walking shoes.
Night Lights are among the precious few objects you should seriously consider bringing on your trip (along with lots of cash). When the sun sets, things get rather creepy and some of the planks end up being in dimly lit, underpopulated areas that can suddenly make one’s skin crawl. To avoid feeling like you’re starring in a queer horror film you never bargained for, bring something—anything—that lights up. A klieg light might be nice.
The Ocean awaits you, since a trip to Fire Island would not be complete without sun, sand, waves, and exhibitionism. The entire Atlantic coast of the Island is a beach, and it’s “clothing optional,” though some guys just can’t bear not showing off their new Speedos.
The Pines have been called uptight, uppity, and overpriced, but for all of its weaknesses, this resort destination still exudes the strongest allure for NYC gay men. It simply has the most dancing (Pavilion, 36 Fire Island Boulevard, has long been the place), the most persistent music, the best grocery store (the Pines Pantry, 57 Picketty Ruff Walk), and a perfectly located eatery/coffee joint for refueling and repurposing (Canteen, on Harbor Walk). Special events like the Fire Island Dance Festival—in the Pines Harbor, July 15 to 17, to benefit Dancers Responding to AIDS—elevate the overall sense of purpose. But mostly, there are good-looking guys who know it and flaunt it, and that’s the draw. Those wooden runways in the woods are well stocked with wood nymphs who would.
Queens are everywhere, like crabgrass. As in drag queens—like Victoria Falls, Porsche, Bootsie Lefaris, Busted, Ariel Sinclair, and on and on. Young queens, old queens, spirited queens, jaded queens … and they’ve all got something to say, whether onstage or working the crowd at drag brunches. As witnessed by the Invasion, the queens have long been revered here, way before RuPaul’s Drag Race. They have traditionally been our court jesters, who help us through hard times via barbed humor that comments on the absurdity of the outside world. They put so much into their personas and have become capable of such a variety of stage stunts that you just have to submit, especially since they’re pulling this off in blistering heat, and in heels yet.
Speaking of drag queens: Rose Levine is the persona of longtime Cherry Grove inhabitant Bob Levine, and she’s become as legendary a part of Fire Island lore as specialty Curaçao cocktails and sand crabs. Whether singing the national anthem at the Invasion or working for queer causes, Rose is a testament to perseverance, humanitarianism, and personal sparkle.
Speedboats—aka water taxis—that depart from the pier can quickly take you back and forth between the Pines and the Grove, usually for just seven bucks. It sure beats schlepping through the Meat Rack one more time, but bear in mind that the rides are so rocky that you might feel like you’re going to be sleeping with the gay fishes.
Tea dance is a ritualistic chance to compare muscles, writhe to the beat, and exchange some “tea” (i.e., gossip). Low Tea is generally 5 to 8 p.m., followed by Mid Tea and High Tea, and by that point, the queens still aren’t ready to be Tea-totalers. Your best bet is the Blue Whale, a sprawling bar with a patio, on Harbor Walk in the Pines. Their Low Tea is an indoor/outdoor must-attend, and it’s perversely amusing to watch the guys who’ve just rolled out of bed in the afternoon line up to start their partying cycle all over again.
“Helga, I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt,” Joan Crawford (played with bulging eyes by Faye Dunaway) simpers to her put-upon maid in the camp classic Mommie Dearest.
Underwear parties are also essential, particularly for anyone desperate to be part of a flesh-related fashion show. Daniel Nardicio’s Dworld Productions throws these bashes on Fridays at the Ice Palace, resulting in a mass of chicly bumping crotches and briefs being actively de-briefed. Thanks to all the raging hormones in attendance, you will definitely hear the occasional whore moan.
Venereal diseases are surely lurking in every crevice of these events—and everywhere else, too—so be sure to take your PrEP, strap on your condoms, and prepare to air kiss. A lot.
Whyte Hall (577 Fire Island Boulevard), like the Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre, is a majestic edifice that provides a theater, meeting rooms, and event space. It’s a slick complex that is Pines-specific and pretty much the cultural center of town—though that might not be saying much, lol.
Xeroderma is a horrible condition that makes sufferers extremely sensitive to sunlight. If you happen to have this disease, please see a doctor before even thinking about coming to Fire Island—and also please realize that I just basically needed an “X” word here.
Youth obsession has plagued Fire Island for decades, as snippy gays right out of Boys in the Band regularly bemoan the horrors of turning ancient at age 30. Apparently, you’re practically dead at that point! But fortunately, things have evolved through the years, and there is considerably less derision hurled at mature queens these days, especially if they’ve accomplished a lot and have a fancy house to show for it. It’s hard enough to be gay, let alone to have to deal with bigotries within the community. But generally, Fire Island mixes us up into a big, healthy salad—sauce on the side.
ZZZZ. Come on, you’ve followed my list and you’ve had your fun. Now get your sleep. G’night, bitch. ❖
Michael Musto has written for the Voice since 1984, best known for his outspoken column “La Dolce Musto.” He has penned four books, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.
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