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Fire Island: Introduction

A half-mile wide, 32 miles long, and car- and attitude-free, Fire Island is about as emotionally far from New York City as you can get within a couple of hours. A patchwork of national seashore and private property, the island has few formal addresses; folks ride beat-up bicycles barefoot and know places only by name. Regulars talk of "the mainland" as if it were a distant continent rather than right across the bay. And the word "ostentatious" hasn't even been coined yet -- informality rules the day. With punishing winters, Fire Island is strictly a summertime getaway. When Memorial Day hits, the small hamlets fill with warm-weather revelers, while other parts of the island see only congregations of deer. And after September's over, almost everything shuts down.

Since cars are off-limits and the water taxi is expensive, it's best to decide what kind of experience you're after before you arrive here. Ocean Beach is the hub of island activity, where you'll find most of the island's hotels and restaurants, along with most of the party-hearty weekend visitors. The small hamlets of Kismet and Ocean Bay Park are mostly residential and great for crowd escape, but have few hotels or restaurants. Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines are popular gay communities. And to get away from everyone, head to Watch Hill and points east -- the area boasts a fantastic wildlife preserve, but no facilities other than camping. Walk the beach at night and it'll be just you, the surf, and the moonlight. Out here (and on the western end), beaches are clothing-optional, though going topless is tolerated everywhere.

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