2011, tragedy struck Fire Island, a legendary gay resort community on New
York’s Long Island, when the famed Pavilion dance club and its neighbour, the
Sip and Twirl disco burned to the ground.
No one was
hurt in the disaster, which was blamed on an electrical failure, but the massive
blaze made headlines in New York papers and gay
publications nationwide, as the men and women of Fire Island wondered how they would
face the 2012 season without their two most popular nightclubs. Would it irrevocably
transform what had long been a secluded gay paradise into just another high-end
Fire Island is a barrier island off the south shore of Long Island, about 60
miles from New York City. There are several communities along the 30-mile
stretch but the two most famous and historic gay resorts are the Fire Island Pines (known as the Pines) and Cherry Grove (known as the Grove), both of
which are accessible only by ferry from the Long Island town of Sayville. Less
than two square miles in area, the hamlets are known for pristine sand dune-framed
beaches abutting the Atlantic, car-free boardwalk streets, scantily clad men and
women perfecting their tans, drag queens navigating sand and surf in stilettos and
a happily hedonistic yet quietly laidback social scene.
relatively small footprint and its seasonal nature (less than two dozen people
make the Pines and the Grove their year-round home), Fire Island has historically
been a centre of gay leisure in the US, rivalled perhaps only by Provincetown, a
retreat on Massachusetts’
Cape Cod. On average, about
800,000 people (gay and straight) visit Fire Island each season.
was first developed as a vacation destination in the 1880s and gained a reputation
for being hospitable to gay and lesbian travellers in the 1950s. The Pines
began attracting a gay clientele in the mid-1960s, when former model John B
Whyte bought the community’s only hotel along with much of the neighbouring commercial property and started inviting his
friends. The Botel (now the revamped Hotel Ciel)
remains the only hotel in the Pines.
intervening decades, the Grove and the Pines began catering almost exclusively
to gay travellers seeking summer shares away from the grit of New York City and
the prying eyes of their more conservative neighbours. Gay men tend to
gravitate towards the Pines, with its sleek mid-century modernist architecture,
while the Grove attracts women with its cosier and secluded beach cottages.
Tea and underwear parties
fire of 2011, a typical day on Fire Island would likely consist of a lazy
breakfast and a mid-morning jaunt to the beach. Then around mid-afternoon one
would get ready for Tea, the primary social engagement in the Pines.
would take place on the deck of the Blue Whale in the late afternoon and then “High Tea” would shift upstairs
to the Pavilion next door -- an island Studio 54 of sorts -- for uninhibited
drinking and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. While the Blue Whale
survived the fire, Low Tea somehow feels incomplete without its grown-up,
season, however, much of the late night debauchery has migrated from the Pines
to the Grove, where the aqua blue Ice Palace bar and hotel complex is now
hosting the Island’s weekly Friday night Underwear Party which continues into
September. This summer, the hotel and club hosted no less a star than Liza Minnelli, who
performed a cabaret with actor Alan Cumming. Another popular spot in the Grove is
Cherry’s on the Bay, a bayside open air bar glowing with red
lights that, like the Ice Palace, keeps the music pumping until 4 am on
Coleman, a longtime homeowner in the Pines, said that this summer has been a great
bonding time for the community. “The fire took our favourite playgrounds away,
but the community did not break stride for a moment.”
Rebuilding what was lost
The old Sip and
Twirl disco was rebuilt with great haste and re-opened with an airier,
modernised look in July 2012 for the dancing and cruising delight of all. Without
the Pavilion currently standing in the way it has an excellent view of the
marina from its second floor terrace.
version of the Pavilion, designed by the world-class architecture firm Diller
Scofidio and Renfro, began construction in June and is slated for completion in
time for summer 2013. It is expected to have several new bars as well as other
amenities, like a beachwear store and a pizza parlour, to replace those lost in
the dramatic losses, Fire Island has continued on unabated. The beach is just as
lovely and just as packed with bronzed gods as in summers past; and the destination
is still attracting visitors who are eager to stake a claim in a place that has
raised generations of gay people before them.
remain, however, about next summer and the summers beyond. Fire Island has
always been expensive, and increasing hotel and rental home prices makes it hard
for younger generations to visit. The revamped clubs will only add to the
aggressive gentrification, and Fire Island risks becoming another suburb of the
Hamptons – a place that could end up lacking the creativity, excitement and
vitality it once had.
will tell if these worries come to pass. Right now, despite the ashes, Fire
Island remains a resort trapped in amber from an earlier era, still a private
oasis full of midnight skinny dipping, furtive glances on the criss-crossing
boardwalks and leisurely afternoon picnics on the beach -- just far enough from
the mainland to feel apart and free.
affordable way to stay on Fire Island is to rent a house, but there are
also a few (generally more expensive) hotel options.
primary choices are the Grove Hotel and the Belvedere Guest House. The Grove Hotel, which is attached to the Ice Palace, is spare to say
the least, but is just seconds from the beach or the harbour. The Belvedere is a campy, Venetian
palace-inspired, clothing-optional resort for men that sits like a diamond
tiara on the bay side of the island.
Over in the
Pines are the Hotel Ciel and the Madison Guest House, a luxurious bed and breakfast with
a pool and only a few rooms.
is by no means a culinary destination. There are a couple of markets with deli
counters, a pizza place or two and a handful of restaurants and cafes. The Blue
Whale serves food, as does nearby Canteen in the Pines, but Islanders
lost the more upscale Pines Bistro & Martini Bar in the fire when La
is more built up than the Pines and there are several dining options, including
fish tacos, burgers and other beach-y foods at the appealingly no-fuss but
nicely appointed Sand Castle with
outdoor seating and views of the Atlantic; Top of the Bay (1 Dock Walk;
631-597-6028) serves more elegant meals like scallops and
steaks and makes a fine destination for a sunset cocktail; and the endearing Cherry Lane Restaurant, serves up tasty diner options like fried mozzarella and chicken
tenders until the wee hours of the morning.