A summer after a massive blaze decimated two nightclubs in the legendary gay resort on New York’s Long Island, the private oasis continues to burn strong.

In November 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 vacation resort?

The resorts
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.

Despite its 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.

The Grove 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.

Over the 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
Before the 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.

“Low Tea” 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, sexier sibling.

This 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 weekends.

Gray 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.

A new 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 blaze.

So despite 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. 

Questions 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.

Only time 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.

The most affordable way to stay on Fire Island is to rent a house, but there are also a few (generally more expensive) hotel options.

The Grove’s 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.  

Fire Island 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 Fountaine burned

The Grove 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.