Early one morning, summers ago, I decided to take a day trip out to Fire Island with someone I cared deeply about. We took the Long Island Railroad out to Sayville and then a ferry ride from there out to the island. Here we bought bread and cheese, some tomatoes, and then walked out to the beach where we remained the whole day. We swam intermittently, ate, read, and lay out together. It was a warm day and the swimming was good. She wore yellow. When the sun began to set we folded up our blankets and skipped back to the ferry and then slept on the train ride back to Manhattan. It was a fine day, one I’ll never forget. I think of it as I recall some of my favorite beach haunts here in the city.
Not to be confused with Far Rockaway on the other side of this stretch of island, Rockaway Park is my favorite beach in all the city. To get there you simply jump on the A train and take it all the way through Brooklyn to what is technically Queens but feels more like Brooklyn (this summer there can be a couple of shuttle trains involved). The first time I went out I was simply amazed by the portion of the trip where you cross Broad Channel and are out on a small sliver of land with endless water on both sides of your subway train. It’s pretty disconcerting to jump on the subway in Lower Manhattan and then find yourself a half-hour later in what looks like a small East Coast seaport.
There are a few places where you can get decent, cheap food (though a really nice Chinese/sushi place closed there two summers ago), and a killer Italian ice stand. There are never too many people out on this beach—I think only Brooklynites and Queens residents go out here. The sand is as nice as anything out on the Long Island beaches too. For more than a few years I’ve had dreams of getting a summer place out here, kind of my own private ghetto Hamptons. I go out to Rockaway Park at least a dozen times during the summer.
This isn’t really a "beach" here so much as simply a place to go walk along the ocean. This is where all the surfers go to catch big waves amidst the complete lack of swimmers willing to lay out on the rocky sand. The swimming is dangerous (two girls drowned here a few summers back). On clear days you can look clear across the water over to Long Island. Far Rockaway is desolate. Walking along the boardwalk, or inland in the nearby neighborhood in Queens, feels like you’re in some place far from New York City. Some of it looks like a fishing town. Other parts are just dirt poor.
There is an area that a friend and I once walked through that looked like the poorest part of the Deep South, a Southern ghetto; we were amazed. You can walk on the boardwalk here for 40 minutes and come across nary a soul. The lifeguards look like Zen masters alone out on their chairs with no one around for a quarter-mile. I’ve only really sat out on the sand here, and it is very rocky. I swam in the water once when a friend and I were testing out an underwater camera. You usually only see groups of surfers, people alone taking walks, and street people out here. Though it’s great to get a feeling you’ve gotten at least somewhat out of the city.
Though Rockaway Park is my favorite beach in the city, I go out to Coney Island far more during the course of the summer. It is easier to get to by transportation (present work on the Stillwell station and some shuttle bus activity notwithstanding), take the W train this summer. I don’t care what anyone says: I love Coney Island and I love the beach there. Perhaps it’s because I was brought up in Chicago, where summer at the beach means loud, noisy families running and splashing all about. You can buy a beer, water, fruit, cotton candy, Mayan bracelets, CDs—everything is sold right there on the beach. There is life teeming at Coney Island. Take a swim in the ocean and you feel alive, come back and lie on your blanket and life breathes all around you. At least the kind of life that means anything at all to me.
Joke: How do you know when you’ve crossed the invisible line that separates Coney Island Beach from Brighton Beach? On Coney there are a score of little kids running around in their underwear. When you’ve made it to Brighton Beach there are scores of old Russian men running around in their underwear. Brighton Beach and Coney Island are actually the same beach but if you walk farther and farther northeast along Coney the beach becomes Brighton. On the boardwalk you find that the beach restaurants are filled with Russians and Slavic cuisine. It’s really nice to take the train out to the Brighton Beach neighborhood. The Russian community there has some of the best bakeries, fruit stands, and fish places in the city. It’s all really cheap and very fresh. If the overwhelming crowds on the beach at Coney Island bother you, or the occasional plastic bag floating in the water gets your goat, you might want to try Brighton, a much more tranquil experience. When you get to the end of Brighton Beach there is also a small beach hidden on the other side of the rocks where some lay to get away from people. There are a lot of solo beachgoers here. The swimming is really nice because the surrounding rocks calm the waves. I know people who only go to this small, unnamed beach.
This is a difficult beach to get to using public transportation. It’s technically still a part of the Coney Island/Brighton Beach stretch of beach but much more farther out, near Sheepshead Bay. If you take the Q train out to the Sheepshead Bay stop you’re about a 25 minute or so walk from this beach. It’s completely local, and only people from the neighborhood go there. It’s actually pretty small, but quality-wise it’s similar to Brighton. It gets packed during the summer because everyone from the neighborhood frequents it. I made the mistake of going on a weekend once and it was like getting caught in the West Village during the Halloween parade. During the week it makes for a good change of pace.
The easiest of the Long Island beaches to get to, you can walk from the LIRR train. It’s a nice beach, not too crowded during the week, and "cleaner" than your average city beach. I challenge anyone to compare Long Beach to Rockaway Park in Queens any day. I haven’t spent much time inland of Long Beach but I have a few friends who love it and actually spend most of their summers out there. The beach can be busier than Jones Beach sometimes because it’s closer to Manhattan and easier for people from the city to get to. There are a lot of people who refuse to frequent NYC beaches and claim Long Beach is the first acceptable beach they’ll even consider going to.
Jones beach is huge and very "busy." It has the added benefit (if you call it a benefit) of an open-air concert venue nearby where there are shows all summer long. It can get as busy as Coney but is filled with Long Islanders instead of Brooklynites, whatever that might mean. Lots of families, lots of kids, lots of beach posing. Volleyball nets are everywhere. It’s like an amusement park: swimming pools, tennis, golf, basketball, softball, picnic areas. Name it and you can probably find it somewhere out at Jones Beach. If MTV did anything at a NYC beach it would probably be at Jones. I know some snobs who don’t like it but I think it’s a fine beach indeed, especially when it’s not too crowded. Unlike Robert Moses, you can actually get here without a car, though it’s usually better to get a ride out.
Robert Moses Beach
When people who have been swimming most of their lives in the Mediterranean ask me where they should go to swim, the first place I tell them is Robert Moses. It’s the cleanest, nicest beach this side of Fire Island (its northernmost edge is actually near the southern edge of Kismet on Fire Island). It is a part of the Robert Moses State Park where there is hiking and cooking. There are a number of different beaches between here and Jones Beach, and the various ones are tricky to navigate. I was once out at Robert Moses with some friends and we actually cooked some food on a grill (shrimp and squid on the Fourth of July, and it was very fine), though I’m not completely sure such activity is actually allowed. No one said anything to us. You can’t really get away with anything like that at any of the other beaches. Robert Moses is really the most beautiful public beach I’ve been to in the metropolitan area.
Fire Island is nice because it’s pretty much a day trip out of the city. You have to take a ferry from Long Island to get there. The island is quaint in that there are no cars allowed. People walk and bike everywhere and drag carts around (some people drive golf carts). The houses all look like grandiose beach shacks, many intricately designed but homey. There are no streets or addresses, just quirky names on houses like "Loony Dunes" and "Blues & Sun." The beaches are some of the most beautiful in New York and rarely have many people on them. Fire Island is tricky in that many of its beaches are "open communities," meaning that anyone can go out to them, but others are "private communities" with private beaches (where the wealthy live).
Some friends and I often stay out in Kismet, the earthy community at the bottom of the island. I don’t want to say working class but Kismet is very down-to-earth, and there are very few "rules" there. Other communities on the island are like country clubs. Ocean Beach is the biggest year-round town on the island and is the place to go for fun. The beach near there looks like something out of southern California and the "town" itself is really one of the few places on the island where there is a selection of seaside restaurants and "clubs" to frequent. There is even a movie theater there. Along with the gay towns of Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove, Ocean Beach is the place people go out to the most for day trips. All I can say about Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines is that the one summer that I found myself out there I witnessed one of the wildest parties I’ve ever seen in my life—and I’ve seen a lot of parties.
Many of the other communities seem like a different world though—you hike, lay on the beach, swim, cook. The lighthouse at the tip of the island separates Fire Island from the strip of land that leads to Robert Moses State Park and is a really nice visit. To take a walk around this patch of land is to reach a consciousness most unlike anything you ever experience being in the city, which is the point I guess. I can’t express enough how calming it is to be on a beach taking in the sound of the waves. It is a natural form of yoga, and I live for it.