Longing to be at the ocean but not in the mood to laze on a beach all day? By driving a mere twenty minutes past Jones Beach to Robert Moses State Park and Fire Island, you can: 1. ramble a boardwalk, 2. climb a lighthouse, 3. lunch and shop off a pier and still have time to 4. stroll barefoot on perfectly packed wet sand and 5. slip under the curves of cool, clear waves.
Here’s your walkabout guide to five eventful stops along the way.
X Marks the Spot
Robert Moses State Park has 875 acres, five miles of open beach, and, fyi, celebrated its 100th birthday last year as the oldest state park on Long Island. Located on the western end of Fire Island, it’s the only part of this barrier island accessible by car.
Island inducement The park offers a less crowded, more natural, less urban-suburban experience than nearby Jones Beach. Ocean, dunes, a bay, an occasional deer, and indigenous flora, share the beach with day-trippers.
What to Bring
Our plan is to take in the sights and end up at the beach, not start there. So wear loose, cool, comfortable clothes and sneakers. Remember sunglasses, sunscreen and water. Bring a bag to hold your swimsuit (if you’re not wearing one under your clothes), a towel, flip-flops and a camera. A beach chair and umbrella can go in the car for later (or you can rent them for $20 cash, including a $10 deposit). Toss in a small cooler of snacks, if you want. Bring cash to cover admission, sundries and road fees, if you don’t have EZ Pass.
Get Up and Go
Leave Larchmont early morning for a seventy to eighty minute trip: Southern State Parkway East, to Meadowbrook Parkway South, to Ocean Parkway East. (Tip: Bypass Jones Beach toll booths by staying far left. Set your odometer to zero.) Follow signs to Jones Beach Field 6 and continue on Ocean Parkway East.
Here’s the tricky part: 14 miles from the toll booth look for a large brown sign on the left for “Robert Moses State Park Next Right.” On the right you’ll see a small white sign: “SOUTH RM — Robert Moses Causeway” directing you to exit right – you need to exit in front of this sign (if you go under an overpass you missed it) to go over the bridge, to Robert Moses Causeway to RMSP. Go ¾ of the way around the water tower to Field 5.
Robert Moses State Park, Box 247, Babylon, NY 11702; PH: 631-669-0470. http://nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/info.asp?parkID=45
Park Here: Field 5
There’s almost always a line to enter this lot. Tip: the “illegal” lane of cars that forms to your left turns out to be kosher, and can sometimes move faster if additional booths open up ahead to the left. Bargain $8 vehicle use fee applies weekdays 8-4; weekends and holidays 7-6. Field closes at sunset.
You’re here because this is the easternmost parking lot and beach in RMSP, and it adjoins Fire Island National Seashore.
Anti-Tip: Many articles advise parking on the far eastern edge of this giant lot. Which means that at the end of a long, beautiful day, you will walk past your car and hike another ten minutes to the facilities and back again. Real Tip: Park next to the bathhouse. Then say good-bye to the car.
Take a Look Now, Maybe a Dip Later
Backed by tall dunes, the sandy stretch at Field 5 is narrower than at Jones Beach because of erosion. But the sand is gorgeous: soft, white, powdery and pristine. Pass it by for now: we’ll be returning at the end of our walk.
Start Here: Parking Place to Boardwalk
At the eastern edge of Field 5′s parking lot is a narrow, relatively unpopulated boardwalk and nature trail going east. Take it. The boardwalk has the delightful feel of having been plunked down randomly amidst tall grasses and flora. On your right is the ocean. Coming up on the left in about fifteen minutes is Fire Island National Seashore, and the only wheels allowed are bicycles, wagons and carts.
Stop One: Fire Island Lighthouse
Now walk north to the lighthouse. Nestled in the vegetation, encircled by a humble dirt road is the famous Fire Island Lighthouse first activated November 1, 1858. The former keeper’s quarters is now the museum. It’s 168 feet to the top. Tip: The 182 steps are steep and tight, the railing is a skinny rope; so take it slowly and you can do it.
View from the Crow’s Nest
Reward at the top: views are staggering: North, to Great South Bay and – Long Island, right? “You mean ‘Strong Island,’ ” corrects a local with a smile. Got it. East, to the former Coast Guard Station which is now National Park Service housing, and to Fire Island towns. South, to the Atlantic. West, to the foundation of the old lighthouse and to RMSP water tower and bridges.
Trove of Information
Lighthouse is open 9:30 am to 6 pm daily in August. The tower closes at 5:30 and has “open tours” where a guide is stationed at the top. Call to make an appointed tour. $6 adults; $4 children, seniors and active-duty military personnel. Height minimum: 42″.
Phone: 631-661-4876 for more info including handicap accessibility. http://www.fireislandlighthouse.com
Walk On, Matey
Leave the lighthouse and head east for twenty minutes into Fire Island along Burma Road, which is packed sand, dirt and rock. Time for the water bottle. Scenery: cyclists trying to outpace you on bikes that dig in, and vegetation lining the road. Don’t touch. The area is dense with poison ivy, which turns red in the fall, hence one possibility for the island’s name. (Another: pirates built fires at island’s end to lure ships to crash on the rocks).
Stop Two: It must be Kismet
The first civilization you’ll encounter is Kismet. Turn left (north) onto East Lighthouse and walk to the bay. As beshert would have it, the hamlet of Kismet has everything you need for lunch. There’s Kismet Inn & Marina, a 25-year local classic for dining and hanging out; Surf’s Out, a new restaurant; and pizza. Poke through Red Wagon Emporium for light shopping. Wander to the edge of the pier to watch the Fire Island Belle ferry in visitors.
Grab a bench at the marina – the town square – and take in the relaxed scene. Snap pics of the stacks of wagons that transport items, kids and pets. Law enforcement is a National Park ranger who points out the small grocery and candy store – Miss Alice’s Sweets and Treats - tucked around the corner.
Walk south toward the ocean side of the island, enjoying the variety of Kismet’s beach cottages, often with inhabitants spilling onto decks. There are lots of summer shares. Cyclists are experienced at packing everything they need onto themselves and their bikes, so you’ll need to dart off the “road” when they come through with wide, regular-size lawn chairs bill-boarded onto their backs.
Stop Three: Kismet Beach
This is a beautiful family beach with life guards but no public facilities. No problem, because we’re passing through. Stash your shoes in your bag, face west, and walk back along the surf.
Stop Four: Clothing Optional Beaches
Nude beaches start up pretty quickly. If this is outside your comfort zone, detour back onto an “inland” path to head back to Field 5. We’ll meet you there.
Halfway between Kismet and Field 5 is Lighthouse Beach, clothed, but as with the clothing optional beaches there are no lifeguards or facilities.
Stop Five: Field 5 Beach
Drop your bags, peel down to your swimsuit and jump in the water. If you need gear or snacks, grab them from the car or the concession stand. It’s nice to know there are full facilities that include showers and a first aid station, and that you can take children who have a burst of energy to the new playground.
Unlike Jones Beach, you’ll see surfers. Everything is picture perfect. Which is why you lay down, close your eyes, breathe the ocean air in and out, and replay your own images of a perfect walkabout day at the beach.
Katherine Ann Samon’s previous beach story was Stay-cation: Larchmont to Jones Beach in Less Than an Hour. Author of four books, her work has appeared in The New York Times.