Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fire Island Redux

I didn’t think I would be writing about my Fire Island trip, but I couldn't resist. JM, JB, BS, and I met at the Long Island Rail Road ticket area at Penn Station early Friday morning. After 2 trains ($21 round trip), 1 shuttle van ($5 one way), and 1 ferry ride ($14 round trip), we arrived at Cherry Grove about 12:30pm. My initial thought was that it seemed like a lot of traveling in order to get to Fire Island (don’t forget I had a subway trip too), but in fact we were there in 3 hours, which actually isn’t that bad. However, I have to admit, upon arrival I was a little disappointed. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Cherry Grove was not it. The place is like a tiny fishing village with what seemed like 1 store, 1 restaurant, and 1 bar. Remote doesn’t even been to describe it. The picture you see here (by Andrew Collins on the's Gay & Lesbian Travel site) makes it seem bigger than it is, but in fact what you see is pretty much what you get. The stroll down Bayview Walk toward the guest house was interesting. The entire area is built on raised wood-plank boardwalks, and you pass one private cottage after another, many surrounded by overgrown wheat stalks and other flora, all of which are typically rented out to seasonal visitors at thousands of dollars per week. And then we got to the Belvedere.

You’ll recall that my initial impressions from their website fluctuated between curious excitement and appalling dismay. All I can say is that the website was 100% more inviting than the place itself. How someone ever could vote it “the best gay male resort in the country” (note they are quoting from an anonymous comment posted on Trip Advisor in 2007) clearly shows one has not traveled much. The entire complex defines ostentatious eccentricity. The original owner, John Eberhardt, had been a set painter, so it should come as no surprise that the entire place looks like a theater set stage. As a result nothing has any value. Everywhere there is faux marble, and the sculpture throughout the place is plaster, staff, and plastic resin. Worse yet, all of it is quite literally falling apart. Even the faux Apollo Belvedere by the pool looks like it’s about to lose its arm and testicles. The fresco work throughout is meant to conjure Italy; instead it looks like paint-by-number cardboard. With all due respect to Mr. Eberhardt, this is queer eccentricity to the Nth degree. It is one man’s dreamworld with nothing to show for it but a poor sense of copywork in appreciating the beauty of Venice and Baroque ornamentation. It’s as if Miss Havisham from Great Expectations should have been living here. The analogy isn't far-fetched: there's even a closet-like chapel with an altar, a crucifix, and a wooden box with the cremated ashes of Eberhardt inside.

Each room has its own style too. Four of us were squeezed into a postage stamp-sized room that had as its theme "Southern plantation porch." One wall was made to look like the outside of a house (including a faux window), another wall was covered with a frighteningly blurry forest scene, and the remaining walls were upholstered in ca. 1982 Laura Ashley rose-patterned fabric, with matching pink and green sheets on the beds to match. There was no air conditioning in the room, and the guest house didn’t even offer you a freakin' cup of coffee! Did I mention they charged us $500 a night for this place?

Now, keep in mind that part of the problem is that there are only 3 hotels in Cherry Grove (I told you this place was deserted), and word has it that the other places were worse, although the 4 of us are in agreement we were robbed. In the Belvedere's defense, the pool and hot tub area are nice, the rooms are actually clean, and the staff seems friendly. The place is on the bay, so we spent time just relaxing in lounge chairs on the water. In the evening, the corridors were dimly lit with chandeliers and sea breezes blew white diaphanous drapes into the air, creating a theatrical sense of Gothic Romanticism that I have to admit charmed me. And lest you think this is an experience open to all, I should point out that this was a gay men’s guest house, clothing is optional and...well, l’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

As our first day progressed (and I drank more vodka-cranberry cocktails), I have to say that Cherry Grove grew on me. We ate breakfasts and lunches at Floyd’s, which had great, if expensive, fresh-tasting food, and we ate dinner one night at Island Breeze, JM and I indulging in a delectable fig-and-gorgonzola salad followed by chicken rollantini with mashed potatoes and broccoli rabe that was delicious. On a beautiful Saturday morning we walked out to the beach, lay in the sand, and frolicked in the Atlantic. That afternoon we took the water taxi over to The Pines, where my friends DC and DG were having their party. They had rented with friends of theirs a large cottage that had a pool and was no more than 50 steps away from the beach. When we arrived in The Pines, I realized suddenly that THIS was what I expected Fire Island would be like, something akin to Provincetown or Key West, but with less of a city feel. Cherry Grove, in contrast, has more of a lesbian crowd, and it’s more secluded as compared to The Pines, which is dominated by hunky gay men and loud dance music.

After all is said and done, I had a fun weekend with my friends. It’s a bit exhausting getting out there with all the traveling involved, but it is actually worth it if you’re looking for a great place to chill out for a while. The trick to enjoying Fire Island is to rent a cottage with good friends, stay for a week, and have a house party or two. In the process do nothing but relax, get some sun, and swim in the water, but don't forget to socialize a bit where the boys are.

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