Sunken Forest, Fire Island

Visitors sit beneath the tall holly trees in

Visitors sit beneath the tall holly trees in the Sunken Forest. ( July 6, 2013) (Credit: Linda Rosier)

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Fire Island's Sunken Forest isn't really sunken, but a wooded forest surrounded by salt water, a unique environmental distinction. Known for its holly trees, which grow about 40 feet high, there are also plenty of forest-inhabiting creatures to spot, such as the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the red admiral butterfly -- even some garter snakes and a 5-foot black racer snake as well. (Don't worry. They're nonpoisonous and want to stay away from you, too.) Also unusual for a small strip of land surrounded by salt water is the freshwater wetlands in the midst of the forest, where you can see ferns, mushrooms, sassafras trees and other flora.

Exploring the Sunken Forest -- with time for frolicking on the beach and a nice lunch -- is a good dose of adventure for nature lovers of all ages.

1. CRUISE TO FIRE ISLAND Take the 9:20 a.m. Sailors Haven ferry from the Sayville terminal (41 River Rd.). The 20-minute ferry ride is delightful, particularly if you sit on the upper deck. Sunken Forest is right next to Sailors Haven. It's a $13 round-trip for adults ($7.50 younger than 11), plus $8-$13 parking (631-589-0810, sayvilleferry.com).

2. TOUR WITH A RANGER

You can walk the trails to explore the forest area on your own, but National Seashore rangers take visitors along the wooded boardwalk for a free hourlong tour on weekend mornings and sometimes weekdays, too. You'll learn about "saltwater pruning," a phenomenon that keeps the trees from growing too tall (11 a.m. weekends, call 631-597-6183 for more information).

3. SEVERAL WAYS TO LUNCH

The walk may work up your appetite. If you haven't brought your own lunch to eat at the picnic tables, head to the beach snack bar for fare that ranges from hamburgers ($6.15) and hot dogs ($3.25) to tuna sandwiches ($7.50). Either way, you get a good view of the private boats coming and going, making its name -- Sailors Haven -- apropos.

4. FROM FOREST TO BEACH

After the tour, you can follow another boardwalk to the ocean beach for an afternoon of sun and surf. There are restrooms along the way with showers (no shower curtains, though). Lifeguards are on duty from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; an hour later on weekends.

5. WIND DOWN IN SAYVILLE

The last ferry back to the mainland pulls out of Sailors Haven at 6:40 p.m. on weekends (5:30 weekdays). Still want to gaze at the water and watch boats sail by? Head to Kingston's Clam Bar (130 Atlantic Ave., W. Sayville. 631-589-0888), which is on the water and close to the ferry terminal. Three fish tacos go for $15.99, and there's sesame tuna for $28.99 and seafood and steak dinners in between.

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