A thunderstorm rolled through Cherry Grove on a recent Sunday afternoon, rattling umbrellas and sending visitors in bathing suits dashing for cover. But inside the bars and restaurants, the crowd partied on.

At the Ice Palace, Cherry Grove's venerable disco at The Grove Hotel, drag performers invited revelers to join a modeling contest.

Tennessee Jones, 31, a writer from Brooklyn who was sitting on the Ice Palace's covered deck, said despite the rain he was happy to get away from the mainland. Cherry Grove is "a place to come out, and relax in an environment that feels very safe and friendly," Jones said.


Ferry across the bay

On any summer day, the Sayville Ferry Service transports hundreds of people from the mainland to Cherry Grove. The crowd is a mix of young and old, overnighters and daytrippers, gay and straight.

Waiting for the ferry to arrive, you can buy a Key West-y cocktail at Mallory Square before the 20-minute ride whisks you across glittering, sailboat-dotted Great South Bay. Use the restroom now - there aren't public facilities on the other side.

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As you approach Cherry Grove from the water, to the east you'll see the white spires of the Belvedere Guesthouse for Men, one of Cherry Grove's architectural curiosities. On Cherry Grove, you can pass the time strolling the boardwalks, rubbernecking quaint cottages.


Judgment-free zone

Cherry Grove is one of Fire Island's two historically gay and lesbian communities. (The other is The Pines, with its exclusively gay reputation.) But the Grove welcomes just about anyone. That kind of relaxed, nonjudgmental atmosphere is what Valerie Berg, 45, of Huntington said drew her and three friends to the Cherry Lane Café & Restaurant. The party of four chatted with neighboring diners as some sipped decaf espresso martinis, a specialty here.

"It's all about having fun, it doesn't matter if you are gay or straight," Berg said.


Casual dining

Cherry Grove restaurants can be informal, bathing suit and flip-flop spots. The fare ranges from pizza and wraps to more sophisticated menus at elegantly set tables. At Top of the Bay Bistro, you can savor pan-roasted scallops ($25) at tables by the wraparound bay window. The Island Breeze restaurant has a wraparound deck and a talkative bar crowd. At Jumping Jack's Seafood Shack, drinks are served at a bar a few steps from the Atlantic beach.


Hitting the beach

From the ferry, a few minutes' stroll on the boardwalk takes you to the beach. There are no lifeguards, public restrooms or attractions other than the gleaming white sand and the occasional deer that wanders up to your blanket.


Beyond the beach

The Grove is one of Fire Island's commercial centers. The Grove Hotel hosts daily entertainment including cabaret acts (may not be appropriate for children) and the 45th annual Miss Fire Island Contest on Sept. 11. You can pick up beachwear, candy and a lot more at its convenience store, Rainbow Dreams. Next Wave boutique sells beachwear and jewelry by Long Island artists.

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Cherry's on the Bay, a bar and dance club that hugs the ferry terminal, dances to a reggae beat and offers spectacular sunset views. The community also has a florist, a supermarket and a new liquor store.

With its rainbow-colored facade, Sweet Licks ice cream serves up 20 flavors, including the popular Cappuccino Crunch, as well as pastries and coffee. Mark Scheeler, 49, of Seaford, stopped by as the sun began to break through the clouds. For Scheeler, who owns and operates a Bellmore beauty salon, Cherry Grove provides a welcome break from "the mainland" - "it's a little bit of make believe."


GETTING THERE Passenger ferries to Cherry Grove depart about every one-two hours daily from Sayville.

INFO 631-589-0810, sayvilleferry.com

COST $14 round-trip ($6.50 younger than 12); $11 parking on weekends at the lot across from the ferry entrance.

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The Grove Hotel posts a calendar of upcoming events at grovehotel.com. Info: 631-597-6600