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A close-up look at Shelter Island

The South Ferry, which carries cars and trucks,

The South Ferry, which carries cars and trucks, plies its way between Shelter Island and North Haven. Everything must be ferried on to the island -- from pavement for the roads, to provisions for the stores, to supplies, to the mail. (May 7, 2011) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Shelter Island is just as much a part of Long Island as any other town, except that it's not connected by land, doesn't look the same and is so small -- 12.1 square miles -- that 20 Shelter Islands would fit comfortably within the borders of Brookhaven Town.

The same glacial forces that carved out the North and South Forks had some fun on Shelter Island, which lies between the twin forks. It has some of the same sandy beaches as the Hamptons, but it is hilly and rocky, like the north shore of Brookhaven.

Its tall trees and winding roads resemble much of New England to a driver or biker.

Shelter Island's year-round population of 2,300 residents gives it only about 190 people per square mile. In contrast, Suffolk County has about 1,500 people per square mile. During the summer months, tourists and vacation homeowners swell the island's population to more than 8,000.

Shelter Island has no hospital, no fast-food restaurant and no bus service. It has just one school district and one volunteer fire department -- there were originally two, but they merged years ago.

For hikers and naturalists, the Nature Conservancy's 2,039-acre Mashomack Preserve -- covering about a third of the 8,000-acre island -- is an intriguing mix of tidal creeks, oak woodlands, open fields and freshwater marshes, a home to birds and deer.

Some of the island's hotels look like they did a century ago, and in the summer outdoor restaurant dining becomes a treasure hunt -- where tourists can find everything from an elegant dinner to a homemade bowl of soup.

Volunteer organic farmers till the land at Sylvester Manor, while two ferry companies, appropriately named the North Ferry and the South Ferry, continually run brief trips from Greenport on the north shore and North Haven on the south shore.

Shelter Island's history goes back long before the Revolutionary War, but the origin of the island's name is less clear. Some say the name comes from the Manhasset Indians who originally inhabited it. Others say the name reflects the shelter the community extended to the Quakers when they were persecuted in the 17th century.

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