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What's opening early on Fire Island

The pace on Ocean Beach in Fire Island

The pace on Ocean Beach in Fire Island is laid-back before Memorial Day. (May 31, 2009) Photo Credit: Newsday/ J. Conrad Williams Jr.

As one of the first restaurants to reopen on Fire Island after a long, hard winter, Surf's Out can be one friendly place this time of year.

"You see everybody meeting and greeting that's been gone all winter long," says Karen Spollen, owner of the Kismet restaurant, which opens April 16.

And that's the charm of dropping in when Fire Island -- only a short ferry ride from the mainland -- is in preseason mode, before the wave of summer tourists.

In April and early May, good tables are readily available at restaurants overlooking the water. And the weather is cool and crisp instead of hot and sticky. Here's a guide to enjoying a preseason trip to the barrier island.

THE SPRING SCENE

Ferries operate year-round from the Sayville, Bay Shore and Patchogue terminals.

There's also a land route to Fire Island. Spollen suggests parking in Robert Moses Field 5, then walking past the Fire Island National Seashore lighthouse to Kismet, westernmost of the 17 beachfront communities. It takes about half an hour of walking to reach Kismet, she says.

Early spring on Fire Island has its own vibe. There are no big crowds, just lots of room to spread out and enjoy the spring sunshine. Most of the shops and many restaurants remain closed until Memorial Day weekend, so you'll largely be left to your own devices for food and entertainment. While it probably won't be warm enough to hit the ocean, it's a peaceful time to stroll along the sand or plop down for a waterside picnic (small coolers are permitted on the ferry).

"It's magical when you get that beautiful day out of nowhere," says Scott Hirsch, owner of The Island Mermaid in Ocean Beach, which will open its doors April 22.

In the mood for a romantic rendezvous or some peaceful downtime to commune with nature? This is your season. "It's a very romantic time; you can get a cozy table for two," Hirsch says.

"It's very quiet," agrees Ramon Peña of the Grove Hotel in Cherry Grove, which will open for guests April 29. The hotel's Ice Palace disco is one of the island's busiest gay clubs in summer; in April, deer have to be shooed away from the entrance, Peña says.

A TASTE OF SUMMER

Some April visitors are hunting for summer rentals. Others own summer homes and are getting them ready for the season. They often meet for lunch or dinner in one of the few bars and restaurants that open before high season starts next month. "There's great camaraderie," Hirsch says.

The Island Mermaid is debuting a half dozen or more menu items developed over the winter by its chef. Guests help shape the summer menu by giving thumbs up or down. "We watch the feedback," Hirsch says. "The guests have a big say in which items make the cut."

FERRY SCHEDULE

INFO 631-665-3600, fireislandferries.com

COST $17 round trip ($7.50 ages 2-12); $8 parking

UPCOMING EVENTS

April 15

Opening day for Kismet Inn starts at noon (631-583-5592).

April 16

Opening Day at Surf's Out, Kismet

$40 includes pig roast and drinks (631-583-7400, surfsoutfireisland.com)

Evening tour begins at 7, Fire Island Lighthouse, $15 a person, reservations required (631-661-4876, fireislandlighthouse.com).

April 22

Opening day for Island Mermaid, Ocean Beach (631-583-8088, islandmermaid.com).

April 23

Chilly Willie live concert, 8 p.m. at Surf's Out.

Hamptons Season Launch Party

WHEN | WHERE 5-7 p.m. Saturday, Dockers Waterside Restaurant & Marina, Dune Road, East Quogue

INFO 631-653-0653, dockerswaterside.com

Can't wait to start soaking up that Hamptons aura? Dockers opens with a special launch party. "Everyone gets that itch toward this time of year," says Dockers spokeswoman Trish Nelson.

Inside a heated tent, guests will get free Prosecco and tuna tartare hors d'oeuvres. Live entertainment includes the Leah Laurenti Band from 5 to 7 p.m. The evening continues with Paul Mahos & New Life Crisis from 7:30 to midnight.

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