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Ocean Beach, Fire Island: Beach town staycation a 30-minute ferry ride away

Visitors explore Bay Walk in Ocean Beach, Fire Island. Credit: Linda Rosier

Kevin Kahnis returns to Ocean Beach for vacation every summer with his family even though he now lives in San Diego. He was born and raised in Deer Park, and Fire Island is in his blood.

“We go to the beach; we take long walks around the island; we rent bikes,” says Kahnis, 54, who, with his wife, Quetzalli, 39, owns an assisted living facility in California. They bring their children, Diego, 13, Matthew, 5, and Benjamin, 1. “It’s so nostalgic,” he says.

Ocean Beach is ideal for a day away or an extended stay. Credit: Linda Rosier

For other visitors, the trip to Fire Island is a close-to-home staycation. “It’s like another world with no cars. Just kind of frolicking around, going to the beach,” says Meghan Stengl,  22, of Huntington, who is in graduate school studying to be a school counselor. “It’s like a little vacation spot,” agrees Ashley Cando, 19, of Melville, a journalism student at St. John’s University. Adds her friend Bryana Bardales, 20, a pediatric dental assistant from Huntington Station: “But only having to go 30 minutes away.”

Here’s what’s happening this summer in Ocean Beach, the so-called capital of the barrier island — explore the more than 15 restaurants, dozen stores, and, of course, where you can get ice cream.

The vibe:
Start your beach day or getaway 

Because Ocean Beach has so many restaurants and bars — not to mention public bathrooms, which are scarce to nonexistent in many other Fire Island communities — it's a popular spot for day trippers, both families and young adults.

To control the crowds, it's also been dubbed “The Land of No” — as soon as visitors get off the ferry, there's a placard sign that reminds them there's no eating or drinking (except water) on the sand at Ocean Beach, no alcohol, smoking, vaping or littering. But there's still plenty of fun to be had by frolicking on the sand and in the ocean, dining on the bayfront, shopping for souvenirs and dancing the night away at the bars (which are hopping on summer Saturday nights).

Many people rent houses for weeklong stays, but there are also four hotels offering shorter options. There are no cars on the island, so you'll need to walk or rent a bicycle. Ocean Beach Hardware rents out bikes for the day (starting at $35) or the week ($125). (482 Bayberry Walk, 631-583-5826, oceanbeachhardware.com).

Navigating the ferry

Fire Island Ferries in Bay Shore takes passengers to Ocean Beach. Drive and park in nearby paid lots. The closest Long Island Rail Road stop is Bay Shore. Round-trip ferry fares are $25 ($13 ages 2 to 11). (99 Maple Ave., Bay Shore, 631-665-3600, fireislandferries.com)

Travel tip

For those in a hurry: The Fire Island mTickets app will help you secure your ticket before you leave the house.

The scoop:

Grab an ice cream cone

Maximus St. Lewis, of Ronkonkoma, enjoys an ice cream at Beaches and Cream in Ocean Beach, Fire Island on June 15. Credit: Linda Rosier

The smell of waffles cooking wafts through Blue Waters Ice Cream Shoppe, where each Bubble Waffle Cone is made fresh and filled with two scoops of ice cream. The store also sells a dozen varieties of fudge (ask for a free taste), with flavors including birthday cake, chewy praline, churro, cotton candy and raspberry vanilla. A chocolate counter offers chocolate covered Oreos, chocolate dipped pretzels, truffles and chocolate covered Rice Krispie treats. Candy bins hold licorice, Airheads, Laffy Taffy and Bottle Pops. If you’re brave, join the customers who have tried the store’s chocolate-covered crickets. The Sweet Shoppe is cash only. (621 Bayberry Walk, 631-583-8295, bluewatershoteloceanbeachfireisland.com)

At Scoops, you'll find Hershey’s hard ice cream, with popular flavors including mint chip, cappuccino crunch — coffee ice cream with fudge and toffee pieces — and moose tracks. Customers can also buy milkshakes and root beer floats discounted from $9 to $5.50 on Wednesdays. (310 Bay Walk, 631-583-5173, scoopsob.com)

Beaches and Cream focuses on soft serve ice cream with toppings and raspberry or pineapple Dole whip. It also serves snow cones and hard ice cream. (479 Bay Walk, 631-583-8105)

The scene: 

Window shopping

Browse bags and beach items at the outdoor market, left, and Hanalei & Kula's, right, on Ocean Beach. Credit: Linda Rosier ; Hanalei and Kula's

New this year is Of the Sea, a jewelry shop, and Woof Pet Boutique, catering to canine clientele. Of the Sea sells jewelry by silversmith Nicole Dubensky, a former Ocean Beach resident whose full-time studio is in Rockaway. In addition to her beachy style bracelets, necklaces, earrings and rings, the store will offer permanent jewelry, Dubensky says. It will also sell jewelry made by others and gifts, candles, baby items and perfume oils (153 Bay Walk, 516-820-2980, sweetpeasandgypsies.com). Woof Pet Boutique is for dogs and their humans, and also to cats and birds, says owner Diane Mandel, a Fire Island resident who has three dogs of her own. The shop will sell T-shirts for humans that say Ocean Beach, Fire Island and Woof, with one of the o’s replaced by a paw print, as well as clothing for dogs. Cat food, dog food and bird feeders and bird food are for sale. There’s even doggy ice cream. Mandel also offers “Fluff and Puff” mini grooming sessions to brush out dogs and dry shampoo them. (153 Bay Walk, 631-972-4167, woofobfi.com)

Grace Bessieres, of Patchogue, shops at the Outdoor Living and Gift Center in Ocean Beach, Fire Island on June 15. Credit: Linda Rosier

Should you forget a staple at home or find yourself looking to add to your beach gear collection, Ocean Beach boutiques are open through summer for last-minute purchases or window shopping. For swimsuits, sun dresses and more, try Salty Stitch (633 Bay Walk, 631-583-5180, saltystitch.com), while Sunny Daze Beach Boutique offers a more casual, quick-stop appeal with bathing suits, flip-flops, hats, sunglasses (633 Bay Walk, 631-583-0032) and Kline’s sells “everything for the beach and you,” per its motto (167 Bay Walk, 631-583-5333, no website). Bambootique and 583, two stores sharing a space with separate window fronts, carry surf-inspired bathing suits. 583 is named for the beginning three digits of most of Ocean Beach’s telephone numbers. (318 Bay Walk, 631-583-5780, fireislandapparel.com)

You'll find Fire Island sweatshirts and T-shirts abound, plus button-down shirts for men at The Flair House (472 Dehnhoff Walk, 631-583-5025, theflairhouse.com), and upscale sweatshirts and men's and women's beachwear at A Summer Place, under the same ownership (317 Bay Ave., 631-583-5025 theflairhouse.com). Hanalei and Kula’s sells an eclectic mix of merchandise — beachy dresses, shell jewelry, specialty perfumes, spa products and gift items. (472 Dehnhoff Walk, 631-583-8302, hanaleiandkulas.com)

And if you're still looking for that perfect beach item, drop by the Community Open Air Market. The outdoor flea-market-style venue sells arts and crafts, souvenirs, beach clothes and hats. Closed when it rains. (516-312-6722)

The dish:

Where to eat in Ocean Beach

The Dunes Kitchen & Cocktails

New this year is The Dunes, taking over the spot underneath the Blue Waters Hotel, with deck diners enjoying views of the ferries coming and going. It offers American seafood. “We’re really going to be known for our fish and chips. Already it’s one of our top-selling dishes,” says owner Paul Mohring, who also owns the Schooner Inn in the nearby Fire Island community of Ocean Bay Park. The fish and chips cost $27 and includes one big fillet of haddock, made fresh, and spiral fries, he says. The Dunes serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It will also serve a late-night menu for the bar crowd that includes smash burgers and disco fries with cheese and gravy, he says. “Play darts, sit at the bar, order food, that’s the kind of vibe we’re going for,” he says. (620 Bayberry Walk, 631-583-0180, thedunesob.com)

Matthew’s Seafood House

Matthew’s is celebrating its 50th season. The name says it all; the family-owned restaurant is devoted to seafood. The indoor dining area and bar is seafaring rustic with wood floors, wood bar, wood paneling — some of it driftwood found on the beach and some of it wood from an old ferry dock, says co-owner Vincent Morano. There’s also a bayfront deck, with shaded seating cooled by fans. Hungry boaters can dock their vessels at Matthew's and head onto the deck to dine. Popular dishes include a cold lobster roll, seafood Cobb salad, and linguine and white clam sauce. Every Monday night at about 8:30 p.m. is trivia; Wednesday night is wine and tapas with acoustic guitar music by Dennis and Ivan; Thursday night brings “Margarita Madness,” with dancing starting about 10 p.m. and 64-ounce margaritas sold in fishbowl glasses. Want to cook your own fish? Check out Matty's Seafood Market at the front of the restaurant. (935 Bay Walk, 631-583-8016, matthewsseafood.com)

Castaway Bar & Grill

You’ll know Castaway by the palm trees outside the island-inspired restaurant. Every evening from 4 to 7 p.m. is Clam Jam, a raw-bar happy hour when clams on the half shell are $1.25 each, clams casino, clams Rockefeller and oysters on the half shell are $1.50 and oysters Rockefeller are $2. Mondays are Wing Night, with wings costing 60 cents each (minimum of six); Thursday nights it’s Dueling Pianos from 8 to 11 p.m., which can turn into a big singalong, says co-owner Jon Randazzo. Eat indoors or outside on the huge, covered porch. Popular dishes include the kale Caesar salad with toasted Parmesan panko crumbs and Parmesan cheese and the chicken sandwich, Randazzo says. DJ followed by live bands from 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. (927 Evergreen Walk, 631-583-0330, castawaybarandgrill.com)

The Albatross

The signs above the bar beg patrons “Don’t swing the lights,” but of course that ensures that everyone takes a turn at grabbing hold of one of the nine hanging lights and swinging them. Owner Jim Mallott shrugs. He’s used to it after 45 years as the owner of the restaurant where he started as a dishwasher earning $2.50 an hour. He’d come over from England, was enchanted by Fire Island and stayed.

“I didn’t even know what $2.50 was; I was dealing in shillings and pence,” he says. Today, patrons can eat indoors or outside on the Albatross deck, ordering fish tacos, burritos and clams on the half shell. The signature drink is the Greyhound — vodka with fresh grapefruit juice, Mallott says. Why is the place called The Albatross? “My wife decided to call it The Albatross because it was an albatross around her neck,” Mallott jokes. Mallott is also the Mayor of Ocean Beach. (320 Bay Walk, 631-583-5697, dontswingthelights.com)

Houser’s Bayfront Bar & Grill

Inside is a pool table, a long bar and surfboards on the ceiling; step out back and you’re in a casual, sandy dining area with picnic tables, umbrellas and meals served on paper plates. “We’re famous for our lobster special,” says Brian O’Handley, one of the proprietors. Served daily from noon until 8 p.m. (unless it sells out), it includes a 1 ½ pound steamed lobster, corn on the cob and mashed potatoes. Check the schedule for live entertainment at the bar at night. Houser’s signature drink is the Zippy Cooler — Limon, club soda, pink lemonade and cranberry juice. (778-781 Bay View Walk, 631-583-7805, housersob.com)

Hideaway

Hideaway offers a white-tablecloth dining room with sky-blue walls, white wrought iron chair and lots of windows that look out onto the bay. “On a stormy night, come here, it’s great, you can see the storm,” says Brian O’Handley, one of the proprietors. Of course, sunny times are beautiful too, he says, and those wishing to dine al fresco can sit on the outdoor deck. Choices include pan-seared tilefish, pork tenderloin and duck ragout. New this year is a breakfast menu, offered from 8 to 11 a.m., which includes banana nut pancakes, avocado toast and omelets. (781-85 Evergreen Walk, 631-583-5929, hideawayoceanbeach.com)

The Sand Bar

Look up and you’ll see a ceiling covered with tiny red wagons — the unofficial symbol of Fire Island — and colorful flip-flops. A sign commands “Park Your Wagon Here.” Menu items include burgers, wraps, nachos, salads and wings. The bar offers live music on a stage and theme parties like Christmas and St Patrick’s Day celebrations during the summer months; on Saturday nights, the line of partyers can snake out the door. (470 Bay Walk)

The Landing Bistro

The former Landing restaurant has moved to a spot on the square-shaped village green and, because it’s smaller than the previous location, it’s now called The Landing Bistro. It’s in the spot that used to be The Bay Walk Café — and that cafe’s offerings have moved into part of the Ocean Beach Trading grocery store, so visitors can still find their acai bowls there (all are now co-owned by Jon Randazzo, who took over the grocery store this season). Popular items at the bistro include eggs Benedict, French toast and skillets as well as halibut and chicken Milanese, Randazzo says. (310 Bay Walk, 631-583-5800, thelandingob.com

Taco Beach Cantina

Taco Beach has been remodeled this season, but its dining area still opens up onto the village green, so diners can see the kids hawking their hand-painted seashells and people strolling by licking ice cream cones. “It's a great people-watching spot,” Randazzo says. Dining options include birria tacos, burrito bowls, and Mexican street corn. Drink offerings include agave margaritas. A hot-pink neon sign at the entry proclaims, “Fire Island is my happy place.” (310 Bay Walk, 631-583-5700, tacobeach.com)

CJ’s Restaurant & Bar

In business for more than 50 years, the casual CJ’s is known as the “home of the rocket fuel,” that rum-laden frozen concoction now found all over Fire Island. Menu items include nachos, wings and tacos, lobster rolls (hot and chilled), sandwiches (pulled pork slides, burgers) and salads. CJs is the only restaurant and bar open year-round. (479 Bay Walk, 631-583-9890, cjsfireisland.com)

Beacheria

Beacheria offers a mozzarella doughnut — picture a round mozzarella stick — and sells pizza by the slice or whole pies, from the basics such as regular or Sicilian to the more complex, like the “everything,” featuring meatballs, sausage and mushroom. Also find panini, rolls, pasta, chicken dishes and hero sandwiches. Order at the counter and then have a seat — there are multiple indoor tables for patrons. Beacheria also delivers. “We have nine bicycles,” says co-owner Thomas Sexton, who owns Beacheria with his son, Tommy. Sexton also owns La Piazza restaurants on Long Island. (786 Evergreen Walk, 631-583-0387, beacheriaob.com)

The crab cakes and Rocket Fuel at The Island Mermaid in Ocean Beach, Fire Island.
Credit: Raychel Brightman

Island Mermaid

Location, location, location doesn't just apply to real estate. With outdoor seating for 160 people, the Island Mermaid sets a festive mood for anyone arriving by ferry. Popular dishes include fried calamari, pan-roasted sea scallops and the organic skirt steak, says owner Scott Hirsch. New this year is Thursday night Burlesque. Monday nights are bluesy, Tuesday nights bring Drag Queen Bingo, Wednesday it's a rock night. Fridays and Saturdays bring a dance club and Sunday nights are music sunsets. (780 Bay Walk, 631-583-8088, islandmermaid.com)

Maguire’s Bayfront Restaurant

Maguire’s may have the best sunset view of all the restaurants in Ocean Beach, with 175 seats on the outdoor deck. The restaurant offers “Lobsterpalooza” every Thursday (three-course dinner with either a 1 ¼ pound lobster or prime rib main, with baked potato, corn on the cob, bread and garden salad for $39). Monday through Friday means happy hour specials, 4 to 6 p.m., 25% off all appetizers, $2 off select wine and beers and ½ off all frozen drinks, including rocket fuels. (1 Bungalow Walk, 631-583-8800, maguiresbayfrontrestaurant.com)

Dockside Pizza

Dockside sells artisanal, brick oven personal pizzas made to order, says owner Travis D’Arienzo. The shop also sells Groovy Smoothy drinks and offers a full deli with breakfast egg sandwiches and lunch sandwiches, fresh coffee and sweets. (780 Bay Walk, 631-583-0303)

Rachel’s Restaurant and Bakery

If there were a Fire Island Diner, Rachel's Restaurant and Bakery would be it. The restaurant’s popular breakfast dishes include the bran pancakes, the breakfast burrito and the summer omelet with zucchini, yellow squash and goat cheese. Lunch choices include burgers, a mahi-mahi sandwich, and Greek salads. Dinner choices include pastas, seafood paella and eggplant Parmesan. Rachel Doering started the bakery in 1970s when she was a teacher in the Connetquot School District; now the restaurant is run by her son Joe and daughter-in-law Angela. Try the bakery’s crumb cake and a cappuccino or add a Bloody Mary or a boozy ice coffee to complete a meal. (325 Bay Walk, 631-583-9552, rachelsfireisland.com)

Town Pizza

This hole-in-the-wall pizza place serves slice after slice; it has only two booths so it’s mostly a to-go operation. Try the Cold Cheese Boom Boom Slice, the pizzeria’s specialty — it’s shredded mozzarella layered over a regular cheese slice and topped with Boom Boom sauce. The pizzeria also serves heroes, fried foods, salads and wraps. (317 Bay Walk, 631-583-7774, townpizzaoceanbeach.com)

The overnight:

Hotels for an extended stay 

Visitors arrive in Ocean Beach, Fire Island.
Credit: Linda Rosier

The four hotels in Ocean Beach offer a range of amenities, from a sophisticated boutique to a place to crash above a bar. 

Blue Waters Hotel, located across from the ferry dock, has 19 air-conditioned rooms with private baths, blue plaid bedspreads and flat-screen TVs. Five rooms have bay views; the majority have one double bed and one single bed. Buffet breakfast, which might offer cornbread pudding and egg souffle or pancakes, is included and is served on a charming, second-floor outdoor deck garden with flowers and a driftwood fountain. Bicycles, beach chairs, umbrellas and towels are complimentary. The Blue Waters also has separate Bay House Apartments for rent as well as three houses: Captain’s Quarters, Bay Breeze and The Seasons. Rates for hotel rooms start at $275 a night midweek and $675 for a weekend stay (includes Friday through Sunday); apartments start at $375 a night and houses start at $2,500 midweek and $3,000 for a weekend (Friday through Sunday). (624 Bayberry Walk, 631-583-8295, bluewatershoteloceanbeachfireisland.com)

You’ll see Houser’s Hotel advertised in big, capital, white letters across the roof of Houser’s Bar as you pull in on the ferry. “This is a Spartan place; it’s a place to put your head down,” says Brian O’Handley, one of the proprietors. The eight rooms are on the second floor over the bar. Each features a double bed and a dresser (no TV) and includes air conditioning and a half bath; guests share the hotel’s two-stall showers in the hallway. “You’re in the same building as the bar, so be prepared for that on the weekend,” O’Handley says. “We have earplugs.” There’s no nightly minimum and rooms start at $200 a night. (785 Evergreen Walk, 631-583-8900, housershotel.com)

The Palms Hotel, a boutique hotel in Ocean Beach, Fire Island. Credit: Palms Hotel

The Palms offers 38 rooms at five boutique locations — The Palms Main off the village green, The Palms Bungalow at the edge of town, an apartment-style Presidential Penthouse Suite above a store that sleeps 10, and two bayfront buildings, Palms Bay and Palms Bay East. Rooms include beach chairs and umbrellas. Daily breakfast is included. All of the guests are welcome to enjoy a private bay beach with complimentary kayaks and canoes. There are also complimentary bicycles. Prices start at $365 a night; some stays may include a multi-night minimum. Check website for promotions. (168 Cottage Walk, 631-583-8870, palmshotelfireisland.com)

Clegg’s Hotel has been serving Fire Island since 1946, owned the entire time by members of the Clegg family. It has 20 air-conditioned rooms. Some are suites with private bathrooms, Roku TVs, microwaves and refrigerators; others are simple rooms for guests who share four hallway bathrooms with others. The hotel has complimentary beach chairs, umbrellas, Wi-Fi and bicycles. A light continental breakfast is included and features coffee, tea, fruit and pastries. Weekends have a two-night minimum; holidays require a three-night stay. Rates range from $240 to $425 per night. (478 Bayberry Walk, 631-583-9292, cleggshotel.com)

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