BEACHCOMBING ON FIRE ISLAND
Most people know that some great ocean beaches, particularly the world-famous Hamptons’ beaches, are within easy reach of New York City. But far fewer know that there are undeveloped beaches closer to New York City that are just as magnificent and, oftentimes, a lot more fun. Those who don’t want to deal with heavy beach-bound traffic or the Hamptons’ haughtiness should head to Fire Island, New York, where the forbiddance of passenger cars and encouragement of casual attire ensure a laid-back day at the beach.

How do you get there? Simply hop on the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to get to Bay Shore, where you can take one of the regular ferries across the Great South Bay to Fire Island. The ride is a beautiful and breezy 30 minutes.

The island is made up of small villages, each with its own appeal. Each area has a small selection of restaurants and a place at which visitors can buy groceries, newspapers, and ice cream cones -- all the makings of a perfect beach town and nothing more. Many people on the island use old-fashioned red wagons to haul their groceries and luggage home since there is no vehicular transport.

The main attraction here, of course, is the long barrier beach on the island’s ocean side. It is reachable from the ferry port by a short seven-minute stroll along paved walkways that substitute for roads and are lined with quirky bungalows and modest homes. At the end of the paths, a wooden stairway leads over the delicate dune system to one of the finest beaches on the East Coast. Skilled swimmers can exercise beyond the breakers, boogie boarders and bodysurfers can take advantage of the steady waves, and kids can spend endless hours jumping over the incoming surf, which breaks a step or two from the shore. No one gets bored here.

Though the beach can get crowded on summer weekends, those who are willing to walk a bit can always find a quiet spot. The sandy shore -- uncluttered by hotels and hot-dog stands -- stretches for miles. Stroll back to the village when you please and grab a shaded table at a restaurant on the island’s bay side. The water here is far calmer than the water on the shore exposed to the ocean. Watch the graceful sailboats glide by as you sip a chilled beer or glass of wine. You’ll feel like you’re on the Italian Riviera, only, thankfully, you’ll be much closer to home.

Those who wish to stay overnight will need to make a reservation at one of the small hotels or guesthouses on the island. But book early, as they fill up quickly during peak season.