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Best of gay New York: 58 sensational secrets, from insider Manhattan hot spots to awesome outer borough outings. Start spreading the news!

(LODGING)

Broadway! Times Square! Christopher Street! The East Village! Stonewall!

Is New York the gayest city that ever lived? Like a bright diamond magnet, this ever-evolving megametropolis has always drawn gay and lesbian travelers to its pulsating streets and dark cement valleys in search of their identities and destinies. Sure, same-sex marriage may not have passed here (it came close earlier this year), but few cities on earth boast such a lip-smacking smorgasbord of gay-owned establishments and queer treats. According to the visitors bureau, 39.6 million visitors flocked to NYC in 2004--which means (as long as the 10% rule holds) that as many as 4 million fruit-lovers took a bite out of the Big Apple's queer side. What in the worn did so many gay travelers do without the following hush-hush hot list of Gotham's undiscovered gay delights? We shudder to think! Now on your next visit you can sleep in a boutique bunk bed, power through breakfast with the city's sassy queer set, and catch a full contact smack-down female roller derby match with Bronx lesbians. We scoured all five boroughs (yes, even Qgeens) to uncover the hottest secrets New York City has to offer. It's a helluva town!

Lesbian Boutique B&B * Tucked away in an apartment building on a serene residential block is this gem of a find: East Village B&B (244 E. Seventh St., Number 6, 212-260-1865, $100 and up), a boutique hotel-style, lesbian-owned inn with three rooms. Expect exposed brick walls, colorful bedding, wood floors, and superb artwork.

Artists in Residence * The Hotel Chelsea (222 W. 23rd St., 212-243-3700, $150 and up) was born in 1884, when 23rd Street was a glittering theater district. Its ultrawide walls (the better to write, compose, and party in) are thick with the hidden histories of past homo habitues: William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, and Quentin Crisp as well as the unomcial overflow from Andy Warhol's fabled and very queer Factory.

Good Point * Although at first it may not sound like the most glamorous place to slumber in New York City, the new, award-winning Four Points by Sheraton Manhattan Chelsea (160 W. 25th St., 212-627-1888, $209 and up) is actually the swankiest one in the country, feeling like a W Hotel but for a nicer price. The ultramodern rooms are richly furnished in masculine tones, and the views are to die for.

Chic Peep Shack * The cool cat is already out of the bag on hotelier Andre Balazs's latest creation, QT, as in "on the QT" (125 W. 45th St., 212-354-2323, $165 and up with 25% off for anyone under 25), his follow-up to SoHo's Mercer and Los Angeles's Chateau Marmont and the Standard. Voyeurism is a key design motif at this low-priced jewel (bleachers abut the swimming pool, located in the lobby!). It's decorated with '60s gossip rags (headlines include "Lesbian Suitcase Girls of Greenwich Village" and "The Plot to Make Lesbianism 'smart'"). Bunk beds available on request.

Camping Out * Chelsea has other great gay B&Bs--the Chelsea Mews Guest House on 15th Street and the Colonial House Inn on 22nd Street--but how can you say no to sleeping under tawdry posters from cheesy '50s films in the Susan Hayward or Rock Hudson rooms at the Chelsea Pines Inn (317 W. 14th St., 212-929-1023, $129 a night and up)? There's a cozy back patio, and the staff is obliging.

Luxe Life * Make like Ginger Rogers in the movie Weekend at the Waldorf and check into the art deco Waldorf Astoria, which was the world's largest hotel when it opened in 1931. Old World elegance slaps you lovingly in the face, and even Eisenhower lived here. (301 Park Ave., 212-355-3000, $249 and up).

MEATPACKING MUST * The Meatpacking District has come a long way since its leather bar and tranny hooker phase. The embodiment of the neighborhood's new coolness is the impressive and uberhip 14-story Hotel Gansevoort (18 Ninth Ave., 212-206-6700, $435 and up). The rooftop pool has striking views, and the after-work roof drinks scene is elbow-to-elbow with the city's most beautiful people. The spa is a revelation, and the light rooms are spacious and quiet.

(NIGHTLIFE)

Underground Singers * Marie's Crisis (59 Grove St., 212-243-9323) is a subterranean show-tune sing-along dive bar that possesses the charms of Paris and the moxie of New York. Everyone sings ensemble, which is why it attracts the likes of Hamish Bowles, Parker Posey, Molly Shannon, and other slumming celebs. It also happens to be on the site where Thomas Paine wrote his rabble-rousing essays "The Crisis" and "Common Sense."

Room for Girls * In a city where dyke bars are not as plentiful as one would think--or hope--the hot new hangout Js Girls Room (210 Riving[on St., 212-995-8684) in the East Village, with funky gals and great music. And yes, it's lesbian seven days a week!

Latino Orthodoxy * On Wednesdays hang out at the Noche Caliente Party with sexy and thuggy merengue-loving Dominicans and a smattering of yarmulke-wearing gay Orthodox Jews too! Nothing is more Washington Heights (at the northern tip of Manhattan) than this party at the Monkey Room (589 Fort Washington Ave., at 187th Street, 212-543-9888).

Stevie Wonders * The most famous Stevie Nicks event in the world, Night of aThousand Stevies (dubbed "a riot of shawls, lace, baby's breath, twirling, and tambourines"), moved to the famous Knitting Factory (74 Leonard St., 212-219-3132) in May with girls and guys decked out in Stevie glamour and belting every Nicks song imaginable. Stand back!

Latina Queens * Latin American-themed gay club nights are the latest rage, but for dykes who want to salsa the night away--minus the omnipresent "uncut go-go boys"--Chueca Bar (69-04 Woodside Ave., Woodside, 718-424-1171) is the answer. It's the only hottie-filled, full-time Latina lesbian club in New York City.

Irish Queens * An Beal Bocht (445 W. 238th St., 718-884-7127), New York's only dyke-popular Irish pub, shelters expats, queer ladies, and students on a dastardly incline in the posh north Bronx. Live music, art exhibits, Guinness, and hearty Irish breakfasts.

Queens in Queens * Albatross Bar (36-19 24th Ave., Astoria, 718-204-9045) is a tiny, friendly hangout where you can feed your jones for drag karaoke, pool, darts, drink specials, and cute bartenders of both sexes. It's also the frequent hangout of the New York Gay Pool League (as in billiards).

Basement Boys * Ignore the mainstream straight crowd that downs Bud at the dark Westside Tavern and head straight to the basement. That's where you'll find Chelsea's biggest word-of-mouth success, which crams in gobs of the gayborhood's hottest boys, thanks to the upbeat lounge sounds of DJs Gustavo Motta and Rich King, on alternating Fridays at Snaxx (360 W. 23rd St., 212-366-3738).

Bang! * On Wednesday nights hot Alphabet City chickens and their cute straight friends head for the opium den-like basement of No. 1 Chinese Restaurant (50 Avenue B, 212-375-0665) for the Bang! party at the Coral Room, hosted by 20-something hipsters. Free vodka in the early hours fuels this mixed gaystraight scene.

Hotel Gansevoort's 45-foot pool with underwater sound system is open 365 days a year.

NICKS FIX! The Night of a Thousand Stevies rocks NYC.

KRASH THE PARTY Krash (16 W.22nd St., 212-229-0585) remains New York's hottest homo hip-hop night--even after hopping boroughs from Astoria, Queens, to the heart of Manhattan. A multienthnic mix of boys collides on the sweat-stained dance floor every Friday night--a Vinnie Barbarino fantasy.

BEEF UP YOUR WARDROBE * You'll need another travel bag to the bag threads you're sure to score from superchic mini--departement store Jeffrey Kalinsky established his eponymous emporium amid the slaughterhouses of the Meatpacking District. (Today, cuts of haute couture chip off the hangers of dozens of cutting-edge fashion boutiques in the area, making this a shopper's Shangri-la.)

Krash and burn: Hip-hop meets homoland at Krash, Manhattan's crib for queer homies and G's.

Charge Like a Local * With so many ways to drop your cash in Manhattan, you'll want to go shopping with a local pro. Shop Gotham (201-795-4200)is NewYork City's only tour company dedicated to hardcore shopaholics. From SoHo to luxe Fifth Avenue to the Garment District's famous sample sales and wholesale showrooms, tours also cover fashion and architecture with a dose of celebrity gossip told by a real New Yawker. Day tours range in price from $25 to $85 a person.

Meet Me at Barneys * Barneys New York (660 Madison Ave., 212-826-8900), the ultraposh department store, is synonymous with high shopping, and when shopping at the one on Madison Avenue and 61st, swing by ninth-floor eatery Fred's to nosh on tasty tidbits and fancy drinks next to the classic ladies who lunch. Or dive into the twice-yearly (February and August) heavily discounted outlet sales at the Barneys Co-op in Chelsea (236 W. 18th St., 212-593-7800).

East Village Ephemera * Looking for an inflatable bong? How about light-up jewelry? Portable solar panels for your cell phone! Compact-Impact (21 Avenue B, 212-677-0500) is the place for the newest, strangest technology that japan has to offer, direct from the Orient.

'50s Flashback * Unleash your inner Donna Reed at Mr. Pink (223 W. 16th St., 646-486-4147), a tiny storefront overstuffed with mid-20th-century glassware and houseware items that cry out for cocktails and crinolines. Classic or kitschy? You decide,

Rent a Dungeon * Packed your fuzzy love cuffs with you? Rent a fully equipped BD-S/M dungeon to fulfill your fetish vacation dreams! Arena Studios (212-219-9276) rents chambers starting at $100 an hour The Dungeons of Mistress Elizabeth (212-391-0600) are $130 every half an houn Serious renters must tour the rooms and equipment before booking. Yes, mistress!

TOURS

Tour the World's Greatest Set Want to see where Carrie and me girls strolled in Sex and the City? Where Grace from Will & Grace has her design studio? Order a bowl from Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi"? Hop on a two- to four-hour tour with On Location Tours (212-209-3370, $15 to $40 a person) and get the dirty scoop on your favorite fictional Manhattan.

Queer howdy-do. Who says New Yorkers aren't welcoming? The 13-year-old nonprofit Big Apple Greeters (212-669-8159) are volunteer Manhattanites who can help out-of-towners around gay neighborhoods, queer shops, bars, community centers, and the Stonewall memorial. You must be an out-of-towner staying at least two nights within the five boroughs.

Gay NYC by Limo If you're a queen who wouldn't be seen trudging around on a foot tour, opt for the VIP Gay Limo Tour (212-423-0101), whose researchers have spent several years boning up on the queer history of the Big Apple from the 1800s to the 1969 Stonewall riots, covering the rise of camp culture, gay prisons, and old-time "rent" parties (don't ask!). $85 an hour.

Langston, I Presume? With Harlem Heritage Tours (212-280-7888) you can see the house where queer poet Langston Hughes once lived and take a trip back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a time that saw a flourishing of gay black New York City culture. A two-hour tour is $20.

(Dining)

GAY POWER BREAKFAST TO GO * SoHo was "gay-washed" years ago, and now straights enjoy the fruits of our fruity labor. You can still soak up the neighborhood's traditional queer vibe at Balthazar (80 Spring St., 212-965-1785), known for its impeccable food and ability to attract SoHo's beau monde, with a tiny adjacent boulangerie and market. During the morning rush, it teems with some of Gotham's most elusive (and sexy) gay editors, designers, actors, and writers, who pop in to pick up sticky buns and butter-yellow cups of strong coffee and to check each other out before heading back to their offices to eat alone at their desks, like true New Yorkers.

Fresh Lesbians * Time Out New York rated the Park Slope Food Coop (782 Union St., 718-622-0560), in one of the queerest parts of Brooklyn, the best place to meet other lesbians, but it's also a hit with gay boys who value social equality, organic food, and fair trade.

Birkenstock-Free Vegetarians * Owner Deb Gavito, the lesbian behind Counter (105 First Ave., at Sixth Street, 212-982-5870), an East Village restaurant and wine bar, presents a Birkenstock-free take on vegetarian dining. Join the downtown dykes who gather for excellent biodynamic wines and organic grub--from curried plantain dumplings to the barbecued tofu po'boy.

Boy Cakes * Let the tour buses invade Sex and the City's always-jammed Magnolia Bakery; instead, follow the local boys to Chelsea's Billy's Bakery (184 Ninth Ave., 212-647-9956), where you can munch on buttery yellow daisy cupcakes or icebox cake under grandma-style wallpaper.

Hot as Hell Kitchen * The designers at Lewis, Tsurumaki, Lewis have created an outre, stylish Hall's Kitchen eatery that has fast become a lave with the area's growing gay population. Xing Restaurant (785 Ninth Ave., 646-289-3010) combines very cool moody Asian textures with a warm, industrial sheen. (Also check out the designers' work at gay-popular Fluff and Tides restaurants in Hell's Kitchen.)

Sipping With the Stars * Where can you spot Deborah Harry eating a muffin, Ethan Hawke gulping a latte, or Mario Cantone yakking with the barista? At Chelsea's best-kept cafe secret: Matchbox (403 W. 24th St., 212-414-4563). A little over a year old, this funky, artsy little hangout has revolving exhibits on the walls (with paintings for as little as $8), great cheap eats and drinks, and 12 outdoor sidewalk seats where you can chill with the ubercool.

CLASSES

Queer Studies Get some intellectual stimulation on vacation with high-minded homo lectures like "Transgender Masculinity in the Mexican Revolution" and "Where the Oi!'s Are: Skinheads and Queer Desire in Recent German Cinema" always abuzz at City University of New York and New York University's queer studies programs (212-817-1955 and 212-992-9540 respectively).

School's a Drag Gay guys alongside a surprising number of straight dude counterparts learn the finer points of cross-dressing and being a true lady at Miss Vera's Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls. Miss Vera, author, sex columnist, and porn actress, charges $550 for a 2 1/2-hour "Sudden Beauty" session so you can hit the town in style. 212-242-6449

Stepping Out Trade a night of mindless gyrations for the fancy footwork of tango, salsa, swing, or two-step at the monthly OUT dancing beginner group lessons the first Thursday of every month at 6:30 P.M. You don't need experience, money, or a partner, but a little rhythm helps.

Stepping Out Studios, 37 W. 26th St.; 646-742-9400

HISTORY

Singing in the Baths The Continental Baths (2107 Broadway, at 74th Street) revolutionized the gay bathhouse scene in the 1970s. Located in the old Ansonia Hotel, the trendy bathhouse boasted a disco floor and cabaret room, and yes, this is where Bette Midler got her start. Gay writer Edmund White said, "I was so sex-obsessed that I found it irritating when [Midler] was there because everybody stopped their sexual activities to listen to her." In the late '70s the hotel was turned into private residences.

Isle of Lesbos Alice Austen, Staten Island's prodigal shutterbug, lost the family home--and her girlfriend--to the Great Depression. Alice Austen House Museum (2 Hylan Blvd., Staten Island, 718-816-4506), now a harbor-side national landmark, honors the islander who photographed her dyke friends smoking, cross-dressing, and bedding down.

What a Story! They aren't open every day, but it's worth the effort to arrange a visit to the Lesbian Herstory Archives (484 14th St., Park Slope, Brooklyn, 718-768-3953). Enjoy a private tour of the rotating exhibits of memorabilia, collectibles, heroines, and "at home" programs, and a library of lesbian-authored books.

Finding Sanctuary Sanctuary was one of the first big gay clubs in America, operating from 1969 until 1972. Housed in a former German Baptist church, it would pack over 1,000 people a night. It later became a methadone clinic before turning into the Westside Theater (407 W. 43rd St., 212-315-2244).

(ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT)

GAY ART TOURS * Queer artists built the NYC art scene, and you can revel in their accomplishments and discover a more refined Chelsea culture beyond the bars with a little help from New York Gallery Tours (212-946-1548). The walks are led by a gay studies professor, through 20 art galleries with particularly queer aesthetics pointed out along the way. Tours happen once a mid-month Saturday rain or shine and cost $15; no advance reservations are necessary. Who says high art isn't accessible?

Lesbian Airwaves * No-budget Brooklyn production Dyke TV (71 Fifth Ave., 718-230-4770) aired for the first time in 1993, and beyond the show--seen on Wednesdays on channel 56 in Manhattan--the studio plays host to film screenings, workshops, and kick-ass parties.

Year-round Queer Filmfests * If you missed June's annual NewFest--the gay and lesbian film festival--don't worry; you get plenty of other chances. Two continuing NewFest series--one at the small East Village Pioneer Theater (155 E. Third St., 212-591-0434) and another at the fierce BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave., Fort Greene, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100)--screen queer docs year-round.

Camp Cinema * What good is sitting alone in your room watching Cabaret--or Funny Girl or Desperately Seeking Susan or All About Eve? Catch a campy flick in good company at the very gay Chelsea Clearview Cinemas (260 W. 23rd St., 908-918-2000, $6) with drag legend Hedda Lettuce lending bitchy commentary. Every Thursday night at 7.

Queer Stage * The Other Side of Silence 2 (506 Ninth Ave., Apartment 3FN, 212-563-2218) is the rebirth off one of the first gay theaters ever, founded in 1974, Founder Doric Wilson (a Stonewall veteran) is joined by a bunch of the best and brightest in queer theater to present new work and revivals at various venues around town pretty much year-round. Best of all, admission is rarely more than $10 to $12.

Spoken Word * East Side Oral queer readings happen every second Sunday at 5 P.M. at the Living Room (154 Ludlow St., 212-533-7235) in the East Village, In Brooklyn check out the Atomic Reading Series on the first Sunday of every month at 7 P.M., curated by queer poet Cheryl B,, at Lucky 13 Saloon (273 13th St., at Fifth Avenue, Park Slope, 718-499-7553), Curated by lesbian lady Kathleen Warnock Drunken! Careening! Writers! is held the third Thursday of each month at 7 P.M. at the East Village's KGB Bar (85 E. Fourth St., 212-505-3360).

Closet-Busting Art * Dedicated to supporting work deemed "too gay" for mainstream museums, the nonprofit Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation (127-B Prince St., 212-673-7007) showcases a closet-busting collection that is diverse, erotic, and liberating. Or take a Queer Men's Erotic Art Workshop on Wednesday and Thursday nights ($20).

(SPORTS & HEALTH)

GIRLS ON WHEELS * The Brutal glamour-punks of Gotham Girls Roller Derby (220 E. 138th St., Bronx, 718-401-0700, $12) revive the full-contact, elbow-to-ribs performance sport monthly at Skate Key in the Bronx, all in the quest for bruises and glory. NYC's only all-female roller derby league is needless to say as lesbian-popular as they come, with hot dykes and their straight friends cheering on their favorite Amazon rollers. Your gaydar will never work again.

Stretching Your Consciousness * Looking for a vacation from your normal workout! Hot Nude Yoga (519 W 26th St., hny@hotnudeyoga.com), led by yoga guru Aaron Star, is not as X-rated as it sounds; it's where in-shape men go to take their consciousness to a new realm while learning how to live with more peace. Six classes a week ($20 a class) are offered in a Chelsea loft,

Lesbian-Friendly Basketball * The teammates of the WNBA's New York Liberty (Madison Square Garden, 877-962-2849, $10 and up) play from Hay to September There are families with children, tons of lesbians, and lots of cheering, beer, and hot bodies on the court (and sometimes Joan Jett courtside). Note the many men, women, and children with Becky Hammon number 25 jerseys.

Real Men Exfoliate * Hen's spas are all the rage, so be sure to pick NYC's queerest: Spend an afternoon below ground at Silk Day Spa (47 W 13th St., 212-255-6457) for a delicious steam, facial, "melt away massage," or body wrap. You can even get a derriere waxing! This urban spa has a very earthy, sexy vibe. Ask for Michael!

Do Run Run *Why pay over $100 for a haircut when Free Time Haircutters' (87 Christopher St,, 212-366-0824) super-sassy barbers (some do prefer to be called stylists) do a fine job of trimming your locks and simultaneously filling you in on the local dirt. The vintage gay-run barbershop accepts walk-ins, is always packed with hotties, and charges less than $20 for a smart cut, You'll look like a local in no time!

Catskills: The Anti-Fire Island

When I moved to the Catskill Mountains a few years back I found a rural yet sophisticated swath of wilderness with an under-the-radar queer boom, just two or three hours' drive north of NYC. Call it Fire Island without the beach or airs.

Amtrak--as well as several bus lines and the New York State Thruway--makes a weekend trip to the Catskills a cinch. Beginning about 10 miles west of the Hudson River near the town of--surprise--Catskill and spanning Greene, Ulster, Delaware, and Sullivan counties (the liberal, leftist towns of Woodstock and New Paltz are also found in the region), these ancient mountains were America's first tourist destination beginning in the mid 19th century. After a severe postwar slump, the area was rediscovered in the 1980s and is now a place where $150,000 can actually buy a great old house on a gorgeous property--and queers are now flocking to "gayify" the area's lovely old towns. But despite the area's growing gay popularity, there's no "scene:' It's simply a let-your-hair-down, tolerant neck of the woods.

The Catskills attract celebs like Alan Cumming, Ketsey Grammer, and B52's rocker Kate Pierson, who opened up the funky, retro Kate's Lazy Meadow Motel (845-6887200) near Woodstock. Word-of-mouth gay house parties in the Catskills can attract up to 60 or 70 queers, and the historic town of Roxbury (population around 2,000) is home to a swanky new gay-run hotel, The Roxbury (607-326-7200), owned by ex-Manhattanites Greg and Joseph, who have helped attract a whole slew of gays to the artsy town as well as a new hip, gay-owned lounge, Public (607-326-4026). Gorgeous Roxbury may soon be the new gay epicenter of the northern Catskills. In addition, Sullivan County has been involved with gay tourism marketing for some time. But it's the beauty of the mountains and the slower-paced life that keeps the queers a-coming.

BRIDGE OF DREAMS Opened in 1874, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the city's most striking icons. Queer scribe Jack Kerouac summed up every gay traveler's emotional reaction upon reaching the fabled city in his poem "The Brooklyn Bridge Blues": "A tear appeared in my eye, over the river on the Bridge of Sights, that as soon as I'd (crocodile) crossed it, had taken me to the shore I was looking for!"

NYC GAYBORNHOODS

Greenwich (West) Village--NYC's oldest gay hub is still full of sex shops and daddy bars

Chelsea--Where muscle Harys and the 30-something crowd converge

East Village--Hipster haunts and artsy joints have always attracted the queers to Alphabet City

Park Slope--Where the lesbians go to settle down and raise their gaybies

Williamsburg--Brooklyn's version of a gay hippieville full of young'uns

Hell's Kitchen--NYC's newest queer hood is right off the theater district and Times Square

Jackson Heights--Fast becoming known as a multicultural gay enclave in Queens
The Out Traveler Ratings:
New York City

Gay-Friendly [A]
Legal Domestic Partnerships [B]
Adoption Laws [A]
Antidiscriminadon Laws [A]
HIV Information [A]
Gay Scene [A]

[A] Excellent [B] Fair [C] Poor


(FIRE ISLAND)

The author of the Fire Island memoir A House on she Ocean, House on the Bay revisits the gayest isle in America. Though times have changed since Grace Jones parachuted onto the Beach in a silver lame jumpsuit, gay and lesbian visitors are still dropping in BY FELICE PICANO

The first time I went to Fire Island for a full summer was 1974, to finish writing my second novel. And now here I was again at the ferry dock in 2005. Harv, a man my age whom I'd never met before, was waiting alongside me. When I asked him about Fire Island now, he said, "Nothing like the old days: 1975 to 1980! Those were the days when the island was fabulous. The huge theme parties. The thousands of beautiful bodies. The designers and fashionistas! The architects and the writers! The movie stars and the millionaires!"

I listened to him go on and on, as though I'd never been there before. It had been years since I'd heard anyone call it "The Island." As though there were only one within the New York City metropolitan area. But of course if you are lesbian or gay, there was only one Island.

Five Islands, the old Revolutionary War maps called the little sketched-in sandbars. By the late 19th century they'd been stitched into one long one, misread as Fire Island. By prohibition in the 1920s the sandbars were forested enough to conceal Cosa Nostra liquor and arms shipments. A few unsanctioned towns had sprung up. The most freedom-loving of them in that anything-goes era, named after the local chokecherry bushes, was Cherry Grove. Even then gays and lesbians gamboled in its surf and sun. Poet W.H. Auden, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and lesbian novelist Carson McCullers snapped each other's pictures there with Brownie cameras.

By the 1950s the Grove was famously "artistic"--i.e., queer. A decade later hippies, artists, and poets called the adjacent Pines their place. All "important" Pines houses had names. The Ogre, Camp Tommy, Seven Beauties, the TV House, Schloss yon Furstenberg, Annie Hall, etc. All the parties--usually one huge one per summer--had themes: the Carmen Miranda Party (1974), the Fellini Party (1975), the Star Wars Party (1977), Peacocks and Cockatoos--the Feather Party (1978), the Silver Party (1979), and finally 1980's spectacular Just Another Party.

Recovering in the sands the next day, one might see Calvin Klein, Angelo Donghia, Clovis Ruffin, Halston, Vito Russo, or Edmund White--alone or with guests and entourages. But next weekend would arrive and come midnight we'd all be lined up at the water taxi ramp, headed for Cherry Grove's Ice Palace, where Saturday night ended long after dawn.

Then, Pines and Grove islanders came down with something diagnosed as cat scratch fever--later referred to as AIDS--and died. The party was over. That was in the 1980s. By 1990 over 200,000 Americans, mostly gay men, were dead. Fire Island was devastated.

Today, gliding into Fire Island Pines harbor was as magical as I remembered. I checked into the refurbished Fire Island Pines hotel (over 40 years old). Repainted sky blue and renamed Hotel Ciel (French for heaven), it's still the major edifice in the Pines's downtown area. The main drag of the Pines, Fire Island Boulevard, was flail of grocery shoppers, beachgoers, ferry catchers, all stopping to chat and enjoy the leisurely island life.

But the true test was yet to come. Who would be at the venerable Blue Whale's Sunday tea dance? How many? How old? How good-looking? Would the staff be as godlike as those legendary barkeeps of the '70s?

The crowd I found there ranged in age from 25 to 45, as it had been in the glory days. The staff was, if not legendary yet, at least very cute.

It was only Memorial Day weekend, the first of the Big Four holidays (the others being July 4, Pines Beach Party, Labor Day). But the tea dance sounded and looked like it used to. And since tea lasts from 5 P.M. to 8 P.M., I had time to slip into a skiff of a water taxi and fly across the bay waters to Cherry Grove to check out the tea dance crowd there.

For years Cherry Grove was where the less elite and fringier gays and ever-increasing amounts of lesbians went. There were still many women, but not at the sparse Ice Palace tea dance. There I found "club act" outfits and very slender gentlemen with matching bichons frises on sequined leashes. But otherwise what we used to call "bridge and tunnel traffic," i.e., suburbanites. If the Pines is coming back, the Grove still seemed half asleep.

The Pines at least is back socially. These historic resorts still form the only all-gay-and-lesbian island paradise left in the world--one where you are the majority--even unlike Palm Springs, Calif., or Key West, Fla. Any place where you can live and love freely as yourself has to be priceless.

ESSENTIALS FIRE ISLAND

ACCOMMODATIONS

Inexpensive: Cherry Grove Beach Hotel (631-597-6600, $40-$500) is in the heart of Cherry Grove, but beware higher prices for May's Mr. Leatherman and September's Miss Fire Island contests. Moderate: In the Pines, Hotel Ciel (631-597-6500, $125-$425) has a pool, fitness center, and a harborside location. Moderate to Expensive: Cherry Grove's venerable bayside inn, Belvedere (631-597-6448, $125-$950). has a huge cream rotunda (men only, clothing optional). Expensive: Jon Wilner's Island Properties (631-597-6900) and his partner's Bob Howard Real Estate (631-597-9400, weekly $3,500-$12,000) both rent weekly, monthly, and seasonally. RESTAURANTS Cherry Grove Pizza (179 Ocean Walk, 63t-597-6766) sells slices and pies all day and more elaborate Italian food at lunch and night. The Pines's Blue Whale (Harbor Walk, 631-597-6131) has excellent dinners with good wines and desserts. The pricier Sapin (36 Fire Island Blvd., 631-597-8888) has superb French bistro food. NIGHTLIFE "Tea" at Blue Whale (Harbor Walk, 631-597-6131) at Fire Island Pines harbor is from 5 P.M. to 8 P.M., weekends and holidays. Pavillion (631-597-6500) has "High Tea" from 8 P.M. to 10 P.M. and is open till 4 A.M. on weekends. Both are daily in the summer: At the Grove, Cherry's, Tides, Ice Palace, and Sunset on the Bay have tea from 5 P.M. to 8 P.M. on the same schedule as the Pines. GETTING THERE American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast, Comair, Continental, Delta, and Southwest all fly into MacArthur Islip Airport (631-467-3210). Sayville Ferry (41 River Rd., Sayville, 631-589-0810) goes nearly hourly to Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines. Fare is $12 round-trip. Public transportation is by Long Island Rail Road on the Babylon-Montauk line (516-822-5477).

NYC INSIDER TIP #1 Fly into Newark International Airport instead of Kennedy or La Guardia. Newark is the easiest and quickest New York--area airport to get in and out of. Just $11.55 will get you from the airport to Penn Station in Manhattan in 20 minutes flat.

NYC INSIDER TIP #2 Don't take a costly cab if you're zipping to the outer boroughs. Just reserve the Zipcar (866-494-7227) closest to you (hundreds are parked throughout the city) and drive off for a couple hours or a few days. As low as $8.50 an hour, plus membership fee.

NYC INSIDER TIP #3 Broadway tickets shouldn't cripple your entire budget! The red TKTS booth (center island of 47th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue) offers unsold tickets on the day of performance up to 50% off. Or try the less crowded booth at South Street Seaport (corner of Front and John streets).

NYC INSIDER TIP #4 Culture vulture? Save money with a $53 CityPass, which gets you half off (and lets you bypass most lines) at six of the city's top attractions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenhein Museum, and the Empire State Building. Call 888-330-5008.

NYC INSIDER TIP #5 Because taxi drivers' shifts turn over at 5 A.M. and 5 P.M., the worst times to catch a cab begin around 4:30 A.M. and 4:30 P.M., when drivers start heading to the deport, not your destination.
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Author:Warnock, Kathleen
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Aug 30, 2005
Words:5260
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