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For killer 360-degree views of island, bay, and ocean -- you can even see Manhattan on a superclear day -- climb the 156 steps to the top of the Fire Island Lighthouse (tel. 631/661-4876), near Kismet at the island's western end. The light has been guiding ships since 1825. It's open 9:30am to 4pm daily from April to June and Labor Day to mid-December, 9:30am to 6pm daily July to Labor Day, and January to March weekdays 10am to 4pm and weekends noon to 4pm (in winter call ahead to confirm). Admission is $6. Farther east, the Sunken Forest (tel. 631/597-6183) is a gorgeous nature preserve and a great walkabout that's free and always open. Set behind the dunes, this 250-year-old forest is a crowded collection of American holly and sassafras that twists and tangles to create a shady canopy. The dense growth has withstood the punishment of constant salt spray better than most of the homes. The marked boardwalk trail will help you sort out what's what.

Out & About: The Pines & Cherry Grove

Although all of Fire Island has a reputation as a hangout for gays and lesbians, the action is mostly in The Pines (for men) and Cherry Grove (for women and men). Both are small communities: Cherry Grove, especially, gets the party going . . . and keeps it going every summer night, while The Pines tends to be quieter. The beaches are gorgeous; in fine weather don't be surprised to find people walking around in their birthday suits. The biggest day of the year out here is the Invasion of The Pines on July 4, when boatloads of drag queens from Cherry Grove come and "terrorize" the posh Pines. You'll find a few places to stay. In The Pines, the most popular is Hotel Ciel (tel. 631/597-6500, ext. 26). Or look for a place to rent with Pines Harbor Realty (tel. 631/597-7575; www.pinesharborrealty.com), though be aware that real estate here is some of the most expensive on Fire Island. Over in Cherry Grove, shack up at the Grove Hotel (tel. 631/597-6600), or check into the Belvedere Guest House (tel. 631/597-6448). Nightclubs hop in these two towns until all hours of the night and morning. In The Pines, kick the party off with colorful concoctions during Low Tea (otherwise known as the "Tea Dance") from 5 to 8pm at the Blue Whale (tel. 631/597-6500, ext. 22). Then move on to High Tea from 7 to 10pm at the View Deck above The Pavilion (tel. 631/597-6500, ext. 28), where you get the added benefit of checking out anyone coming off the ferries; you can also head to Middle Tea at The Pavilion itself from 8 to 10pm. But the party really gets going at the Pavilion at midnight, where you can dance until dawn.

In Cherry Grove the Grove Hotel (tel. 631/597-6600) is the hottest spot, with drag shows, live bands, and theme parties throughout the summer. For the best people-watching, snag a table overlooking the main walk. Another popular gathering place is Cherry's Pit (tel. 631/597-6820); you can catch a great view of the sunset over on the bayside deck. They also serve food. Eat with a view of the ocean at Jumping Jack's (tel. 631/597-4174). Or go grab a great pie at Cherry Grove Pizza (tel. 631/597-6766).

Note that you may see some interesting scenes as you pass through the woods between Cherry Grove and The Pines, affectionately known as the "Meat Rack."

Look online for more gay listings and news for the area. The most comprehensive site is www.fireislandqnews.com, which also has a calendar of area events. Also try www.asthegroveturns.net and www.fipines.com.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.