When it comes to prestigious Long Island towns, Shirley comes in somewhere near the bottom. It’s not really fair, actually, considering that ‘prestige’ is based primarily on economic merit; not what a place has to offer. This small town along with neighboring hamlets Mastic and Mastic Beach are known as working class neighborhoods on the lower edges of the middle class, and are one of the last affordable places to live on the island. But what it lacks in zip code envy, it makes up for in natural beauty – so long as you visit the area’s three main parks: Fire Island National Seashore, Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge and Southaven County Park.
I write this piece after spending an afternoon packing in preparation for my upcoming move to Texas. While I grew up less than ten miles away in Medford, NY, for the past 11 years Shirley has been my home, and like any good homeowner, I made it a point to familiarize myself with my property. Now, as I prepare to leave, I would be remiss if I didn’t share a few of my favorite places for anyone who might be passing through and willing to make a stop between New York City and the Hamptons.
Fire Island National Seashore
Abutting Smith’s Point County Park and accessible via the Smith’s Point Bridge, Fire Island National Seashore stretches across a large strip of this narrow barrier island. Preserving the fragile ecosystem and providing a playground for sun worshippers in the summer, this place draws lots of visitors looking for wide swaths of sand and surf. There is a small ranger’s building where guests can learn more about the wildlife and history, but most people just take a stroll on the newly-restored boardwalk through the dunes (replacing the one destroyed by Hurricane Sandy) to find their own private stretch of sand. Just a note: the further west you go, the greater the chance you’ll find clothing optional sunbathers. Learned that the hard way (just look at the sand).
On a personal note, I have many fond memories of coming here after 5 o’clock (when you no longer have to pay for parking) and watching the sun set to the sound of crashing surf. It’s a great place to think, pray, or just talk to some of the friendly people who pass you by while doing the same thing. You will also realize that Long Island beaches are famous for a reason.
Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge
As incongruous as the idea of Shirley hosting even one national park may seem to people coming from more prestigious neighborhoods, is the fact that they’re are actually two national park facilities (more if you count the satellite William Floyd Estate as a separate entity). Situated on the marshy Carmans River, the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge is one of several on the island devoted to preserving wetlands particularly important to bird migration. With a new visitors center and a few well-maintained trails, it’s a great place to spend an afternoon. If you’re fortunate you’ll see deer, fox and all sorts of birds – including osprey, who nest along the banks of the river. Various lookouts provide panoramas over the marshes and outside the park you can rent canoes or kayaks to see it from water level.
Many times I would take a few minutes to stop in to peruse the visitor center and peek at the slow-moving water filter down into the Great South Bay. Yosemite it is not, but if you’re looking for a tranquil spot to eat your lunch, the views on Long Island don’t get much better than this.
Southaven County Park
Following the Carmans River north across Sunrise Highway is Southaven County Park. This park boasts an array of different activities for a wide range of tastes. You can rent a canoe or rowboat and go paddling among the ducks and swans. There’s a shooting range and hunting area for firearm enthusiasts. Horse lovers come from all around to explore the miles of trails. And there’s even a miniature steam engine club based out of the park which come summer offers free rides on the narrow gauge track. Plus, there’s loads of room for picnics and ball games with plenty of tables, fields and bathroom facilities.
While the scenery isn’t earth-shattering (mostly scrub oaks and maples with the exception of a grove of towering pines at the riverfront) I think this is the place I will miss the most. This is where my mom and grandparents used to take us for hikes as kids. This is where for years I’ve spent many a Sunday having impromptu barbecues with dear friends. This is also where I proposed to my wife, and being young and lacking in good judgment, she said yes (over by the dam near the camping area). This was a constant of my life so far; a place that has undergone far less change than I have over the years. When I come back to visit it will be like seeing an old friend, and, I suppose, a living photograph of my past. Great – now I’m misty-eyed.
If you too would like to experience these less ‘prestigious’ locales in Shirley, getting there is quite simple. The Long Island Railroad offers service to the Mastic station (which is just across William Floyd Parkway near some of the best Chinese food on Long Island) but this would require you to hire a taxi (or do a whole lot of walking with your beach gear). It is predominantly accessible by car via Exit 58 off Sunrise Highway or Exit 68 off the Long Island Expressway. And if you just happen to have our own private aircraft, Brookhaven Calabro Airport services the Mastic/Shirley area.
Though it is extremely unlikely that you’ll be seeing an episode of “The Real Housewives of Shirley, NY” that doesn’t mean there’s nothing here worth seeing. If you look past the rampant development and homogenous dining/shopping venues, there are some really great natural places for those who love the outdoors. As any real Long Islander can tell you, the real Long Island lies between the city and the Hamptons. You may call me biased or even call me crazy. But as the late, great Leslie Neilson once said, “Don’t call me Shirley.”