Reflections of Shirley (And Don’t Call Us Shirley)

IMG_2137When 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

Ranger Station with a View - Fire Island National Seashore
Ranger Station with a View – 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

IMG_1670As 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

Southaven Park Oct2003 042Following 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.”

Southern (Hemisphere) Comfort

It’s that time of year again. While I’m vacillating my attention between my icy driveway and the level of oil for my burner, my mind tends to wander from the chilly environs of my native Long Island and longingly travel to points south—way south. I don’t know if it’s comforting or teasing to know that even though we’re on the same page of the calendar, on the other side of the equator the sand is on the beaches, not the roads, and the only ice to be found is mixed with fruit and liquor. And while we had our chance to enjoy the warmth of summer a few months ago, I can’t help but feel a twinge of envy when I think about the pleasant weather happening right now in lower latitudes.

 

Looking back, some of my fondest beach memories took place during what North Americans, Europeans, most Africans and all Asians with the exception of Indonesians (who never get cold weather anyway) would consider the winter months. So here are a few of them with incongruous dates to match the picture. Perhaps it will warm you up by imagining yourself there—or with anger at my having brought it up. 

 

January 25, 2008

Punta del Este, Uruguay

The happening resort town of Punta del Este
The happening resort town of Punta del Este

 

Seeing the word January on the calendar doesn’t often conjure images of sun-kissed beaches and warm waters, but it certainly does to visitors and residents of this happening resort area less than two hours’ drive east of the capital of Montevideo. I only got to spend a few hours here before my cruise ship was set to sail onward, but it felt great to (literally) get my feet wet again after several months of cold weather back home—not to mention having been in the frigid waters of Antarctica just a few days before.

 

March 10, 2013

Ilha Grande, Brazil

The idyllic sand & surf of Praia Lopes Mendes, Ilha Grande, Brazil
The idyllic sand & surf of Praia Lopes Mendes, Ilha Grande, Brazil

 

Historically, March is one of the snowiest months where I live, so you can imagine the joy of coming to the end of the sometimes arduous path through the jungle and stepping out onto the powdery sands of the beach called Lopes Mendes—considered one of Brazil’s best. I distinctly recall walking the edge of the waterline, alternating between the baking sand and the cool waters of the South Atlantic while listening to music on my iPhone and marveling at the verdant scenery hugging the ribbon of sand curving off ahead of me. Upon returning to my wife and blanket and opening a bottle of the local cerveja, I can assure you wind chills and snow drifts were the last things on my mind.

 

March 18, 2009

Praslin, Seychelles Islands

Anse Lazio, Praslin Island, Seychelles
Anse Lazio, Praslin Island, Seychelles

 

While at the end of the season—though technically on the winter side of the Spring Equinox—visiting the golden sands of the beach at Anse Lazio in late March was zero part lion and 100% lamb. I arrived here at sunset after a delayed bus ride, broken sandal on a steep hillside descent, and an encounter with a pack of dogs with questionable motives. All that was forgotten—along with the date—upon seeing the calm waters lapping the rounded granite boulders bordering this tranquil cove. I took my pictures, caught my breath and negotiated a cab ride back to the resort with the last of my cash, but if I had the chance I doubt if I would have ever left until well into Spring.

 

So as we Northern Hemispherers (trademark pending) prepare to enter the heart of winter’s wrath, it’s not such a bad idea to steal a thought or glance south. Perhaps planning that trip to the other half of the planet will be what you need to get you through a few months of heavy coats and scraping windshields.

 

Have a favorite experience in the Southern Hemisphere? Leave a comment