The Northeast’s two premier gay vacation destinations both evolved in isolated, tip-of-the-universe communities within an afternoon’s drive of major cities, but that’s where their similarities end. Cape Cod’s Provincetown and Long Island’s Fire Island are strikingly different breeds of the same general species. It’s not uncommon to find gay folks who love both towns, sometimes for different reasons, but most queer summer-resort habitues have developed a clear preference for one or the other.
Somewhat complicating comparisons is the fact that Fire Island’s GLBT communities, Cherry Grove and the Pines, themselves enjoy a good-natured rivalry. The two villages are separated both geographically - by a cruisy swath of sand and forest - and philosophically - by a vast gulf of attitude. Cherry Grove is the senior of the two villages, catering to an eclectic crowd: retirees, dykes with tikes, campy queens, artists, and a highly diverse bunch in terms of race, age, and style - everyone seems to fit in well in this low-keyed enclave. Houses here are generally funkier and more affordable than those in the Pines, which was developed more recently and has a mostly male, more upscale following. Domiciles in the Pines tend to be angular, sleek, and palatial; the crowd at Pines restaurants and bars is closer in style and attitude to the buffed, bronzed, and somewhat affluent bunch you might see wandering around Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. You’ll find elements of both these populations in Provincetown, but without such obvious divisions.
If truly getting away from civilization is your intent, either community on Fire Island is a better choice than the whole of Provincetown. The Pines and Cherry Grove are accessible only by boat and are without streets or automobiles; they’re also nearly devoid of heteros (which can be fun for a few days but can feel a little Twilight Zonish after a week or two). Provincetown is equally remote (it’s at the tip of Cape Cod) but easier to get to, as you can drive here or take a high-speed ferry directly from Boston. Also, even during its summer peak, it’s still only about 50 percent gay, drawing a mix to its handful of museums, scads of shops, dozens of restaurants, and stunningly beautiful swath of Cape Cod National Seashore.
If you’re traveling with your lover or with friends, you’ll find that both destinations have plenty going for them, but that on Fire Island your day may revolve more closely around those in your party - there simply aren’t many places to wander off and do your own thing. It’s a good place to read, lie in the sun, and relax. In Provincetown, it’s not unheard of for a group of friends to arrive together and see each other only three or four more times during the rest of their stay. This is a decent-size town with numerous distractions and plenty of chances to meet new friends. For these reasons, if you’re traveling alone, Provincetown may be your better choice.
Because it has only a few hundred hotel rooms (most of which command more than $200 nightly), Fire Island draws fewer short-term visitors than it does weekly, monthly, or seasonal guests. If you’re an outsider, you may find it somewhat difficult to crack such an established, cliquey social scene; on the other hand, newcomers, especially by summer’s end, are often welcomed enthusiastically by the regulars who’ve by now grown a little weary of the island’s insularity. Provincetown has more than 50 gay-oriented guest houses and inns, and therefore has a steady turnover of visitors - you rarely see the same folks in the same bars every night.
Both towns have plenty of dance clubs and bars, but, again, on Fire Island you may have a more difficult time meeting other singles. This is very much a couples destination, although Cherry Grove has several bars that keep busy all day, all season long. The Pines has just a couple of nightlife spots, but they’re extremely popular and downright packed on weekends. If you do happen to meet somebody interesting, the odds that either of you have a single, private bedroom are rather slim, given how many visitors share rooms or crash with friends. This is one more reason Fire Island is a better destination if you’re bringing your own friend or lover, rather than seeking a new one. Because rooms are on average cheaper in Provincetown, there’s a better chance that you’ll meet somebody with a single room - in fact, P’town has a number of accommodations that fit modest budgets, even during the summer high season. Also, Provincetown has two great lesbian bars, and a couple others with a mixed following or occasional women’s nights. Fire Island’s nightlife is decidedly more male-oriented, especially in the Pines. Lesbians will definitely find more to do on Provincetown in terms of socializing and bar-hopping.
Both Fire Island and Provincetown can be visited as day trips from their closest big cities - New York City and Boston, respectively. However, some fairly ambitious planning is needed. To visit Fire Island in a day from New York, you either need to drive or take the Long Island Railroad to the town of Sayville (about 90 minutes), and then take a 30-minute ferry ride to either the Pines or Cherry Grove. During the summer high season, the last ferries from Cherry Grove and the Pines return to Sayville as late as 2 a.m. on weekends (but earlier on weekdays). The Long Island Railroad has return train service to New York City leaving as late as 12:30 in the morning. Ideally, give yourself a couple of nights to enjoy a visit to Fire Island. You’ll save money on hotels if you come during the week rather than on weekends, but you’ll also find Fire Island nightlife options quieter on weekdays.
To get from Boston to Provincetown, you can drive, but it’s a pretty long haul - two-and-a-half hours without traffic, and easily up to four hours on busy weekends in during the summer high season. A much simpler and quicker option is to take the 90-minute high-speed ferry from Boston, which docks right at the main wharf in Provincetown, just steps from shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Two different companies, Bay State Cruise Company and Boston Harbor Cruises, offer this service, but only from May through October. The earliest boats leave Boston at 8 a.m., and the last boats back to Boston depart from Provincetown at 8:30 p.m.
Finally, although both communities enjoy maximum crowds from about Memorial Day through Labor Day, Provincetown continues to draw a significant number of visitors through the late fall, and even into the barren but broodingly romantic winter months. Provincetown also hosts a wide range of events and theme weeks from spring through fall. Single Women’s Weekend and Women of Color & Allies Weekend are both in May, and Women’s Week takes place in October. Meet Your Man in Provincetown Weekend occurs each November, and Provincetown Summer Bear Week draws plenty of guys in the middle of July. The town also has a playwright’s festival (early April), JazzFest (early August), Circuit Party Week (early July), Carnival (late August), Tennessee Williams Theater Festival (late September), and Fantasia Fair (mid-October) - there seems to be a lot to do out here. Fire Island is a ghost town from mid-October through April, and you’ll find the most activity and the liveliest bars and nightclubs in July and August. Despite the increased crowds of summer, Fire Island and Provincetown both offer significantly cooler climates than mainland New York or Massachusetts. When the mercury rises above 90 degrees, these breezy and scenic getaways offer the perfect retreat from city life.
Andrew Collins is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA and eight additional travel guides.
The Little Black Book
Cape Cod National Seashore web page (www.nps.gov/caco). Fire Island Cherry Grove Website (www.cherrygrove.com). Fire Island Pines Website (www.fipines.com). Gay Fire Island Website (www.fireislandqnews.com). Fire Island National Seashore web page (www.nps.gov/fiis). Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.discoverlongisland.com). Provincetown Business Guild (www.ptown.org). Provincetown Chamber of Commerce (www.ptownchamber.com).