Friday, February 23, 2024

Travel Guide: Tour the South Shore of Long Island’s Suffolk County

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First, let’s start by explaining the colloquial use of the term “South Shore” here on Long Island, in this case Suffolk County specifically.

If someone in Suffolk says they’re from the South Shore, they’re referring to the dozens of communities that run along the coastline — from Amityville to Eastport — mostly straddling Sunrise Highway.

However, if you venture too far east into Eastport, you’ll end up in Southampton Town, which is the start of the South Fork, also known as the Hamptons. And that’s an entirely different animal.

No one from Southampton is from the South Shore, if that makes any sense.

Nevertheless, this 40-mile stretch is home to some of the most diverse communities on Long Island. We’re talking ethnically, racially, economically, geologically and physically.

This vibrant sub-region is dotted with bustling and growing downtowns, most of which developed around train stations and within walking distances to the Great South Bay to the south. Around and between the downtowns you’ll find groundwater rivers and tree-lined suburban neighborhoods that boast some of the best schools in the country.

And it’s all underscored by a string of renowned, white-sand barrier beaches.

There is much to do, from theaters, bars, breweries and restaurants, to county, municipal and state parks, beaches and marinas. And of course, the crown jewel: Fire island, which is one of just 10 national seashores managed by the U.S. National Park Service.

So if you’re a South Shore local, visitor, or looking to relocate, let Greater Long Island be your guide. Scroll down for a list of things to do, eat, watch, see, and just experience on Suffolk County’s South Shore. And check back, because we are always updating our travel guides to life on Long Island.


The downtowns

Looking west from East Main Street in downtown Patchogue at sunset. (Credit: Benny Migliorino)

If you’re going out on the South Shore, heading to one of its many downtowns is the move, because you can skip from place to place without getting back in a car. There are sports bars, esteemed restaurants, music and live performance venues, as well as DIY spots and date night options.

The clear favorite among the youth right now is downtown Patchogue, which has over 40 bars and restaurants, as well as the landmark Blue Point Brewery and two music venues: Stereo Garden and 89 North, with Painters’ Restaurant’ being another hot spot for live music about 13 minutes east by car. And when summer arrives, the scene along the riverfront is a non-stop party.

Bay Shore is a close second, with a few less bars but more finer dining options than Patchogue.

Lindenhurst is our choice for craft beer lovers, with four breweries within walking distance on Wellwood Avenue and two more in nearby Copiague and Amityville. Babylon is also a sure bet, because the LIRR station runs right through the downtown with plenty of drinking and dining options, all a short walk from one another. Bellport, Sayville and Center Moriches each offer more of a quaint dining experience.


This is a huge problem for Suffolk County’s South Shore, and we hope elected officials will make it a priority to help facilitate the building of more hotels, and start thinking more outside the box when it comes to zoning and permitting for bed and breakfasts. The South Shore desperately needs lodging, especially for guests coming in for weddings, as there are dozens of catering halls on and near the water.

There are some hotels around the airport to the north, but along the coastline and Sunrise Highway you’ll find few we could recommend. Many are decaying, road-trip era motels utilized by Social Services.

Boutique options are limited and small, but really nice, and include Bellport Inn and Temperance Hall, which are both in Bellport, as well as the Ocean Bay House, which is on the water in Bay Shore.

Fire Island has some wonderful options, such as The Palms (Ocean Beach), Fire Island Boatel (Kismet) and Fire Island Beach House (Ocean Bay Park) on the western side of the island, and The Grove Hotel (Cherry Grove) and the Pines Bluff Overlook (Fire Island Pines) in the middle. Check the websites for their months of operation, as Fire Island is a seasonal spot. You can also go glamping at Watch Hill (or even Sailors Haven), also on Fire Island. The glamping is awesome; just pack the bug spray!


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Transportation

MacArthur Airport (ISP)

Credit: Town of Islip, Long Island, N.Y.

Friends don’t let friends pick them up at JFK or LaGuardia airports in Queens, because the entire experience is harrowing and nerve-wracking, as those are the only airports in the United States where you pull up and immediately start getting hollered and screamed at by police officers and airport workers, simply for being there. Not to mention the traffic getting back through Queens and Nassau and out to Suffolk County.

MacArthur Airport, about a six-minute drive north of Sunrise Highway, is quite the opposite experience, and the only way to fly to Long Island if you’re looking to avoid major headaches. You could roller skate from this airport and be in downtown Sayville in 20 minutes. Airlines: Southwest, Frontier or Breeze. Note: We would rather transfer twice to end up at MacArthur, rather than go to Queens.

Long Island Rail Road

The Long Island Rail Road is the busiest commuter railroad in North America.(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The LIRR will take you from NYC all the way to Montauk (through the Hamptons) via the Babylon, then Montauk lines. The local trains stop at every town on the South Shore, so you could tour the region from your window seat! (It might take awhile.) But, fares just went up. Expect to pay around $15 off-peak, one way, and $20 for a peak-time ticket, one way. This is the busiest commuter railroad in North America. You might think all that volume would make it one of the cheapest, but it’s quite the opposite.

Automobile

This is the preferred way to bop around the South Shore. Heavy traffic typically loosens up after you get through Nassau County, which is to the immediate west. There are no traffic lights on Sunrise Highway after Lindenhurst, so it’s pretty smooth sailing from “Lindy” on east, unless it’s rush hour. We suggest Sunrise. Just don’t call it The Sunrise Highway; you don’t want to look like a tourist.

Southern State Parkway runs mostly along Sunrise Highway but ends in East Islip. The Southern State, as Long Islanders call it, was built in the late-1920s to bring summer travelers out from the city to enjoy Long Island’s state park system. Now it’s a sort of track for 20-somethings in cheap cars with sound-makers to chase each other around. Be wary. This is a curvy road that was built for pleasure, not speed.


There’s a range of performance venues in the region, from those offering professional shows to really great community theaters and arts centers. Two of Long Island’s three professional theaters are located on the South Shore: The Argyle Theatre in Babylon and The Gateway in Bellport.

Keeping with the villages and downtowns, Patchogue is home to Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, and Bay Shore has recently seen its performing arts center, The Boulton Center, reopen after a COVID-related shutdown that lingered for over three years.

Community theater spots include Bayway Arts Center in East Islip, CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale, and the Clare Rose Playhouse at the St. Joseph’s University Long Island campus in Patchogue. Tap any of the above links for show schedules and to purchase tickets.


Suffolk County has one pro team and they play in Central Islip: the Long Island Ducks. We can tell you that this is a really wonderful baseball-watching experience that’s affordable for a family. There’s also an intimate, old-time feeling to Fairfield Properties Ballpark. The Ducks play in the North Division of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, and have won several titles. Many former MLB players have played for the Ducks, including Dontrelle Willis, Ramon Castro, Daniel Murphy, even former Braves reliever John Rocker, who once famously derided New Yorkers.

Long Island’s lone major professional sports team, the New York Islanders, play in Elmont, which borders Queens in Nassau County, but UBS Arena is pretty easily accessible by car or Long Island Rail Road.


Waterfront dining

Nicky's on the Bay
The view from the rooftop deck at Nicky’s on the Bay in Bay Shore. (GLI file photo)

The best villages and hamlets (as we call unincorporated communities here on Long Island) for waterfront dining is absolutely Patchogue, Oakdale, Bay Shore and Babylon, but almost every village and hamlet offers options, if only a few. Many are seasonal, but still many are open year-round.

Fire Island offers plenty of waterfront dining options, but there’s only that’s directly on the dunes of the Atlantic Ocean (as opposed to facing the bay), and that’s Casino Café at Davis Park (from Patchogue).


The Beaches

Children run into the ocean at Robert Moses State Park in 2022. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

These are some of the best beaches in the world, and the water gets clearer as you get out east. In recent years, pods of dolphins and humpback whales have come to delight beachgoers, with whales often feeding on school fish right within view. Seals and snowy owls come visit in the winter. Most, if not all, the beaches, offer food and alcoholic beverages at designated “beach bars,” with the biggest being Salt Shack at Cedar Beach. But all of them are a great time, often with live music playin into the night during the summer months. All of the beach bars are seasonal.

Jones Beach Island

Salt Shack at Cedar Beach at night. (Credit: Facebook)

Jones Beach island stretches east into Suffolk County, and isn’t just isolated to the area designated as Jones Beach State Park in Nassau County to the west. There are three great beaches accessible by car on Jones Beach Island and managed by the Town of Babylon: Gilgo and Cedar beaches are open to the public, but the neighboring Overlook Beach to the east is for town residents-only in the summer.

Robert Moses State Park

The Robert Moses Causeway bridge at sunset. (Nick Esposito/file photo)

Robert Moses State Park is a gem and is actually located on the westernmost tip of Fire Island. It’s accessible by car travel over the breathtaking Robert Moses Causeway (pictured).

Smiths Point County Park

Smith Point on Fire Island
Beachgoers heading to the ocean at Smith Point County Park on Fire Island. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Smith Point is also accessible by car over the Smith Point Bridge, and is similar to Robert Moses in many ways, except you can camp out on the campgrounds facing the bay, and take your 4×4 on the eastern portion of what’s called Outer Beach. The one caveat for taking your truck or SUV on the beach is you need a permit. Click here for details. And remember to deflate those tires or you will get stuck!

What’s colloquially referred to as Fire Island (even though it includes Robert Moses and Smiths Point) is only accessible for visitors via ferry. It’s dotted with communities, shops, restaurants and night clubs. There are no cars allowed. (Unless you’re a worker). Only bikes and little red wagons here.


Ferries

The ferries from the South Shore have one destination and one destination only: Fire Island. There are three areas from which to set sail (from west to east), either Bay Shore, Sayville or Patchogue.

Bay Shore

The Fire Island Ferries fleet docked at its Maple Avenue terminal at sunset. (courtesy photo)

Fire Island Ferries provides ferry service between Bay Shore and the Fire Island communities of Kismet, Saltaire, Fair Harbor, Dunewood, Atlantique, Ocean Beach, Seaview, and Ocean Beach. No matter where you go, it’s about a 30-minute ride, one way.

Just a few more items worth noting: You can’t bring bikes on the ferries, but dogs are allowed (though some communities don’t allow dogs on the beaches.) There are no bathrooms on the boats, so go ahead of time at the terminal. Lastly, do not miss the last boat off Fire Island at night!

Sayville Ferry Service has been taking beachgoers across the Great South Bay to Fire Island since 1894. And still ushers residents and visitors from Sayville to Fire Island’s legendary LGBT communities of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, Water Island and the Sunken Forest at Sailors Haven. The ferries operate out of a marina on Browns River in Sayville.

Patchogue

Davis Park ferries leave from near the mouth of Patchogue River. (GLI file photo)

There are two ferry terminals on Patchogue River. The Davis Park Ferry Co. runs all boats back and forth between Patchogue and the community Davis Park, as well as the Watch Hill wilderness.

The address for the Patchogue-Davis Park Ferry Terminal is 80 Brightwood Street in Patchogue, at the town’s Sandspit Marina. Tap here for the ferry schedules to Davis Park, and for tickets. Parking is available at the town marina, and it’s discounted for Brookhaven Town residents. Don’t even bother looking for on-street parking.

The Patchogue-Watch Hill Ferry Terminal is operated by the National Park Service and is located at 150 West Avenue in Patchogue. From this terminal, seasonal passenger ferry service is provided to Watch Hill by Davis Park Ferry Co., an authorized NPS vendor. Parking here is free and plentiful. 


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