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A Proustian Travel Guide: Photographer Koitz Shares His Favorite Fire Island Memories

A Proustian Travel Guide: Photographer Koitz Shares His Favorite Fire Island Memories

A Proustian Travel Guide: Photographer Koitz Shares His Favorite Fire Island Memories

'My photos from Fire Island are always colorful and full of life and that’s the side that I want to show.'

Photography courtesy of Koitz

"First of all, I always want people to know that I am Basque," the photographer known as Koitz explains. "I was born in a relatively small town in Euskal Herria (Basque homeland), and I moved to New York over 20 years ago." When he first visited New York in 1988, he says he fell in love with the city and "absolutely loved Times Square" and that "love affair continues today — even though some days it can feel more like a love/hate relationship. But whenever I leave New York for a few days, I am always very happy to come back."

Now based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he explains it wasn't the cool and hip place that it is today. "Now it’s certainly safer, full of bars and restaurants… There wasn’t a single gay bar in the neighborhood when I moved here in 1994 — and now there are three!"

Koitz says his siblings allowed him to keep all the albums of mostly black-and-white photographs of their family after his parents passed away — and they remain his most cherished possession. "I had been, I admit, a little worried that I would have to 'fight' for them or that we would end up dividing them but," he says. "To my happy surprise, they all said, 'We had no doubt you would want to keep them and we know that they are safe with you.' "

The photographer recently showed his work to a West Coast crowd, when Fire Island: Out in the Sun was exhibited in Los Angeles. We caught up with him to find out what he loves about the gay island destination.

RELATED | FIRE ISLAND: OUT IN THE SUN

Where is your all-time favourite travel destination?

No question about it, my favorite destination is Fire Island. I have been going there every summer for a decade now and I love it now as much as ever. It is really the place closest to my idea of “Paradise,” My boyfriend Doug and another couple, Jim and Richard, have been sharing the same house in Cherry Grove from that very first summer we started going out there. We are in the “West End” part of town, a lot quieter than “downtown” but with a lot of camaraderie between residents, old and young.
Describe your perfect weekend in Fire Island.

I would definitely choose a weekend (hopefully sunny) between, say, the Fourth of July and mid-August, when Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, the two predominantly gay communities on Fire Island, are really full of people. I’d try to get out there, if possible, on a Thursday, ahead of the weekend rush. I also love to be able to spend the whole day on Friday out there when it’s relaxed and less manic than on those busy weekend days. If I could get out on Thursday evening, I’d go to the Ice Palace to catch a performance by my drag queen friends Logan Hardcore and Ariel Sinclair. I’d have a drink, watch the show and then take a leisurely walk around the Grove before going back to my house. On Friday during the day, I might walk to the Sunken Forest with my camera. The Sunken Forest is beautiful, with amazing vegetation and lots of birds. Many of the gnarled and twisted trees there almost seem to have faces, a feature that fascinates me. If I had time, I’d have a quick lunch at the Island Breeze, or Cherry’s, or, if my time was limited, maybe just grab a sandwich at Floyd’s. If I were to go in the other direction, towards the Pines, I’d walk through the Meat Rack and then check out what’s new or been changed in the houses there. I might buy a sandwich at the Pines Pantry or, if I met up with friends, maybe get a bite at the Blue Whale restaurant. As perverse as it may sound for someone vacationing year after year on a sandbar, I very rarely go to the beach since sand and sun are not my thing, but if they’re yours, well, Fire Island is the perfect place to go sunbathing/cruising!

Friday night I’d go photograph Daniel Nardicio’s well-known and always popular Underwear Party at the Ice Palace. I love the energy there and it is a really fun party!

Saturday I’d sleep late and maybe have lunch with friends while overlooking the beach at the Sand Castle, before another wander through the Grove and then joining Doug and our housemates for a glass of prosecco before sitting down to a delicious dinner prepared by Jim and Richard, who are, each of them, superior chefs as well as masters of the grill. After dinner, we’d go visit some friends, probably to 'Tweedle Dee,' which is the name of the house where our friends John, Fernando and Anthony live. That’s another thing that I love about Cherry Grove: most of the houses have names, which can be funny, witty, or just interesting. Our house is named ‘Campobello’ after the island in Maine that was Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s summer retreat.

On Sunday, I’d get up early, then go out to the deck to have an unrushed breakfast/brunch with my housemates. With luck or if it were a special occasion, my boyfriend Doug would’ve made waffles. When he does, people seem to smell them and they wander in to have brunch with us, which I always love. I totally love having people in our house – I don’t know why but I really do. I love listening to their stories about the night before, or really about whatever else they have to say. After gorging on waffles, I’d take a waffle-burning walk to the Pines to visit friends Ned and Tom. (I don’t understand how he does it, but Ned always knows what’s going on in both towns so I am kept up on current events!) Sated on all the latest gossip, I’d then walk back to the Grove, probably through the Meat Rack, and then get ready to catch a late ferry back to the mainland and then into the car to head home. The end of a perfect weekend in my own "paradise."

What makes someone a local in this destination?

Remember, there are no streets or cars here, only boardwalks. So you aren’t really a "local" on Fire Island until you’ve fallen off a boardwalk at least once. It happens to pretty much everybody at some point and alcohol consumption in various degrees and high heels can be involved or not. This is particularly true at night, when you have to be very careful walking down the wooden boardwalks since there are no streetlights and the boards aren’t always straight (which figures). Some people do carry flashlights but a dyed-in-the-wool “Fire Islander” does not use one. Every summer, it’s a community undertaking to paint the edges of the boardwalks in white so you can “see” them in the moonlight and thus keep yourself from walking off. On nights without a moon, however, it can be a challenge. I remember to this day the first time I walked in the pitch dark in the Grove. It was haunting but absolutely magical! I have never had such a feeling anywhere else. It’s hard to describe; you simply have to experience it!

Tell us about your favorite restaurant, café, or bar.

My favorite restaurants on Fire Island are Top of the Bay in Cherry Grove and the Blue Whale in Fire Island Pines. Top of the Bay has wonderful food, attractive décor and the view of the dock from its second-floor is unbeatable. If you’re lucky to get a seat in the windowed “prow” of the restaurant, you can watch all the ferries and crowds arriving and departing. Among many dishes I like, the hamburgers at Top of the Bay are especially tasty so I make sure that I eat at least one per season. I also love their scallops. And they have prosecco, my favorite drink. And even though I am Basque and Basques are kind of obsessed with food, for me the company I eat with is as important as the cuisine. Personally I like to have an early dinner, when there is still light so I can look out and see all the comings and goings on the dock, who’s arriving from the Pines, for instance, in the water taxi, and who’s just got off the ferry… At sunset, I join friends on the dock below to watch the sun go down in the west after another perfect day.

If you had to give a visitor one keepsake from the destination, what would it be?

One of my photographs!

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