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Working for a Campsite in Paradise: Honeymoon Island State Park

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

It took only one visit to Florida’s Honeymoon Island State Park for my husband, Guy, and I to decide we wanted to spend some significant time at this idyllic place.

Although 2,800-acre Honeymoon – of which all but 400 acres are “submerged” – has been a state park for more than 30 years, it is, like other barrier islands, still relatively primitive, much as it was when Spanish explorers arrived more than 400 years ago.

Graceful palms and slash pines statue the island, a slender crescent located just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa Bay. Wading birds abound, as do migrating warblers, and some 22 pairs of ospreys build their nests in the pines, the scraggly structures visible from a three-mile walking trail carved through the trees. The generous beach, with sand the color of buttermilk and nearly as smooth, is one of the finest anywhere. The water encircling the island, the Gulf of Mexico and St. Joseph Sound is as blue as a peacock.

On the occasion of our visit, a friend who lives not far from the park and spends a lot of time there fishing invited us down for a week of saltwater kayaking. This included paddling in the frequently choppy Sound, which separates Honeymoon from the mainland (if you’re there when the tide goes out you and your kayak can get stranded on razor-sharp oyster beds, potentially perilous to the mollusks and to your craft).

At the time, our outdoorsy friend explained, dozens of miles of former “mosquito ditches” – canals bored half a century ago through thick stands of mangroves on several of the barrier islands and islands in Tampa Bay – were being groomed for kayak trails.

Honeymoon’s mangrove swamps were not yet part of the kayak trail system (and still aren’t). However, Caladesi Island just to the south is laced with the trails, which wind through eerily green, prickly tunnels and over swaying sea grasses in open water – and to get there you must take a ferry from Honeymoon. Hence our original reason for visiting Honeymoon, reachable via Dunedin Causeway (an extension of Curlew Road/Florida Highway 586) from the mainland.

We were so taken with the place that we stayed an entire day, walking the 3/4-mile Pelican Cove Trail along the shore of a sleepy lagoon (you can walk through the shallow water to Sand Spit, which arcs off Honeymoon into the Gulf like a mile-long tongue) and three-mile Osprey Trail, admiring the birds (spotting scopes are sometimes set up here to help birdwatchers). A pair of great horned owls is here, as are several types of egrets and herons, and gorgeous fuchsia-colored roseate spoonbills, among many others.

We ate the picnic lunch we’d brought in one of Honeymoon’s four pavilions (shade and the steady breeze off the Gulf keep even the hottest day pleasant), and spent much of the afternoon wandering the beach in search of shells, my favorite activity. Dune walks (boardwalks) have been built to get visitors over the fragile sand dunes to the beach.

Our dogs were delighted to get their own time in the sand on mile-long Pet Beach at the island’s south end (a dog wash is there, and pick-up bags are available; dogs must be on hand-held leashes no longer than six feet).

On that visit, we learned that the only camping facilities located on the island itself are the three sites occupied by the three RVer couples who volunteer there, working 20 hours each week in exchange for a site. (Many others volunteer on the island but don’t stay overnight.) It seemed a no-brainer (if a pipe dream): we would give up our jobs in the Midwest to work half a day in the most sublime setting imaginable, and also get to live there. But it turned out to not be quite that simple, as hundreds of other RVing couples around the country have the same wish – and there’s room for only three at a time.

RVers who want to volunteer on the island – doing such tasks as building benches and boardwalks, picking up litter, grooming the trails, helping with special events, assisting park rangers and more – must apply many months in advance. Some wait years for the privilege of working for no pay on the island. Volunteers are generally retirees, but not necessarily.

Peter Krulder, park manager since August 2005 – he also manages four other area state parks: Caladesi Island, Anclote Key Preserve, Egmont Key and Skyway Fishing Pier – also oversees Honeymoon’s volunteer program. He praises the volunteers as vital to maintaining the parks, and allowing rangers “to do extras.”

He explains that Florida’s 161 state parks span some 600,000 acres and receive about 18 million visitors every year (one million of whom come to Honeymoon). Without the many volunteers, who statewide last year worked more than 900,000 hours, the parks’ 1,000 full-time employees would be overwhelmed.

Volunteers, who also greet visitors, lead tours, clean restrooms and grills, and set up spotting scopes for bird watchers, put in the same number of hours as 436 additional full-time employees, Krulder said. He adds that most of Florida’s state parks offer volunteer programs similar to Honeymoon’s.

Karen Malo, park service specialist, is the volunteer coordinator for Honeymoon. She said she receives hundreds of applications every year from RVers wanting to volunteer at Honeymoon. Her job, she said, is to assess park needs, “mainly grounds maintenance and help with special events,” then match these with the skills and abilities of applicants. After she has made a tentative selection, she generally insists on a person-to-person interview.

Once they’ve been accepted, volunteers – who usually sign on for between two and five months at a stretch – are given a two-hour orientation that provides information about safety, what will be expected of them, how hours are reported and more.

Guy and I can’t think of a more perfect arrangement: a few hours’ pleasant work in exchange for a campsite in paradise. It might be too soon for us to retire – but probably not a minute too soon to send in an application.

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