HONEYMOON ISLAND — Peter Krulder is no salesman. As the manager of Florida's most visited state park, his product sells itself.
"I guess you could say we have it all," said Krulder, who not only works but also lives on Honeymoon Island, "… great water, beautiful beaches, a fantastic nature trail … what's not to love?"
In the fiscal year 2013-14, which ended June 30, Honeymoon Island had 1,144,285 visitors, making it Florida's most popular state park for the eighth year in a row.
People come for the 4 miles of beaches and the 3-mile nature trail, which also happens to be a great place to see osprey, bald eagles and great horned owls. The raptors love the 80-acre slash pine forest, a reminder of what "Pine-Ellas County" must have looked like at the turn of the century.
"We also have one of the best snook fishing spots on the west coast," Krulder said. "The numbers aren't huge but the fish are."
When tropical storms roll up from the south or cold fronts barrel down from the north, the tip of the island turns into one of the area's best surf breaks.
"It is so good we decided to install a wave cam," Krulder explained. "The surfers love it, but it is also a great way to see the sunset without leaving home."
Honeymoon Island is also the headquarters for other nearby state parks including Anclote Key and Caladesi Island, both popular destinations for Tampa Bay-area boaters. Anclote Key, which lies to the north of Honeymoon, has one of the best primitive camping spots in the state. You can only get there by boat, so that ensures a certain degree of privacy.
South of Honeymoon, you will find Caladesi. The two islands were once connected and part of a larger land mass called Hog Island, but a hurricane in 1921 cut the island in two. The cut that was created, Hurricane Pass, is the major route to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico for boaters in the Clearwater/Dunedin area.
Barrier islands such as Caladesi, Honeymoon and Anclote are in a constant state of change, growing and shrinking with each passing storm, which makes them a challenge to navigate. But while the area may be challenging for boaters, stand-up paddlers and kayakers will find the waterways a veritable playground.
While Caladesi, just like Honeymoon, may be best known for its 3-mile beach, visitors find plenty to explore inland. The state park, which is composed of six islands, has more than 650 acres of uplands, some as high as 11 feet above sea level, a rarity among barrier islands.
The high ground made the area appealing to pre-Columbian Indians and later to Spanish explorers. In the early 1900s, Myrtle Scharrer Betz, a member of a homesteading family, found some ballast bricks, a length of chain and some pieces of a jar the Smithsonian Institute dated to the 15th Century.
This led to rumors of conquistadores and pirates, but when archaeologists dug on the west side of the island in 1903 all they found were 33 skeletons, probably Tocobago, the dominant tribe in the region.
Boaters can approach Caladesi from the gulf side or drop anchor off the beach or follow the channel markers to the 108-slip marina on the east side. Overnight docking with electricity and water hookups is available, but boaters must register before sundown. The marina has no fuel facilities, but a concession stand has food and drinks.
If you would rather leave your boat at home, Caladesi Island is accessible by a ferry that departs daily from Honeymoon Island. There is an entrance fee for the park and an additional charge for the ferry.
Your best bet is to get to Honeymoon early — the park opens at 8 a.m. — hike the nature trail while it is still cool, go for a dip on the beach, then hop the ferry for Caladesi. Eat lunch at the snack bar, stroll through the hardwood hammocks and then go for another swim. Take the last ferry back and then watch the sunset from Honeymoon. You could not plan a better day.