Go early in the morning to Honeymoon Island State Park and to her sister park on Caladesi Island. That’s when you’ll see fishermen launching colorful kayaks and great blue herons working the beaches off the Dunedin Causeway.
You’ll see bikers and walkers heading out for morning adventures on an extension of the Pinellas Trail that runs along the causeway, and paddleboarders gracefully gliding across St. Joseph Sound, the sparkling blue waters connecting the parks.
One morning, we saw a couple in church clothes baptizing a woman out in the water. They dunked her backward, then hugged her when she rose soaking wet and smiling. It was like a scene from the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — but with rapt spectators in swimsuits.
In the morning, if you’re lucky, you might see a pair of American bald eagles and a great horned owl while walking along the Osprey Trail in Honeymoon Island State Park, at the west end of the Dunedin Causeway. You’re sure to see dozens of osprey soaring overhead, nesting in tall pines and swooping into the Gulf waters for breakfast.
The slash pine stand that surrounds the trail is one of the few left in this part of Florida.
On the ferry ride to Caladesi Island via Hurricane Pass, you’ll likely see dolphins and pelicans, herons and egrets, as the captain tells about the hurricane of 1921 that split Hog Island in two, forming Caladesi and Honeymoon islands. When he sees dolphins, which he often does, the captain slowly glides the ferry their way, so passengers can snap photos with their smartphones.
The ride takes about 20 minutes and is well worth the $14 fee, especially if you spot dolphins. You also can walk to Caladesi from North Clearwater Beach. The stretch along the Gulf on baby powder-like sand takes about an hour. We like to park between Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar and Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, walk to Caladesi, then head back for lunch in one of those restaurants. Along the way, look for a dead tree whimsically hung with dozens of seashells.
Beaches in both parks rank among the best in the country, and that’s no surprise to those who visit year-round. Look around the parking lots at Honeymoon, and you’ll see cars from Kentucky, Ontario, Michigan — and Maine, Massachusetts and North Carolina, where they have remarkable beaches of their own.
You can rent chairs and umbrellas on the beach at both parks, if you don’t have your own. And you can stroll for hours, searching for seashells and sand dollars — make sure they aren’t still alive — or just enjoying the sea breezes. If you head to Caladesi on an early ferry on a weekday in the off-season, you may at times feel as though you practically have the beach to yourself.
When you’re hungry, both beaches boast snack bars that sell everything from hot dogs, hamburgers and fish sandwiches to ice cream and beer. When Stephen Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, ranked Caladesi as the nation’s best beach in 2008, he joked that he picked it in part because the snack bar sold Haagen-Dazs ice cream, his favorite.
Don’t rush. Take time to visit both islands, for each offers unique experiences. Honeymoon Island State Park has the Rotary Centennial Nature Center, which features exhibits and films telling of the islands’ history, their tree and plant life, and the critters that live there, including everything from rattlesnakes and raccoons to gopher tortoises and roseate spoonbills.
Recently, on Osprey Trail, we saw a gopher tortoise nestled right next to a sign with a drawing of a gopher tortoise on it and a bio that said they “dig burrows 10 to 35 feet long and 3 to 20 feet deep.” Visitors from Washington, D.C., wondered aloud whether the park planted the tortoise next to the sign. Someone else joked that it wasn’t real at all, but stuffed.
A bulletin board in the nature center lists the birds spotted each day by rangers, park volunteers and visitors. On any given day, the list includes eagles, owls and osprey, along with woodpeckers, pelicans, oyster catchers, skimmers and cormorants. The center also offers workshops on making rain barrels and identifying shells.
Works by local painters and photographers are on sale there, too, along with T-shirts, hats, puzzles, books and other items. Volunteers eagerly answer questions and encourage visitors to watch short films about the parks.
Steve Goldman, a retired electrical engineer who has volunteered at the center for two years, says, “We not only volunteer here, we hang out here.”
He goes to the park, even on his days off, to eat breakfast. Then he hikes the trails and chronicles the birds he sees for the center’s bulletin board.
Quietly walking the trails alone centers him, he says. But he seems to enjoy being among visitors, too. After chatting with some recently, he thanked them for stopping by, then called out as they were leaving: “Come back! This is your nature center!”
Volunteer Deb Danks discovered the park on a bike ride shortly after she retired as a school psychologist in Iowa and moved to Dunedin. She liked it so much, she became a volunteer so she could spend more time there. That was six years ago, and she says she still puts her experience working with children to good use by helping out with boys and girls taking part in the center’s educational programs.
“When I’m not volunteering, I like to walk the beach,” she says. “And I enjoy meeting people who come here from all over the world. I learn as much from them as they do from me.”
A 15-minute loop trail outside the center skirts the sound, mangroves, saw palmettos, pines, cabbage palms and prickly-pear cacti. One time, we saw a gopher tortoise slowly strolling along the sand in the middle of the path.
Hikers will find plenty to see along the Osprey and Pelican trails. Together, the paths can take more than an hour to hike, but you can walk as long as you’d like. Be sure to walk the 20 minutes or so to see the bald eagle nest safely high up in a tree behind a protective fence. Just about every day during the winter, photographers are there shooting it and are often happy to let you look through their lenses at the eaglets. (This year, there were two). Take binoculars if you have them, but if you don’t, many birders will offer you theirs.
On the trail, you’ll likely meet people from all over the country and beyond — all excited about seeing so many birds on one stroll. Not long ago, we met a couple from Washington state on their second visit to the park in a week. They walked us back down the trail to show us the great horned owl we missed high in a pine, so camouflaged we would have never seen him on our own.
Don’t miss Pelican Trail, which juts off Osprey Trail and wends across soft white sand and grass bordering the Gulf. You’ll see more osprey nests, horseshoe crabs, maybe a little blue heron and, more likely, mullet jumping from the tranquil Gulf. Sometimes, profusions of yellow wildflowers border the trail.
Benches donated in memory of or in honor of loved ones line both trails and offer a comfortable place to sit and look at the scenery or to read a book.
Dogs on leashes are allowed on the trails. Honeymoon also has a dog beach, popular among all breeds. Our neighbors sometimes pack their car up with their pup, a wagon and a picnic dinner to sit on dog beach and watch the sunset.
Both parks also have picnic areas, shelters, playgrounds and bathhouses.
Caladesi Island has a 3-mile nature trail, lined with saw palmettos, pines, sable palms, wax myrtles, cacti and beach daisies, stretching across the middle of the island. One of the highlights is a double-trunk pine tree called the Harp Tree, photographed by the Scharrer family when they lived on the island from 1895 to 1935 and little Myrtle Scharrer went to school on the mainland in a boat.
Her book, “Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise,” is sold in both parks. Her cookbook, “Caladesi Cookbook — Recipes From a Florida Lifetime — 1895-1992,” is for sale in Honeymoon’s nature center.
Caladesi park also rents kayaks and offers maps showing a 3-mile kayak trail that wends through mangroves and into the bay. At the marina, boats can moor overnight for a fee, and boaters can use a bathhouse and order from the snack bar.
Caladesi, like Honeymoon, is a popular place for weddings. In fact, Honeymoon got its name when a New York businessman bought the northern end of the island in 1938 and advertised a contest in Life magazine for couples to win honeymoons there.
Honeymooners started arriving in 1940 — staying in thatched-roofed bungalows — and came faithfully until World War II stopped the flow and the island became a resort for factory workers in need of R&R.
Now, many couples marry on the parks’ beaches, often at sunset. Friends of ours married on Honeymoon’s beach one blustery, overcast October night with a double rainbow overhead. Everyone saw it as a good omen.
Most people feel lucky to be on the beaches whether it’s overcast or sunny, as it is on most days.
Visiting from Manhattan in the dead of a bad winter, Joan Macri describes Honeymoon Island as “just magical. I’ve seen things today I don’t normally see in Manhattan,” she says. “This is a place to clear your head and to learn. I’m so thankful that they preserved this land. It’s a great gift for people who don’t live here and for those who are fortunate enough to live here.”