It sounds like the premise of a reality show: Entice newlywed couples to compete for the chance at a stay in a thatched bungalow (say, “Love Nest” or “Couple’s Paradise”) on a beach-y island along with a few other recently hitched folks, arrange some sponsorships, and revisit them later to see who’s still together. Add a couple of crazy exes and you’ve got the next “Bachelor in Paradise,” maybe?
Except that this happened in 1940, on what is still known as “Honeymoon Island,” a barrier island attached to Dunedin, Fla., by causeway. Among the couples who vied for the honors were Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, who were rejected because they’d been married too long (four months), and a couple of former Munchkins from “The Wizard of Oz.” The Munchkins were chosen, and had a tiny cabin built to accommodate them.
“It was the first reality show, for better or worse,” says Vinnie Luisi of the Dunedin History Museum (www.dunedinhistory.org). Honeymoon Island’s romantic history goes back to 1921, when a hurricane split a chunk of land in the Gulf of Mexico in two. It became two islands: Caladesi and Hog Island. A New York developer named Clinton Washburn purchased the nearly 400-acre Hog Island — reachable only by boat — in 1939 for $25,000. “He intended to flip it, but this was during the Great Depression. So Washburn decided to change its name to Honeymoon Island and make it a honeymoon destination,” Luisi says.
To promote his romantic island paradise, Washburn hatched a contest in which engaged couples or those married less than three months could vie for a weeklong stay in one of 25 seaside bungalows. LIFE Magazine agreed to cover it, and thousands of letters came in from hopeful couples in search of a free island idyll. “The couple paid nothing, but they were required to have a sponsor, such as the Kiwanis Club, pay their transportation,” Luisi says.
Couples arrived by boat with much fanfare (and LIFE Magazine flashbulbs popping) to a row of thatched huts on the beach. Each hut was outfitted with a bed, table and chairs, a bureau, and a Butane stove, so honeymooners could cook their own meals. To mark their arrival, couples signed their names in lipstick on a wooden heart. To hear Luisi tell it, life on Honeymoon Island sounds pretty sweet — with nobody throwing flip-flops or other drama. “Couples fished and went out in boats,” Luisi explains. “At nighttime, they had campfires and couples had to sing a song and do a hula dance. Then they’d pick a king or queen of the island.”
Alas, the fun came to a halt. Says Peter Krulder, park manager at what is now Honeymoon Island State Park: “The whole world changed with World War II. The island was used as an R&R facility for defense plant workers. It even had a runway,” he notes. After the war, he says, “the island was left to its own devices.” Developers wanted to condo-ize it, and built a few condos in the 1960s, he says. “This park has been plowed over in an effort to develop it.” In 1981, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection made it a state park, working to restore the island to its natural state.
About 1.5 million visitors come to the park each year, and it’s a safe bet that all appreciate the natural beauty of the former Hog Island. Near the top of Florida’s barrier island chain, this landscape of ocean-lapped dunes holds one of the last remaining old-growth pine forests in the state. “We have a 195-year-old slash pine here that sprouted when James Monroe was president,” Krulder says. The island is home to nesting bald eagles, great horned owls, osprey, and plenty of rattlesnakes, he notes — “in all, more than 500 species of plants and animals on this barrier island,” including some threatened and endangered species. Not to mention, four miles of beautiful beach.
Although guests can now drive to Honeymoon Island by car, some arrive via bicycle (the island is reachable via the Pinellas Trail rail trail), plus there’s a new bike path within the state park. Guests can rent bikes and kayaks, and wander a three-mile trail through the pine forest. There’s also a nature center, snack bar, and nature programs during the high season, October through March. No lodging, though. Those honeymoon huts are long gone. “But people visit on their honeymoons,” staying at nearby resorts, “and we do lots of weddings on the beach,” Krulder says. “The romantic tradition has started again.”
As for those former honeymooners: “We had a reunion 10 years ago, and about seven couples showed up,” Luisi says. “When we chatted with those couples, they told us they got off to a great start on Honeymoon Island, so they knew they’d have the perfect life together.” Their experience is chronicled in displays at the Dunedin History Museum and the Honeymoon Island Nature Center.
Maybe it’s a dash of Clinton Washburn-esque PR, but both Luisi and Krulder — not to mention other Dunedians — swear that there’s something special in the salt-kissed air of Honeymoon Island. And there’s data to back that up: “Over 200 couples got married here back in the day, and not a single couple got divorced,” Krulder says.
So if you’re looking to make love last, you could do worse than Honeymoon Island. Just watch out for the email@example.com.