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Outdoors

Comfortably roughing it

By RODNEY PAGE
Published May 28, 2004

SARASOTA - It is late spring, and most of the camp sites at Myakka River State Park are empty on this muggy evening. Some recreational vehicles dot the park's outdoor sites, but for the most part few campers brave the Florida heat and buzzing mosquitoes.

The five camping cabins, however, are full. Air-conditioning units hum along with the crickets and owls. A refrigerator keeps the beverages and food cool. Two queen-size beds make getting through the night a little easier.

For those not willing, or not crazy enough, to brave the heat, camping cabins are the way to go. And judging by the long list of people wanting to reserve one, they are not a secret.

"All of our camping sites are popular, but the cabins especially so now that we're getting close to summer," Myakka River State Park naturalist Paula Benshoff said. "The cabins draw a different kind of camper, and they want to enjoy the park and also be comfortable in a cabin."

At Mayakka River State Park, less than an hour's drive from St. Petersburg, the cabins have a rustic feel with modern amenities. The cabins were built in the 1930s to house the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped turn the land into a state park. Shortly thereafter the cabins became available to rent.

They are built from the trunk of cabbage palm trees and are held together with tar and sawdust. There are even some small spots on the walls where a camper can see through the tar to the outdoors.

A few conveniences have been added over the years, including air conditioning and heaters, electric stoves, refrigerators, fireplaces, bathrooms and showers. There is a good-sized porch overlooking the woods, a grill and picnic table. There is even one cabin that is handicap accessible.

But there are no televisions or telephones, so technically it is still roughing it.

"We had televisions about three or four years ago, but a lightning storm blew out four of them," Benshoff said. "And campers complained about the TVs anyway. Some were disappointed to find there were TVs while they were camping. After the lightning, we just got rid of them."

Reserving cabins at any of the 13 state parks that offer them is not easy. Reservations are taken 11 months in advance. At Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys, it's wise to have the cabin reservation phone number on speed dial. All three of the duplex cabins are booked for the next 11 months.

"We have a lot of repeat customers who have their calendars marked and know exactly when they need to call," Bahia Honda Park Services Specialist Monay Markey said. "They're popular for a lot of reasons. They have the kitchen and showers and air conditioning, but they're also right on the boat basin. We used to have an offseason rate for them, but there really is no offseason anymore."

According to the Florida Bureau of Design and Recreational Services in Tallahassee, there are 143 new vacation cabins being built throughout the Florida state park system. Once built, those are sure to fill up fast.

Until then, it would be wise to plan ahead to secure a cabin.

"It's not the kind of thing you can just call a day or week ahead of time and get," Benshoff said. "They are too much in demand."

CAMPING CABINS IN FLORIDA

WHERE: Cabins are available at these state parks: Bahia Honda, Blue Spring, Cayo Costa, Gold Head Branch, Grayton Beach, Hontoon Island, Jonathan Dickinson, Myakka River, Oleta River, Silver River, St. Joseph Peninsula and Topsail Hill.

FEES: The cost for each park varies. Generally the fees are between $40 and $80 a night. Bahia Honda is the most expensive at $120 per night plus tax and local fees.

RESERVATIONS: To make reservations up to 11 months in advance, call 1-800-326-3521 or log on to www.reserveamerica.com CAPACITY: Most cabins have a maximum capacity of six. No fur-bearing animals are permitted in state parks except specially trained dogs to assist people with disabilities.

WHAT TO EXPECT: Most are log cabins with modern amenities. There are air conditioners and fireplaces, refrigerators, stoves, toilets and showers. Most do not come with televisions or telephones. There are also primitive cabins at some parks that do not have modern conveniences.

[Last modified May 28, 2004, 01:00:27]


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