If you're picky about your beaches, Caladesi and Honeymoon Islands give you the kind of natural, secluded escape you're looking for.
Living in a state with so many beaches, Floridians can afford to be picky. I'm talking pristine - the kind of retreat that pays off in sweat equity. If you're willing to paddle, haul the folding chair long past the parking lot or drive almost to a different time zone, I have the reward.
In the shadow of Clearwater Beach are the tandem treats of Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island state parks. I usually save Caladesi Island State Park for special times like a difficult birthday. It's the kind of place where time moves as slowly as the burrowing gopher tortoises that live here.
Caladesi Island State Park – Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater
Caladesi and I first met during a mid-life crisis (mine), when I followed her tranquil shoreline to the Gulf of Mexico and cured a persistent bout with the blues in the process.
While it seems just a shell's throw away from Honeymoon Island, it is best to take your time getting to Caladesi. You can launch a kayak from the Dunedin Causeway, take the ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park or even wade over from Pier 60 (although many find the six-mile trek a one-way venture and call friends to pick them up).
The ferry begins running at 10 a.m. every day, with numerous returns and departures. Visitors typically can stay for four hours, weather permitting.
Play on the beach– Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater
For first-timers, it's probably best to take the ferry over from Honeymoon. And pay attention to the skipper. The storyline of Caladesi is almost as interesting as the landscape. The island was once home to a family who sent a little girl off to school each day in a skiff. That pioneer, salt-spray-in-your-face feeling still lingers on this wild oasis, though today there are restrooms and even a place to get a snack. Floating aluminum docks are tucked neatly on the island's sheltered backside.
With three miles of nature trails and three miles of kayak trails, Caladesi has evolved gracefully over the years, embracing the concept of a user-friendly preserve.
Still, before you get too comfortable – or citified – the signs along the path to the beach quickly remind you that this is just a place to visit. There are no hotels here. You'll find those to the south on bright and busy Clearwater Beach. The closest trendy downtown is on the mainland in Dunedin.
Explore the area – Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater
Relax. Sun. Swim. Go shelling along the stretch of beach that juts toward the Gulf. But remember this island belongs to the real natives - birds and, yes, even things that slither. Notices posted along walkways remind you that the thick interior brush is home to rattlesnakes. That little chill up your spine won't last long, though. By the time you make it to the sea oats and shoreline, your thoughts will turn to blissful waves and blue skies.
Caladesi and her sister, Honeymoon Island, were separated in a 1921 hurricane that created the aptly named Hurricane Pass. You'll find Honeymoon Island just over the Dunedin Causeway from the mainland.
Here on the Osprey Trail you can get a rare look at a Florida virgin slash pine stand. The park tends to have few sunbathers and is known to locals as a place to go when Clearwater Beach gets busy.
Honeymoon is friendly to critters, offering a dog beach that is a half-mile hike off the main road. Like Caladesi, there are useful amenities, including two bath houses and one cafe. Honeymoon, however, can be a bit rocky in parts. If you want privacy, the trick is to move farther and farther from the wood shelters and trust your Tevas to find a spot.
Or, you could check out these islands from my favorite perspective: by kayak. The paddle out to the Gulf varies from day to day. Sometimes the configuration of shores, tide and wind make it a test. Other mornings you do little more than plunk a paddle in the water as you stroke away your troubles.
So don't wait for a birthday. Or a crisis. Think of these gems as mental maintenance.