Castaway for a Day

Spend a day on the keys and islands off the coast of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area.

You don't need the SS Minnow or a scandalous island temptation to escape everyday life. As an alternative to a Tahiti vacation my husband, James, and I sought to find our fantasy island closer to home - the keys and islands of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area.

As year-round residents of St. Petersburg we, and as locals anywhere tend to do, had little experience exploring the beauty that was mere minutes from our urban home. We began with what's the most celebrated island of the area, Caladesi Island. The island's solitary beaches regularly rank on the nation's Top 10 beaches list composed by Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, a Florida International University coastal geologist. (In fact, Caladesi was ranked the No. 1 beach in the USA in 2008.)

Island Beaches and Forest

We pack a picnic, sunscreen and our curiosity, and then drive to Honeymoon Island State Park where the Caladesi Island passenger ferry departs. For $14 each, we take the 20-minute ferry ride to an island that would make the "Survivor" cast envious.

Not completely undeveloped, the marina, a section of Caladesi, has bathhouses, picnic pavilions, a concession stand and docks where the ferry lands.

It's a weekday, so we share the island with only a park ranger a handful of French tourists. On the Gulf side, we find ourselves alone on three miles of undisturbed sandy beaches that glisten in the ever-present sunshine.

Later, we explore the island's forest of 100-year-old live oaks and of slash pines on a three-mile hike along the park's nature trail. James, being a former crew champion, is eager to kayak, so after enjoying our picnic lunch back on the beach, we rent kayaks from the park concession, who gives us a map of the three-mile canoe/kayak trail.

The trail leads through mangrove canals and seagrass flats along the bay side of the island. In places the mangroves are so thick that they form tunnels, which are teeming with birds and small fish. The trail is marked at intersections with numbered white plastic poles that direct the way you should turn. We have no problem navigating our way back in time for a return ferry ride.

Wildlife Watching and Picnicking

The following day, we give our arms a break and take a passenger ferry from Pass-A-Grille to Shell Key Preserve, which is within sight of the Skyway Bridge. The island is primitive: no restrooms, no water fountains and no pavilions. But we find it is well worth the lack of conveniences.

We stroll alongside translucent blue waters amidst birds we had never seen on the mainland. They chirp, squawk and leave tiny claw prints in the sand. (A coastal area is protected for nesting birds.) The waters are clear; we see a sting ray the size of a Frisbee dust up sand and hover along the ocean's bottom.

Farther around the island from our drop-off point, we discover towering natural dunes topped with sea oats fronting a cluster of slash pines and palms. It's a perfect place to spread your towel for a romantic picnic. Professor and Mary Ann never had it so good.

A Dog Beach and Historic Fort

Feeling guilty for leaving our water-loving dog child at home, the third day we load her up and venture to an island that we can reach by car - Mullet Key, commonly known as Fort De Soto Park.

This 1,136-acre county park was rated "America's #1 Beach" for 2005 by Dr. Beach and includes bike trails, hiking paths, fishing piers and a real military fort, as well as a dog beach. We leash our golden retriever, Sassy, and explore the fort built during the Spanish-American war. The remaining huge cannons and thick stone walls leave no room for wimps. We climb in and above this military castle and peer out across the Gulf in search of pirate ships.

A constant tug on the leash tells me that Sassy is ready to make swim history. Although it's only a short distance away, we drive to the parking lot at the dog beach and watch Sassy smile as she splashes in the surf.

Just down the beach a passenger ferry departs for Egmont Key State Park, home to a Civil War fort and the last government-manned lighthouse. Canines aren't allowed on the ferry, so we pack our happy wet dog with plans to explore the 440-acre island wildlife refuge the next time we need to become castaways.

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