By Laura Spinale
Voted one of the top beaches in the U.S., Caladesi Beach, Florida is a pristine, undeveloped island haven off the coast of Clearwater Beach.
One of Florida's few remaining undeveloped barrier islands, Caladesi Island State Park is rich with beauty and tranquility. Warm breezes rifle through lone palms and patches of sea oats. Shore birds call above crystal waters. The soft white sand on Caladesi beach beckons you to sink in, to rest a while.
It's my idea of a perfect beach, and that's not just because I live close enough to practically be its neighbor. Dr. Beach, also known as Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman (head of the National Healthy Beaches Campaign), agrees that Caladesi is a special breed in terms of water quality, sand quality and beach management. He consistently ranks the island - just off the coast of Dunedin, north of Clearwater Beach - as one of the nation's top 10 beaches. In 2006, it reached the lofty status of #2 and was ranked America's Top Beach in 2008.
Best of all, it's possible to find total peace in this paradise. If you go to Caladesi Beach, Florida during the week, you're likely to find yourself virtually alone. Soak up the solitude - others have.
In ancient times, the island was used by the Tocobago Native American tribe as a burial ground. After Europeans arrived on these shores in 1613, the island was vacated. It remained that way until the late 1800s, when a Swiss immigrant built his homestead here. His daughter, Myrtle Scharrer Betz, penned a memoir of growing up on the island called Yesteryear I Lived In Paradise. (The book is often in stock at the Caladesi Café, which also serves a mean cheeseburger.)
You don't have to do anything on Caladesi Island. That's the joy of its three-mile beachfront. But, if you choose, you can actually, oh, get up, enjoy a picnic lunch under the pavilions and go angling, kayaking, birding or hiking through several distinct habitats.
On Caladesi Beach, FL
Half the fun of any daytrip to Caladesi is the journey. (And yes, I know this has been said before, and better.) But the adage holds particularly true for Caladesi: it is accessible only by boat, a ferry that runs hourly from Honeymoon Island. (If you're of the yachting class, enjoy the island's 110-slip marina. Boat camping available.) The 15-minute ride over increases the sense of destination, of discovery. Take in the Florida breezes during your crossing, enjoy the shade of the ferry's canopy and listen to the ferry captain wax poetic about the sights.
After you disembark, walk past the café and follow a path down to the crescent of soft white sand that forms Caladesi Island's award-winning beachfront. Basking on the island is often enough of an outing for me (assuming, of course, I can take occasional forays into the calm, azure Gulf waters, in which I often summon the energy to float).
If you want more activity, try some birding. Caladesi Island is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Spot terns, gulls, osprey and other shorebirds. Deeper into the island's interior, among its mangroves, you can also spot a plethora of wading birds, including herons and egrets.
If you enjoy beachcombing, you've come to the right spot. I've lived in Florida too long to get excited by sea shells and driftwood, but plenty of others love scanning the sand in search of take-home treasures: sand dollars and mollusk shells abound, and the sharp-eyed can even spot the occasional sea sponge.
Despite the island's often secluded feel, it's actually equipped with its fair share of creature comforts. You'll find bathhouses and picnic tables (picnic pavilions can be reserved for a fee) as well as unexpected little touches of luxury – the café rents beach chairs and umbrellas. So all you need to bring is your towel and sunscreen.
Off the Sand
On one of the nation's best beaches, you're going to want to spend time building sandcastles and splashing around. Still, if you do step away from the Gulf, you'll find much to explore on Caladesi's roughly 650 upland acres and 1,800 wetland acres. A kayaking trail gives you a water view of the island's mangrove forests, while a 2.5-mile nature trail meanders through a variety of habitats, including slash-pine forests. No surprise, opportunities for animal spotting abound. Keep your eyes peeled for gopher tortoises, armadillos and the occasional snake.
All this activity leaves me tired, and hungry. I ride the ferry home, the sun low on the horizon, remembering Caladesi's natural beauty, and dreaming of pizza and frosty beverages on Clearwater Beach.