CALADESI ISLAND, Fla. — “I bet not 10 percent of our visitors get out to this side of the island,” said Peter Krulder, Caladesi Island State Park manager. We were hiking a trail through coastal dunes and groves of ancient live oaks, leading into an upland slash pine forest. A gaggle of pink-hued roseate spoonbills and snowy white egrets were feeding in the nearby tidal flats; schools of mullet flip-flopped on the surface of the murky water; hawks, herons, and ospreys flew overhead. We stopped short when we heard something move, and then spotted a pair of armadillos wrestling in the bush. “This is my favorite place in the world,” Krulder said with a sweep of his hand. “This is where I come to escape.”
Caladesi Island State Park, a delightfully undeveloped barrier island, is one of the few completely natural islands remaining along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Measuring 3 miles long and up to a half-mile wide, the sun-drenched island, within the protected waters of St. Joseph Sound, boasts secluded mangrove forests, sea grass beds, tidal flats, windswept dunes, and one of the top-ranked beaches in the country. (So says Dr. Beach, Stephen Leatherman, who named Caladesi the number one beach in America in 2008.) It’s hard to believe that this still-wild gem (some call it Sanibel without the condos, hotels, and restaurants) is minutes from the charming center of Dunedin (pronounced duhn-EE-d’n) and about a 25-mile drive from bustling Tampa.