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.
We took the 20-minute ferry ride to the island, crossing the sound, and following a mangrove-bordered canal to the island marina. Most people jump off the ferry and beat a quick path to the beach. We decided to explore the interior of the island first, heading to the 2½-mile nature trail, and the maze of inland paths, with Krulder as our guide. The island, he said, was once home to the Calusa, Timucuan, and Tocobago tribes. An ancient burial mound and early implements made from shells have been discovered here, dating some 4,000 years.
During the late 1800s, homesteader Henry Scharrer and his daughter Myrtle lived on the island, and remnants of their home and farms remain. Myrtle, at 87, wrote about her life on Caladesi in the book “Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise,” and members of the Scharrer family still visit the island from time to time. Though several developers have tried to get their hands on Caladesi, public sentiment and some hard-working locals have fought to preserve it.
As we walked along the sandy path, lined with sabal palms and bushy saw palmettos, we spotted raccoon tracks and scat, and caught a glimpse of a gopher tortoise as it scampered across the trail and into the brush. Gopher tortoises are plentiful on the island, so are snakes. “We have a lot of Eastern diamondback rattlers,” Krulder said. “But, don’t worry, they’re pretty shy.”
We passed prickly pear cactus plants, goldenrod, and American beautyberry, once used to color women’s cheeks, and stopped by a tidal pond filled with snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills. The island provides important habitat for migrating songbirds, too. “In spring, thousands of songbirds stop on the island,” Krulder said. “In the fall, the tidal creeks are loaded with wading birds.” Loggerhead and green sea turtles use the beach for nesting.
We veered right on the trail, skirting a picturesque mangrove creek, and crossed the bridge over Cat’s Eye Pond. Ahead we caught our first glimpse of the award-winning beach: a wide swath of white sand and thick shell beds, lined with dunes and native plants — and not a building or concession stand in sight. The beach stretches undisturbed for 3 miles; birds, including oystercatchers, black skimmers, and terns outnumber people by far. We resisted plopping down in the soft, sun-warmed sand, and instead followed Krulder back to the nature trail, and into a forest of towering slash pines, some 200 years old. “There was no cutting on Caladesi,” Krulder explained, “this is one of the few remaining virgin stands of slash pine in this area.” Later, we entered a hardwood forest, home to bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons.
And then, we ran out of time. Visitors are only allowed to stay on the island for up to four hours, and are assigned an allotted time for the return ferry. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as we now had time to check out the lovely town of Dunedin, filled with locally-owned shops, restaurants, scenic parks, and a waterfront boardwalk. We grabbed a table on the deck at Olde Bay Cafe, overlooking the Dunedin Marina, and ordered fresh-caught fish tacos as we watched boats come and go. We walked a portion of the Pinellas Trail, and checked out a handful of interesting shops, including the Stirling Art Studios & Gallery, showcasing the work of a dozen or so local artists.
The next day, we returned to the island. This time, we rented kayaks at the island marina to explore the 3-mile-long water trail. Leaving the marina, we paddled inland into narrow, dark, and shallow tunnels. These manmade creeks and ponds were dug in the 1960s to help control mosquito breeding. We can tell you, it didn’t work. We swatted buzzing, biting bugs and kept alert for snakes on the banks, as we slowly made our way, sometimes pulling and pushing the kayaks through the skinny mangrove waterways. It was an eerie trip inland, before breaking out into open water near the east and south end of the island. We returned the kayaks a couple of hours later, and ended the day right where we wanted to be: checking out why the beach on Caladesi was ranked the best in America. We wouldn’t argue.