Back to Nature: The Secluded Splendor of Caladesi Island
In the early 1800s, long before Florida became embedded in the nation’s collective consciousness as a vacationland of perpetual sunshine, pristine beaches and sparkling turquoise water, the soon-to-be 27th state was the last unpopulated frontier east of the Mississippi.
Swampy, hot as a furnace in the summertime, full of snakes and alligators, and with bugs that were as big as…well, as big as the hot water bottle moms used to warm up their children’s beds at night. Maybe even bigger.
At least, that’s what people said. And no one wanted to go there.
Then came 1842, when the government began to offer 160 acres of land to anyone willing to move there, stick a plow in the ground and cultivate. Settlers started to trickle in, and some went to the area north of what is now Tampa Bay. They named the area Clear Water Harbor, perhaps because of the freshwater springs – now gone – that tumbled down the bluffs and into the bay. “Clearwater” became one word in 1895, and in 1906, the word “Harbor” was dropped. Clearwater was incorporated in 1915.
Today, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metroplex boasts the second largest population in the entire Sunshine State, and the area welcomes well over 100 million visitors each year. It’s safe to say that it looks a bit different from what those early settlers saw. But Florida has not completely given up the ghost when it comes to preserving its pristine, natural beauty. It’s not all strip malls and balcony-saturated high rises glaring down at baking bodies on the beach. Part of the “final frontier” still remains, and there is no better place to see it than Caladesi Island.
Caladesi Island State Park
Caladesi is one of the few unspoiled barrier islands off Florida’s Gulf Coast. Its modern history is inextricably tied to two major hurricanes: one in 1921, which created “Hurricane Pass,” thus separating it from what is now Honeymoon Island to the north; and Hurricane Edna in 1985, which filled in Dunedin Pass and made the “island” accessible by foot from North Clearwater Beach. Aside from that pedestrian route, however, Caladesi Island State Park can only be reached by boat.
You can take a ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park, but many who visit the island choose to paddle over from the Dunedin Causeway in a rented kayak or on a paddle board. The short distance – about 20 minutes – is deceiving; once on the island, you’ll feel a million miles away from the work-a-day routine you’re trying so hard to forget about for a little while. On Caladesi, nothing could be easier.
Immerse yourself in the wildlife of the park. Dolphins can often be spotted frolicking close to shore, and it’s not unusual to see rays, sea turtles and hermit crabs going about their daily business. And be sure to bring your camera and binoculars, as Caladesi is a birder’s paradise. Along with waterfowl such as spoonbills, pelicans, herons, egrets, frigatebirds and cormorants, larger birds of prey such as ospreys, hawks, bald eagles and owls call Caladesi’s skies home. A hike along one of the nature trails may yield a rabbit, gopher tortoise, armadillo or wild turkey, and don’t be surprised if a black snake slithers across your path. A word of caution: rattlesnakes are among the park’s residents; they mainly live in the thick interior brush, but it’s a good idea to watch where you step, and keep an ear out for their distinctive warning that says, “Hey, buddy, you’re getting a little too close.”
Recreational activities in the park include boating, hiking, fishing, ranger-guided tours, picnicking and swimming.
Kayak/canoe trails meander through mangrove forests, emptying into both St. Joseph Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. Adventurous paddlers can venture out into the Gulf or take the three-mile loop to see the Scharrer Homestead Ruins. This old homestead dates back to the late 19th century, when the island was known as “Hog Island.” There is no camping in the park, but a 108-slip marina allows boaters to dock overnight.
If all that sun and paddling work up an appetite, stop into Cafe Caladesi, just a shell’s throw from the ferry dock. The cafe offers casual beach fare such as sandwiches, burgers, ice cream and fruit smoothies. Beach chairs, beach umbrellas and kayaks are available for rent, there are changing rooms and showers, and you can pick up a few trinkets and souvenirs in the gift shop.
Oh, the Beach
Any discussion of Caladesi State Park would be woefully incomplete without mentioning the beach, which runs for well over a mile along the entire western shore of the island. After all, it has shown up on lists of the top ten beaches in the nation, which are compiled by people who certainly know about that kind of thing. At least once, it made it to number one. A glorious swath of sun-drenched, palm-studded white sand is gently and perpetually massaged by the friendly waves of the Gulf. This is where locals go to escape the tourist crunch of Clearwater Beach Island. It’s quiet, remote, peaceful, and feels much farther away than the three-mile walk from Pier 60 would suggest. During the week, you’re likely to have the place practically to yourself.
There are no hotels, shopping malls or condos on Caladesi Island. In fact, the only permanent residents have fur, wings or scales. But that hasn’t always been the case. The last human residents of the island were the Sharrer family, mentioned above. Swiss immigrant Henry Sharrer, along with his wife and daughter Myrtle, lived there from the late 1800s until 1934, and during that time the island was affectionately called “Sharrer’s Island.” Many years later, Myrtle wrote a book about her life on the island. She titled it “Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise.” The book is, of course, available for purchase in the park’s gift shop.
Make Time for Me Time
The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area is a top tourist destination in Florida, and for good reason. Indulge in the shopping, nightlife and great cuisine, and explore all the nooks and crannies of these great towns. But be sure to take some time to de-stress, reassess, disconnect and reconnect. Step into a place where time means very little, a place where you can put your toes in the sand and hear nothing but the waves and the distant, plaintive cries of seabirds. Make time for me time on Caladesi Island.