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Ever wonder what Florida looked like when the Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s? Florida without the condos, the motels and the theme parks?

Hiking on nature trail
Hiking on nature trail
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Then spend a day on Caladesi Island State Park, just north of Clearwater Beach FL, about five kilometers (three-miles) off the Gulf Coast from Dunedin.

Except for early Indian inhabitants and a homesteader in the 1800s, Caladesi Island was never settled. In 1968, Florida purchased it for a state park for $2.9 million.

Directions to Caladesi Island

Dunedin Causeway connects the mainland to Honeymoon Island State Park. We boarded a ferry on Honeymoon Island for the 20-minute ride to Caladesi Island. (It's only accessible by boat.) Cormorants perched on poles at the dock, while herons waded in the water, unperturbed by our presence.

Visitors may spot dolphins leaping alongside the ferry, but they won't see any alligators. (Florida's 'gators only live in fresh water.) Closer to Caladesi Island, ospreys dive for fish and carry them in their talons to their nests.

Kayak trip

The 600-acre Caladesi Island State Park is on one of the last undeveloped barrier islands in Florida. Beaches, on the Gulf of Mexico side, are ideal for sunbathing, beachcombing, shelling and swimming. A five-kilometer (three-mile) kayak trail winds through the mangrove swamp and bay, on the other side.

Saltwater anglers can fish from the shore or their boats. Caladesi marina provides water and electricity hookups.

At the ranger station, we picked up a map and brochures describing the sea oats and sea beans along the beach. We also viewed a display of shells found on Caladesi Island.

Strolling on Caladesi beach
Strolling on Caladesi beach
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The beach is the main reason to come to Caladesi Island. It's very white, very wide, very clean and as soft as baby powder. Because the Gulf of Mexico is rarely rough, the beach is perfect for swimming.

Boardwalks provide access from the beaches to the change houses and picnic and playground areas, while protecting the fragile dunes and sea oats.

Caladesi Island State Park was named one of the top two beaches in America in a Best Beaches survey authored by coastal geologist Dr. Stephen Leatherman (Dr. Beach) of Florida International University.

Hiking trail

We hiked along the self-guided five-kilometer (three-mile) nature trail that loops through the virgin pine and oak hammocks in the interior of Caladesi Island. A sandy pathway winds around palms, cacti, water ponds and a mangrove swamp. Signs provide information about the plants.

Take the cabbage palm, for example. Indians and pioneers used the trunk for building log houses. They wove the leaves into hats and baskets. The heart, called the swamp cabbage, can be eaten raw or cooked, but this kills the tree so it's discouraged.

This is just the information you'd need if you were ever stranded on a tropical island. Indeed, we did feel like Robinson Crusoe on this trail. We met only one other couple on the entire route and heard no sounds other than the breezes ruffling the palms.

Caladesi wildlife

Except for a few birds, skittering sand crabs, two yellow butterflies and some hungry mosquitoes (bring repellent!), we saw no wildlife. A list in the ranger station identifies several more elusive creatures, including rabbits, frogs, toads, lizards, turtles and snakes. For the skeptical, there's a two-meter-long (6.5-foot-long) skin of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake mounted on the wall. "That's why signs warn you to stay on the pathways," says the ranger.

Family relaxes on beach.
Family relaxes on beach.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The final leg of the trail follows a pristine beach where we saw brown pelicans diving for fish. Frigatebirds, egrets and other wading and shore birds are best seen from boats near the mangrove swamps on the other side of the island.

Caladesi Island State Park is for day-use only, with a maximum time limit of four hours. But that's sufficient to hike the trail, have a swim, picnic and enjoy this unspoiled bit of Florida — just as Spanish explorers did more than 600 years ago.


St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB: www.VisitStPeteClearwater.com

Visit Florida: www.visitflorida.com

More things to see and do in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater & Tampa area:

Tarpon Springs - Greek Food, Sponges, Festivals

St Pete Dali Museum

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay - Caring for Baby Animals

Tampa Florida Museum Exhibit Blows You Away