By Ellen Creager
Detroit Free Press
2:21 PM EST, February 20, 2013
Caladesi beach is a secret getaway in Florida, an undiscovered gem.
That's what I wanted to tell you, but honestly, I can't.
Why? The secret's out. Way out.
Since Caladesi Island State Park beach near Tampa/St. Petersburg was named the best beach in the United States several months ago, the hordes have descended.
"The first month, oh, man, it was insane," says park ranger Carl Calhoun, who hasn't seen anything like it in 25 years of working on the island. "It used to be slightly remote. Then, bam! People everywhere. Our phone was ringing off the hook. It started to look like Ft. Lauderdale Beach."
The hoopla started last May when the remote beach (pronounced Cal-a-DEE-see) -- reachable only by a 15-minute ferry ride -- was ranked No. 1 by Dr. Beach, otherwise known as Stephen Leatherman, director of the Laboratory of Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami.
Unlike many "best-of" lists invented by travel Web sites and TV shows, his influential list has actual science behind it, not advertisers.
In this case, the ranking impacted the modest beach. Suddenly, sleepy Caladesi's attendance skyrocketed nearly 43 percent. It attracted 100,000 ferry visitors in 2008, up from about 70,000 the year before.
This year, the trend should continue. Because Super Bowl XLIII is in nearby Tampa on Feb. 1, visitors will see TV promotions featuring the trophy sitting atop the waves on -- guess where? -- Caladesi beach (they stood the trophy on a clear plastic stand in the water). There's also a spot featuring Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders frolicking on -- guess where again? -- Caladesi beach.
In addition, this month Florida officials approved the first ferry service direct from busy Clearwater Beach to Caladesi Island.
All of this attention is something new for a beach that many tourists and Floridians have never visited -- or even heard of.
Set 26 miles west of Tampa on a palmetto-covered barrier island near the small town of Dunedin, Caladesi is a state park that has never seen a touch of neon. It s only structures are a humble ranger station and a concessions building with a gift shop and changing areas.
The big wow is the beach -- a 3-mile swath of pure white sand as creamy and soft as Jiffy Mix. Lie down, and it's like resting on a Tempur-Pedic bed.
"I am a native New Yorker. I grew up in Rockaway; I could look out my window and see the beach. I've grown up around beaches. And I can tell you, this is the best beach. It's relaxing. It's beautiful," says Grace Huhne of New Port Ritchie, Fla., who has visited Caladesi many times, this time bringing her daughter, friends and her parents for shell-collecting.
The beach itself is a wide strip of pure white, with thin ribbons of seaweed sometimes stretching the length of the sand. The shelling is good -- not quite as good as Sanibel Island in Ft. Myers, but decent. The water is aqua or turquoise or green, depending on how bright the sun is, with smallish waves and a gradual incline on the sandy bottom. At the north end is a huge half moon of sand, a generous fluffy-sand spot to park a beach chair and doze next to the gentle gulf.
There's also something enticing about a beach that lets you stay only four hours. That's a rule on Caladesi, because officials can't have everyone waiting until the last 60-person ferry of the day.
So you come, you stay four hours, you go home.
Caladesi was once connected to Honeymoon Island north of it until 1921, when a hurricane separated the two parts. In 1985, another storm filled in the area that separated Caladesi from Clearwater Beach to the south. Theoretically, you can walk onto Caladesi if you are willing to trek 3 miles from the nearest Clearwater road. Few do.
"Cala" in Spanish means cove, and the island's name, Caladesi -- which park officials translate as "beautiful bayou" (although no Spanish dictionary would agree) -- came from a Spanish ship's captain in 1628. Caladesi became a state park in 1967.
The island has hiking trails, but no cars, roads, houses or hotels. It also has rattlesnakes, rats, bees, poison ivy, cacti, armadillos, raccoons, turtles, tortoises, stingrays, mosquitoes and sand fleas.
The ranger station displays the skin of a giant rattler about 5 feet long and 4 inches wide.
Although remote, Caladesi does have a 110-boat marina. Visitors can rent kayaks to use on the island's interior mangrove waterways and rent beach chairs and umbrellas. Unlike Clearwater Beach 8 miles south, there are no volleyball nets, trampolines, bands or doughnuts.
"Most of our visitors go straight out the boardwalk to the beach right out front," Calhoun says. So if you walk a mile, you really can see the empty beach you came to see -- and have better shelling, too.
Since Caladesi got popular, changes have been occurring.
The only ferry service to the island always has been from Honeymoon Island. About 400-500 people a day go over on 60-passenger ferries that run every 30 minutes. This spring, an extra boat will reduce waiting time to 20 minutes, says Phil Henderson, owner of the Caladesi Island Connection ferry service for 22 years.
In addition, the new ferry service from the busy Clearwater Beach marina to Caladesi Island starts in mid-February, he says. For $50 round trip, it will include a dolphin encounter and a stop at the island.
"The hotels have been clamoring for this," Henderson says.
Can Caladesi handle it? Yes, say Calhoun and Henderson. The beach, remember, is 3 miles long. A lot of people can fit onto that beach.
Plus, the uniqueness of Caladesi requires visitors to do some planning .
"People call and say, 'Where can I put my RV, my 50-footer?' and I say, 'Well, we're an island,"' Calhoun says. "There is no overnight camping. No tent camping. No RV camping. No overnighting, except if you are on a boat, and you have to stay on the boat."
The power of the No. 1 ranking has impressed not just tourists to Florida, but locals too, Henderson says.
"This past year, quite a few came to take the ferry over, walk to the beach, take a picture and then turn around and go back.
"They didn't want to stay. They just wanted to see the No. 1 beach."
THREE BEACHES, THREE STYLES
Caladesi is not the only notable beach in the Tampa/St. Pete area. Also named No. 1 by many polls is Ft. DeSoto Park's North Beach and Clearwater Beach, known for its phenomenal sand quality and lively atmosphere.
In fact, a whole string of can't-go-wrong beaches starts at Honeymoon Island in Dunedin and runs south all the way to Naples.
Here's a short profile of three Tampa-area beaches:
-- Caladesi Island State Park Beach
Ranked No. 1 by Dr. Beach in 2008, it features a tranquil 3 miles of sugary pure white sand. Near: Dunedin and Clearwater.
Getting there: Take the causeway from Dunedin to Honeymoon Island State Park (entry $5), then follow signs to the ferry ($10 adults, $6 for children ages 4-12). Ferry runs 10 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. in winter; there are longer hours in summer. Call for times of last ferry to the island (727-734-1501) because it changes depending on time of the year.
Nearby lodging: Holiday Inn Express, Dunedin. www.holidayinn.com. More: www.floridastateparks.org, 727-469-5918.
-- Ft. DeSoto Park
Its North Beach was ranked No. 1 beach in America by Dr. Beach in 2005 and in 2008 by readers of the big travel Web site Trip Advisor. Incredibly gorgeous wide, powdery sand, long stretches for walking, no hassles. Perfect.
Near: Tierra Verde and St. Pete Beach.
Getting there: Take the Pinellas Bayway south to the end of the road. This county park is on the southern tip of the chain of barrier islands in the region. It costs just 35 cents per car to enter the park.
Nearby lodging: Camping is allowed at the park. For something upscale, try the Don CeSar Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach. www.doncesar.com.
More: www.pinellascounty.org, 727-582-2267.
-- Clearwater Beach
Rollicking city beach that's a favorite spot for fun-seekers. Everything from trampoline bungee jumping to fishing off Pier 60 to people watching makes it a lot of fun. Watch out for $1.25 per hour parking meters.
Near: Clearwater, St. Petersburg.
Getting There : Take Route 60 west; it dead-ends at the beach.
Nearby lodging: Many hotels, but I recommend renting a condo if you are staying at least a week; try www.greatrentals.com.
More: www.visitclearwaterflorida.com; the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce phone is 727-447-7600.
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