Florida Travel

Florida discoveries: Caladesi Island State Park

Caladesi Island State Park, north of Tampa Bay and about a mile offshore, is accessible by boat.
Caladesi Island State Park, north of Tampa Bay and about a mile offshore, is accessible by boat.

The raccoon had learned the way of life on Caladesi Island: Blend in. If you need to move, do so quickly. Most importantly, make no noise.

The quiet reinforces the pleasure of visiting this slice of bygone Florida. Though Caladesi (cal-uh-DEE-see) Island State Park is about a mile offshore from densely populated Pinellas County, there are no residences, no golf courses, no fast-food chains.

Once inland from the ranger station and concession stand, visitors hear only birds calling, wind through the palms, mangroves and oaks, surf slapping the beach on a breezy day.

And if the visitors mimic the silence, they might happen upon a raccoon in the daytime. This one, bigger than a cocker spaniel but smaller than a setter, trotted out of the saw palmetto plants on one side of the sandy nature trail, crossed it without glancing my way and disappeared into the scrub on the other side.

I never heard the raccoon coming or going, though I was perhaps five yards away. I had my camera in my hand, but it was so quick I couldn’t get the camera to my eye. When I got to where the critter had crossed, I couldn’t spot it in the undergrowth.

The quiet reinforces the pleasure of visiting this slice of bygone Florida.

Robert N. Jenkins

I resumed walking the graded sand of the trail, which is 2.7 miles roundtrip with one circular side trail. The path, about five feet wide, was mainly bordered by sabal palms, palmetto and wax myrtle.

I looked to see where I was stepping because I remembered the words of the captain of the small ferryboat from the mainland:

“It’s sunny today, so watch for the Eastern Diamondback rattlers, trying to get warm in the sun by the trail.’’

Roger that: Don’t step over any logs or into the knee-high grass, just stay on the level trail. Look and listen for birds, watch for gopher tortoises and marsh rabbits.

While I saw interesting paw prints and small birds and a raptor I could not identify (the island boasts great horned owls, eagles, hawks and ospreys), I had to be content with the raccoon sighting.

Among Caladesi Island’s inhabitants: sea turtles, gopher tortoises, raccoons, marsh rabbits, rattlesnakes and a variety of birds, including oystercatchers, ospreys, eagles, great horned owls, black skimmers, great blue herons, snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills.

But I also could have baked in the sun along the miles of Gulf sand that Dr. Beach (Dr. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University) once anointed America’s No. 1 beach.

Or I could have kayaked through mangrove tunnels on the landward side of the island (kayaks, boards, chairs and umbrellas are for rent). The shelling, surf fishing in the Gulf, and picnicking under the covered pavilions are all free on Caladesi.

So are the raccoon sightings. 

▪ Caladesi Island State Park is one in a string of barrier islands near the city of Dunedin, in Pinellas County, and can be reached by private boat or public ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park (#1 Causeway Blvd., at the end of State Road 586). Open from 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year; no camping; small cafe. The Caladesi Connection ferry makes the 15- to 20-minute ride from Honeymoon Island every half-hour starting at 10 a.m. through September; every hour in fall and winter. Ferry: $14 adults, $7 for ages 6-12, 5 and younger ride free. http://caladesiferry.org. No pets are allowed. Honeymoon Island has an admission fee that starts at $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist, $8 per vehicle. No fee for ferry passengers to enter Caladesi Island but there is a fee for boaters and kayakers. Information: 727-469-5918, www.floridastateparks.org/park/Caladesi-Island.