© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2002
When most Tampa Bay residents hear the word beach, they think of Clearwater, a hustling, bustling strip of sand that on a weekend or holiday has as many people packed per square foot as any piece of waterfront on earth.
"Everybody knows where Pier 60 is," said Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach. "But ask them were Caladesi Island is, and they don't have a clue."
Year after year, when the Florida International University professor rates America's top beaches, Caladesi's beach and others that lie along the chain of Pinellas County barrier islands consistently make the top of his list.
"The people of Pinellas County should consider themselves lucky," said Leatherman, whose 2002 rankings list Fort De Soto County Park and Caladesi Island State Park in the top 10 for the fifth year in a row. "It is very unique for one area to have two top beaches."
Over the past 25 years Leatherman has traveled the world to study waterfront communities, including the black volcanic beaches of New Zealand and coarse, pink-sand beaches in Bermuda.
But Leatherman always comes back to Tampa Bay for one reason and one reason alone: the sand.
"You are blessed with some of the finest, whitest sand there is," Leatherman said. "And it comes from the Gulf of Mexico, so you have an endless supply."
Local beaches are made of quartz -- silicon dioxide -- which is one of the hardest minerals on earth.
"That means your beaches won't grind down, like those made of crushed coral, which you typically find in the Caribbean," Leatherman said. "The finer and whiter the sand, the more desirable the beach."
Geologically speaking, Pinellas' beaches are relatively young. They formed about 6,000 years ago when the eastern migration of the barrier islands that began at the end of the last Ice Age stopped at the limestone ledge of the Florida Peninsula.
In the millenniums that followed, the barrier islands and their sugar-sand beaches shifted with each passing storm until the 20th century, when humans arrived with machinery to tame them.
The result: 28 miles of the best beachfront the Sunshine State has to offer. Each beach has its distinct personality, so no matter who you are you'll find something that suits your tastes.
If you start in the north, at Anclote Key State Park, you'll find one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on the west coast of Florida. There are no roads, bridges or ferries to transport visitors to this island oasis, so the landscape has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.
For those who want to experience primeval Florida and visit a time before condominiums and hotels ruled supreme, Anclote Key is a must see. The rangers have installed a few grills, picnic tables and porta-potties, but outside of that the only sign of man's presence is the aging lighthouse that once guided mariners along its treacherous shores.
Head east 3 miles across the Intracoastal Waterway and you'll find Fred H. Howard Park, a beach unknown to most people except Tarpon Spring locals and a cadre of boardsailors who head there in search of wind.
The small, palm-lined island has a sheltered swim area and good fishing in the adjacent shallows, making it a popular destination for families that don't want to hassle with crowds at nearby Clearwater Beach.
But if you head south and take the next causeway west toward the Gulf of Mexico, you'll find Honeymoon Island State Park, another unspoiled barrier island with plenty of beach to roam.
Over the years Honeymoon has gotten somewhat of a bum rap because of its unusually rocky shoreline. Attempts to renourish the main southwestern beach have failed, and most of the sand has drifted north, lengthening the island and increasing the size of nearby Three Rooker Bar.
Honeymoon, however, is one of the few beaches that allows dogs, as long as they are on a leash. The island also provides one of Florida's top birding spots, especially in winter, and the nature trail and picnic area make Honeymoon an easy place to get lost for a day.
Take the passenger ferry from Honeymoon to nearby Caladesi Island State Park and you'll find what Leatherman rated the No. 5 beach in America. The water is exceptionally clear, thanks to the flushing action of nearby Hurricane Pass, and the sand is among the finest on the west coast of Florida.
But the best thing about Caladesi is the crowds: There are none. On a weekday you can stake out a spot of sand, read a book and never hear a sound except for the occasional sea gull squawking.
It is hard to imagine when you're sitting alone on Caladesi that just a couple of miles to the south lies one of the busiest beaches in the United States.
Clearwater Beach can be divided into two distinct zones, north and south. North Beach is the land of locals, where skimboarders and cat sailors are free to do their thing without the watchful eye of Pinellas County's only year-round lifeguards.
South Beach, however, is tourist heaven. Visitors from England, Brazil and the American Midwest flock there each winter to take advantage of the safest swimming area on the west coast of Florida. You'll find eight lifeguard towers stretched along 2 miles of beach, and the swim zone is clearly marked. The guards do a good job of keeping the powerboats and personal watercraft away from the swimmers, a more difficult task than most people think.
Clearwater has a well-deserved reputation as a party beach, but if you visit it first thing in the morning you'll find a great place to walk. If you're there until 9 a.m., walk out on Pier 60 and watch the lifeguards go through their morning training rituals.
Just across Clearwater Pass, Sand Key County Park is the last piece of accessible public beach before you enter the land of iron gates and "do not enter" signs. The park, a little-used jewel in the county system, is another quiet getaway you won't read about in most guide books. The beach is wide, the parking plentiful and the facilities first rate.
When the winter wind blows and the waves roll out of the north, surfers flock to this county park to ride without interference from the "condo commandoes." At one time surfers had free reign on Sand Key, but with every new building that went up, down went more public beach access.
Most of Sand Key and Belleair Beach to the south is off limits to the public. You have to live there or know somebody who does if you want to dip your toes in the Gulf of Mexico. There is public parking at the Belleair Beach marina, but the lot is unlined, unpaved and hard to notice.
Don't worry. Drive a few more miles down Gulf Boulevard and you'll hit Indian Rocks Beach, a town with seemingly limitless beach access. This beach town used be famous for its fishing pier, but Hurricane Elena swept it away in 1985. Nowadays, this 3-mile stretch of beach is known as a low-key local's favorite free of the large-scale commercialism that has tarnished its neighbor to the north.
Indian Rocks also is the hometown of Shea and Cory Lopez, two of the world's top professional surfers who astound competitors when they speak of learning to rip on the Gulf of Mexico.
Indian Shores, the next town south, mirrors much of Indian Rocks. The two towns combined have more than enough access to serve the beach-going public. Which is good, because most of Redington's beaches (Shores, North and Beach) are residential.
Madeira Beach, a.k.a. Mad Beach, has always been popular with the younger set, but the boardwalk on the south end of town at John's Pass is a magnet for visitors of all ages. While the heart of Madeira Beach may be tourism, commercial fishing is its soul. Mad Beach has more grouper around its docks than any other city on the west coast of Florida.
If you're looking for a classic beach town with funky motels, miniature golf, ice cream stands and tacky T-shirt shops, look no further that Treasure Island. It's a fun place, especially for kids who love to run wild on the widest beach on the Gulf Coast.
Treasure Island also can be called kite central. Head out to the beach any Sunday afternoon and you will see a colorful assortment of kites, including those that pull buggies and surfers. Sunset Beach, located at the south end of Treasure Island, is a good surf spot for kids.
But the "gray beards," the 40-something surfers who ride classic longboards, call St. Pete's Upham Beach their home break. Outside of that, there is not much happening on sleepy St. Pete Beach. As one local merchant put it: "This is the land of the newlywed and nearly dead."
Public beach accesses are few and far between, but there are plenty of hotels with tiki bars that welcome the beach-going public.
Down the road at Pass-a-Grille things slow down even more. But that's a good thing. This five-star beach is a good place to enjoy a sunset. It's almost a shame to write about it because crowds could ruin its quiet appeal.
Fort De Soto, a five-island, 900-acre recreational paradise, is a fitting finish to the 28-mile tour down Pinellas' beaches. With camping, boat ramps, sheltered swiming and a biking/in-line skating trail that runs the length of the park, Fort De Soto is ideal for a family looking to make it a day.
There are a seemingly limitless number of grills, picnic tables and shelters for families and groups, which makes Fort De Soto a favorite for reunions.
Climb the parapets of the old fort at dusk and watch the sun slowly slip below the horizon. Then head to the campground and pitch a tent next to the water. Get a good night's sleep, because tomorrow you are going to get up and do it again.
-- Staff writer Amy Wimmer contributed to this report.
America's Top Beaches for 2002 are:
1. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida
2. Hanalei Beach, Hawaii
3. Kaanapali, Hawaii
4. Fort De Soto Park, Florida
5. Caladesi Island State Park, Florida
6. Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
7. Hamoa Beach, Hawaii
8. East Hampton Beach, New York
9. Cape Florida SRA, Florida
10. Hanauma Bay, Hawaii