tampabay.com

A peach of a beach, in Pinellas

Caladesi Island may have come in No. 2, but most visitors say it's tops.

By TAMARA EL-KHOURY
Published May 26, 2006


In the spirit of Dr. Beach himself, the Times sent an intrepid reporter and photographer to Caladesi Island to find out what made it the second-best beach in the nation.

In short, Caladesi is everything the rest of Pinellas County is not. It's quiet, private and undeveloped - and you can't get there by car.

True, there are signs warning visitors about rattlesnakes, but Dr. Beach, also known as Florida International University's Dr. Stephen Leatherman, is more wary of stingrays. Yes, he does the shuffle, and it's worth every careful step.

"It's a world away," he said.

*   *   *

Getting to Caladesi Island requires a ferry trip commanded by Capt. Kevin Kelly, 60. He stops for dolphins and cracks jokes.

"Welcome to Caladesi Island, or as Jimmy Buffett would say, Margaritaville," Kelly cracks. "Margaritaville without the margaritas."

*   *   *

The most interesting things happen on this island, said assistant park manager Shawn Yeager, 35, who lives on the barrier island with his wife, the gopher tortoises and the rattlesnakes.

"You never know when you're out here that you're 3 miles from Pinellas County," he said.

The park's staff has friendly wagers on the date of the first loggerhead turtle nest of the year. The park's "Turtle Patrol" discovered the first one Wednesday. Yeager had guessed May 15.

*   *   *

Kelly Wilson, 33, grew up in Tampa. She brought her husband, Tracy Wilson, 36, and son, Zach Wilson, 3, to Caladesi for the first time.

"It's quiet, it's unkempt, it's plain, not commercialized," Kelly Wilson said. "There's still seashells to pick."

*   *   *

Clearwater native Amanda Martinez, 23, brought her boyfriend, Aaron Farmer, 23, of Fort Lauderdale, to experience Caladesi's gorgeous water.

"It's beautiful," said Farmer, a medical student. "You can see through the water and the beach isn't too crowded."

"I call it the local-yokel beach," Martinez said. "It's quieter, it's not like beach blanket on top of beach blanket."

*   *   *

"The funnest thing about this beach is you get to throw mud balls," said Ashley Campbell, 12, of Tarpon Springs.

But Ashley had a hard time throwing anything since she was buried, chest-high, in gooey sand. So was her friend, Sarah Folk, 12, of Dunedin. Sarah's 17-year-old brother, Ryan Folk, was lovingly burying the girls.

Ryan and Sarah's mother, Elvira Folk, 44, waited until the girls were snugly tucked in before going for a swim.

"Okay, Ryan and I are going in the water," she teased.

*   *   *

Some members of a group from Holland had seen a football before, but they were having a little difficulty throwing one.

As for the beach, it got rave reviews among the Dutch.

"In Holland we've got a beach," said Leonne Hanemaaijer, 22. "It's brown. You don't even see the bottom."