Pristine Florida, distilled in Dunedin
DUNEDIN, Fla. - This is the way Florida is supposed to be.
Caressed by a soft October breeze, we walk out on a long wooden pier and hop onto the ferry. It's a 20-minute ride through the emerald-blue coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico to Caladesi Island State Park, one of Florida's last undeveloped barrier islands.
As we approach Caladesi Island, we're a little puzzled. Where is the beach? All we see are lush red mangrove swamps lining the shore. The ferry then passes through a small channel, takes a sharp right and then a left through the mangroves. We finally come upon a small marina with a state park station, a concession stand, kayak rentals, and other amenities.
What we're looking for is on the other side of the station: three miles of one of the most pristine beaches you'll ever see.
As a former Floridian who spent most of her time on the Atlantic side, I'm used to visiting beaches cluttered with hot dog stands, junky surf shops, and rows and rows of hotels.
Not here. Aside from an umbrella rental stand ($20 per day for two chairs and umbrella), the powdery white strip is populated mostly by gulls, American oystercatchers, and other birds. The beach is wide and the sand firm, ideal for a long stroll. A bird nesting area is at the northern tip, roped off far back from the surf so the nests won't be disturbed. A three-mile nature path cuts through the island's interior, providing prime viewing of gopher turtles, ospreys, turkeys, and other wildlife.
Caladesi and the larger 4.3-square-mile Honeymoon Island - accessed by car, bike, or on foot via a 21/2-mile causeway from the mainland in Dunedin - used to be one long barrier called Hog Island because it once housed a hog farm. But a hurricane in 1921 cut the island in half, creating a waterway called Hurricane Pass.
Later, a New York developer in 1939 built 50 palm-thatched bungalows for honeymooners on the larger island, giving Honeymoon Island its name. Scores of weddings are held on the beach every year. There also is a beach that welcomes dogs, nature trails, and one of the few remaining virgin slash pine forests in Florida.
Both islands are Florida state parks. Visitors can get to Caladesi only by ferry from Honeymoon Island or by boat. All living things on Caladesi and Honeymoon are protected.
The islands are among the natural gems that draw tourists to Dunedin, a quiet coastal town of 37,000 people sometimes overlooked by visitors heading to the busier Clearwater to the south, or the Greek sponge-diving city of Tarpon Springs to the north.
Dunedin is also the spring training home, for now, of the Toronto Blue Jays, who have returned here every year since the team was founded in 1977. They play in Dunedin's Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
But that could change when the team's stadium lease expires in 2017. The Jays have been exploring sharing a new spring training stadium with the Houston Astros in Palm Beach Gardens on the Atlantic coast.
Such an exodus would be a blow to the many Canadian "snowbirds" who have purchased condos and homes in Dunedin to follow their favorite team. But city officials are mobilizing a promotional campaign to draw another team if the Jays fly away. Business leaders, quoted in the Tampa Bay Times last year, say a spring training site has an economic impact of $30 million to $50 million a year for the surrounding community.
While Canada has a lot of influence here, Dunedin's name actually comes from a couple of Scotsmen, J.O. Douglas and James Somerville, who petitioned in 1882 to have the post office and the town itself named for the Gaelic term for their home country's capital, Edinburgh. The town became incorporated in 1899 and then a city in 1925.
The Scottish theme is reflected by the high school's mascot, the Falcons, falconry being a pastime favored among the Scots. The school's Highlander marching band features bagpipes and the authentic Scottish uniforms, the dress Stewart tartan plaid.
Among Dunedin's claims to fame, the Alligator, an amphibious tracked vehicle, was assembled here and saw combat in the Pacific during World War II. Frozen orange juice concentrate also originated here. Dunedin was the first home of the PGA, which is now headquartered in Palm Beach Gardens.
The public course at the Dunedin Golf Club, designed by Donald Ross, served as the PGA National Golf Course from 1945 to 1962. Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Sam Snead were just a few of the champion golfers who played here.
The inland Pinellas Trail, a 37-mile biking and walking path that traverses several communities, passes right through downtown, where Main Street is filled with restaurants, small boutiques, a historical museum, and coffee shops. A few steps away is the Dunedin marina. Here the Dunedin Fish Market and Olde Bay Cafe (51 Main St., oldebaycafe.com) offer fresh catches from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
From its dock you might see redfish, pompano, permit, manatees, mackerel, flounder, dolphins, tarpon, stone crabs, speckled trout, snook, and sharks.
Overall, Dunedin has about four miles of waterfront, with a beautiful walking/running trail along the water from the marina into the city of Clearwater. There's also a wide trail along the causeway (with kayak and boat rentals) to Honeymoon Island.
Dunedin doesn't have the diversity and lively tourist attractions you'll find in Tampa - with its Cuban, Spanish, and Italian populations in historic Ybor City, along with Busch Gardens, the Florida Aquarium, and Adventure Island - or the cultural arts of St. Petersburg. But it's certainly worth a visit if you're looking to experience the way Florida used to be - and here, still is.