No. 1 ranking brings throngs to once little-known Fla. beach

What does Caladesi offer? A swath of pure white, soft sand. It's accessible only by ferry, and has limited facilities.

DUNEDIN, Fla. - 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 last summer, the hordes have descended.

"The first month, oh, man, it was insane," says park ranger Carl Calhoun, who hadn'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 Fort Lauderdale Beach."

The hoopla started Memorial Day weekend, 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 - not advertisers - behind it.

In this case, the ranking affected the modest beach. Suddenly, sleepy Caladesi's attendance skyrocketed nearly 43 percent. It attracted 100,000 ferry visitors last year, up from about 70,000 in 2007.

This year, the trend should continue. When tens of thousands of football fans flocked to the area last month for Super Bowl XLIII, they saw TV promotions featuring the trophy and Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders at Caladesi Beach.

Now, thousands of Phillies fans are heading to Clearwater to watch the champions at their spring training complex.

And Florida officials approved the first ferry service direct from busy Clearwater Beach to Caladesi Island. It started operating last month.

All of this attention is something new for a beach that many tourists and Floridians have never visited - or 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. Its 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 three-mile swath of pure, white, soft sand.

"I am a native New Yorker. I grew up in Rockaway; I could look out my window and see the beach," says Grace Huhne of New Port Ritchie, Fla. "I've grown up around beaches. And I can tell you, this is the best beach. It's relaxing. It's beautiful."

The beach itself is a wide strip of sand, with thin ribbons of seaweed sometimes stretching the length of the sand. The shelling is good - not quite as good as Sanibel Island off Fort 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 of Mexico.

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 connected to Honeymoon Island to the north until 1921, when a hurricane separated them. 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 three 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 rattlesnake about 5 feet long and 4 inches wide.

Although remote, Caladesi does have a 110-boat marina. Visitors can rent beach chairs, umbrellas, and kayaks to explore the island's interior mangrove waterways. Unlike Clearwater Beach, eight 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," park ranger 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 had been from Honeymoon Island. About 400 to 500 people a day go over on 60-passenger ferries that run every 30 minutes. An extra boat has reduced waiting time to 20 minutes, says Phil Henderson, owner of the Caladesi Island Connection ferry service for 22 years.

The new ferry service from the busy Clearwater Beach marina to Caladesi Island started last month. For $50 round trip ($35 for ages 3-12), it includes a dolphin encounter and a stop at the island.

"The hotels have been clamoring for this," Henderson says.

Can Caladesi handle it? Yes, say Henderson and Calhoun. The beach is 3 miles long - there's room for a lot of people.

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 tourists and locals, 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. There are also Fort DeSoto Park's North Beach, also recently named No. 1 beach, and Clearwater Beach, known for its 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 to Naples.

Here's a look at three Tampa-area beaches:

Caladesi Island

State Park Beach

Ranked No. 1 by Dr. Beach last year, 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 from 10 a.m. to about 5:30 p.m.; there are longer hours in summer. Call for time of the last ferry to the island (727-734-1501), because it changes depending on time of the year. The Clearwater Beach ferry leaves at 9 a.m. and returns at 2 p.m. (727-442-7433).

Nearby lodging: Holiday Inn Express, Dunedin.

Info:, 727-469-5918.

Fort DeSoto Park

Its North Beach was ranked No. 1 beach in America by Dr. Beach in 2005 and by Trip Advisor readers last year. Gorgeous - powdery sand; wide, with 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. It costs 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;, 727-360-1881.

Info:, 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. Watch out for $1.25-an-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

Info:; 727-447-7600 (Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce).

- Ellen Creager