Cruising Close To Home: Caladesi Island & Clearwater Beach

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Caladesi Island

The BP oil spill made this a sad year for Gulf Coast inhabitants. Although no oil came ashore anywhere near my hometown region of Tampa and Sarasota, the threat was all too real and the environmental suffering impossible to ignore.

If there was a silver lining, it was that the spill reminded us that we do live in a cruising paradise and it was time to get out there and enjoy it. Not until something is about to be taken away do we truly begin to appreciate it.

And so my good friend and cruising mate, Phil Annunziato, and I decided it was time to do a little close-to-home exploring. We had heard about Caladesi Island State Park, a barrier island off of mainland Dunedin, Florida, and one of the few completely natural islands along the Gulf Coast. Caladesi Island is not its own island; it’s connected to the island of Clearwater Beach. As our interest grew in these strange neighbors—one completely developed and one uninhabited—so did our float plan. We decided to visit both.

We boarded SeaEsta, a very comfortable and well-appointed 50-foot Ocean Alexander that was on loan to us for the weekend, and pulled out of the marina at Snead Island Boat Works in Palmetto at 7:45 a.m. We decided to cruise the inside route, which would take us through Tampa Bay toward Pinellas Park. Weather permitting, this cruise would have been faster out in the Gulf, but the outside route wouldn’t have been as visually interesting.

Set your course for the Skyway Channel on the ICW. Enjoy the view, but bear in mind that the channel is very shallow, so stay within the markers at all costs. Also, if your draft is over 4 feet, you’d better watch the tides through this area—carefully.

As we continued north under the Tierra Verde Bridge into Pass-a-Grille, we seemed to be the only boat out, but we were far from lonely—we were accompanied by dolphins for most of our journey. The dolphins surrounded our boat, and considering all that had happened this year in our waters, not a more welcome and blissful sight could there have been. The Pass-a-Grille Yacht Club is in this area, offering dockage and great places to eat nearby.

OUR OWN DESERTED ISLAND

By 10:30 a.m. we were in Madeira Beach, and by 11:15 a.m. we had arrived at the Belleair Causeway Bridge. Caladesi Island sat off our port side, but the channel to the island was a hair-raiser for a boat our size. Phil had studied the chart before our departure and called the dockmaster at Caladesi. We suggest you do the same if you’re cruising here.

From channel marker 14, just west of the Dunedin Causeway Bridge, take an approximate 212-degree heading on your compass for about a mile. Then, follow the channel markers very, very (did I say “very”?) carefully to the Caladesi Island State Park Marina. You’ll bite nails watching the depth sounder readings fall below 4 feet in some places. Just take it slow and enjoy the beautiful mangroves, and before you know it, you’ll come around a bend revealing an extremely well-maintained state marina. There is limited dockage for a 50-foot boat, although there are 108 slips available. All dockage is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. We were lucky and arrived early enough (12:15 p.m.) to snag an end T-dock.

The dockage fee at the time of our visit was $6 for a day pass and $2 per foot per night. Boats may stay up to 14 days. On this beautiful summer weekend, we counted only 15 boats in the marina. All sizes of boats can be accommodated (power or sail), as long as your draft requirement is under 4 feet at mean low tide. However, there were a few tidbits of information we were unaware of: there is no 50-amp service available, and all gensets must be turned off at 10 p.m. nightly. So bring a splitter if you plan to stay overnight. (We didn’t have one.)

We noticed that most visitors to the island were day-trippers who arrived for picnics or a few hours on the beach and then left. The dockmaster told us that in the four years he had been assigned to his post, he recalled the marina being full on only one occasion, July Fourth weekend. And this is in a very populated area with tons of boaters. Caladesi Island was shaping up to be a real find.

Since Phil isn’t an avid hiker, I left him to fiddle with the lines and have an ice cream cone while I headed off to explore the island on my own. What I found was absolutely outstanding. There are 3 miles of hiking trails through natural vegetation and a hammock where oak, red bay, Sabal palm, and Southern red cedar trees thrive due to higher elevation and protection from salt spray. There is abundant birdlife, and if you’re lucky, you might see the threatened gopher tortoise. Quiet, secluded, and still wild, this 3-1/2-mile-long barrier island is one of the best shelling beaches on the Gulf Coast. The trail weaves through a beautiful landscape formed by the canopy of the hammock, ending at a completely natural beach—remote and virtually empty. Nesting loggerhead turtles leave crawl marks in the sand, as the dunes covered in sea oats are a favorite nesting area. Seabirds own this beach; the closest human I saw was a half mile away.

My only concern on Caladesi Island was the alarming notices posted every 1,500 feet warning me to be wary of rattlesnakes. Although I did not see any rattlesnakes, a few of the caretakers I spoke with that day told me, why yes, there’s one right over there. So it’s wise to keep your eyes open. I also strongly recommend bug spray for the trail. Even in paradise, there are pitfalls.

Amenities on the island include picnic pavilions, very nice bathhouses, and a park concession selling sandwiches and other food, ice, and, of course, T-shirts. There are also kayaks available for rent.

Want to know what it would be like to be stranded on a deserted island? This is the place to go. If you live in the area and are planning a family boating picnic or rendezvous, Caladesi Island would be the perfect venue. The covered picnic pavilions can be rented for around $32 a day.

A ROCKIN’ BEACH RESORT

I could go on and on about the charms of Caladesi Island and would have loved to have explored further, but Phil was not keen on spending a hot summer night aboard without air conditioning. By late afternoon we decided it made more sense to head to Clearwater Municipal Marina, only an hour south, and dock there.

Leaving a secluded, pristine location like Caladesi and pulling into Clearwater marina is culture shock on steroids. This is a large, busy, 210-slip marina within easy walking distance of Clearwater Beach. There are 23 transient slips available (at an affordable $2 per foot per day), and the marina is home to a collection of charter boats, dinner boats, sightseeing boats, parasailing boats, and seasonal customers.

Caladesi Island is where you go when you don’t want to see anyone. Clearwater Beach is where you go when you want to see and do it all! As a top year-round vacation spot, Clearwater Beach has some of the widest, most active beaches on Florida’s west coast. Standing on the Pier 60 Park fishing pier, the beach looks like a scene from Beach Blanket Bingo or Ft. Lauderdale at spring break. People play volleyball on the beach all day long, and the traffic pouring onto the island over Memorial Causeway is endless. There are fishing charters, WaveRunner and boat rentals, a “pirate ship” excursion, loads of shops, endless dining options, an aquarium, and plenty of arcades. We spent most of Sunday simply wandering around, taking it all in.

It’s hard to believe that it’s possible to walk from the island of Clearwater Beach to Caladesi Island, but since Hurricane Elena hit in 1985, you can do just that. The contrast between these two neighbors is striking. There are few places left that offer you a glimpse of Old Florida so close to one of the nation’s premier beach resorts.

For boaters, Caladesi Island and Clearwater Beach offer the very best of both worlds, and combining the two destinations makes for a well-rounded weekend getaway.

CRUISE LOG

BOAT NAME SeaEsta

BOAT TYPE Ocean Alexander 510 Classico Pilothouse

POWER Twin 420hp Caterpillar 3126TAs

ROUTE Snead Island Boat Works, Palmetto, FL · Caladesi Island State Park Marina, Dunedin, FL · Clearwater Municipal Marina, Clearwater, FL · Snead Island Boat Works

TOTAL DISTANCE 141nm

TOTAL FUEL USED 55 gal. (at $2.57 per gal.)

TOTAL FUEL COSTS $141

MARINAS AND COSTS Caladesi Island State Park Marina · 1 day · $6

Clearwater Municipal Marina · 1 night · $107

TOTAL MARINA COSTS $113

TOTAL FUEL AND MARINA COSTS $254