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 into 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.
In 2008, this 600-acre island, 25 miles west of Tampa, was rated the Best Beach in America by Stephen P. Leatherman -- "Dr. Beach" -- professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami. Many of his annual accolades go to beaches in Hawaii. He uses a 50-point criteria for his rankings, including number of sunny days, views and vistas, water color and turbidity, sand softness and color, width of the beach at low tide and how clean the area is.
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 wends its way 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 sea gulls, American oystercatchers and other wading 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 2 1/2-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 came through in 1921, cutting the island in half and 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 (see sidebar). All living things on Caladesi and Honeymoon islands 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, which has 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 its stadium lease expires in 2017. The team has been actively 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 by the Tampa Bay Times earlier this 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 of 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, with falconry a favorite pastime of the Scots. Its 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 tractor, was assembled here and used in exercises in the South 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 1945-62. 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 Old Bay Cafe (51 Main St., oldebaycafe.com) offer fresh catches from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
Under its dock you'll find red fish, pompano, permits, 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.
The business district has strong cohesion. Casa Tina's Mexican Grill restaurant (365 Main St.), for example, is hosting a Halloween scavenger hunt, in which several artsy skeletons have been placed in shops and restaurants throughout town to also mark an early celebration of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, Dia de Los Muertos Fiesta, celebrated Nov. 1-2. Customers who locate them all can bring the list to the restaurant and get a free drink.
The town hosts several festivals a year.
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 and Busch Gardens, 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.
If you go ... Dunedin
Honeymoon Island State Park, 1 Causeway Blvd., Dunedin, FL 34698. www.floridastateparks.org/honeymoonisland; 1-727-469-5942.
The island is open 8 a.m. until sundown year-round. Entrance fee is $4 for a single-person car, $8 per vehicle (for two to eight people); $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists or extra passengers.
Showers are available, and the park's concession has a gift shop and snack bar.
The dock for the Caladesi Island Ferry Connection (1-727-734-1501) is on Honeymoon Island. Hours for Caladesi also are 8 a.m. until sundown.
The ferry travels to Caladesi Island State Park, beginning at 10 a.m. each day. Round-trip ferry fees are $14 for adults, $7 for children 6-12, children 5 and younger are free. No pets allowed on the ferry. It runs every half-hour in the spring/summer months and hourly from mid-September to mid-February.
Ranger station on Caladesi is 1-727-469-5918.
A dance you'll see visitors doing on Caladesi and Honeymoon islands is the stingray shuffle; beachgoers are encouraged to shuffle their feet in the sand as they venture into the water to scare away the stingrays that burrow under the sand. If you step on one, be prepared for a sharp sting and more. Heat dulls the pain from the venom and ranger stations can offer assistance. The stinger can also cause cuts and abrasions to the foot.
Stingray season is typically May through October but can arrive earlier than May.
Dunedin: For information on accommodations, dining and other matters, go to the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce: www.dunedin-fl.com or 1-727-733-3197.
Temperatures here range from the low 50s to mid 70s from October to May; low 70s to high 90s from June to September.
Virginia Linn: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-1662. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM