DUNEDIN—Caladesi beach is a secret getaway in Florida, an undiscovered gem.
That's what I wanted to tell you, but honestly, I can't.
Since Caladesi Island State Park beach near Tampa/St. Petersburg was named the best beach in the United States several months ago, the hordes have descended.
"The first month, oh, man, it was insane," says park ranger Carl Calhoun, who hasn'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 Ft. Lauderdale Beach."
The hoopla started last May 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 behind it, not advertisers.
In this case, the ranking impacted the modest beach. Suddenly, sleepy Caladesi's attendance skyrocketed nearly 43 percent. It attracted 100,000 ferry visitors in 2008, up from about 70,000 the year before.
This year, the trend should continue. Because Super Bowl XLIII is in nearby Tampa on Feb. 1, visitors will see TV promotions featuring the trophy sitting atop the waves on -- guess where? -- Caladesi beach (they stood the trophy on a clear plastic stand in the water). There's also a spot featuring Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders frolicking on -- guess where again? -- Caladesi beach.
In addition, this month Florida officials approved the first ferry service direct from busy Clearwater Beach to Caladesi Island.
All of this attention is something new for a beach that many tourists and Floridians have never visited -- or even 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. It s 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 3-mile swath of pure white sand as creamy and soft as Jiffy Mix. Lie down, and it's like resting on a Tempur-Pedic bed.
"I am a native New Yorker. I grew up in Rockaway; I could look out my window and see the beach. I've grown up around beaches. And I can tell you, this is the best beach. It's relaxing. It's beautiful," says Grace Huhne of New Port Ritchie, Fla., who has visited Caladesi many times, this time bringing her daughter, friends and her parents for shell-collecting.
The beach itself is a wide strip of pure white, with thin ribbons of seaweed sometimes stretching the length of the sand. The shelling is good -- not quite as good as Sanibel Island in Ft. 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.
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 once connected to Honeymoon Island north of it until 1921, when a hurricane separated the two parts. 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 3 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.