One morning at the end of January, I set out with a friend just after sunrise. She had agreed to join me for a hike on Caladesi Island, one of the few remaining pristine barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, situated a mile and a half off shore from the city of Dunedin, FL.
It was called Hog Island until 1921 when a major hurricane split it into two separate islands. The Hurricane Pass was formed. The northernmost island became known as Honeymoon Island after becoming popular with honeymooners in late 1930s. The southern island got its name, or so the story goes, after a Spaniard named “Desi” said to have lived on the island bayou, which is “cala” in Spanish. Caladesi.
Caladesi Island, now a state park, was “discovered” in 1888 by a Swiss immigrant, Henry Scharrer, who became the first and only homesteader ever on the island. His daughter, Myrtle, who was born there in 1895, has written an interesting book, “Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise – The Story of Caladesi Island”, first published in 1984.
In the book, she gives a timeline of the area’s early history involving the Tocobaga, Seminole and Miccosukee people, and the Spanish – English – Spanish rule until the Florida territory was acquired by the U.S. in 1821. She also describes her family’s life on the island in late 1800s and early 1900s in vivid color and fascinating detail.
We started our trip by driving to Honeymoon Island. From there we took the first boat of the day over to Caladesi. The air was cool. The ocean was completely still. A light mist was rising from the water as the sun slowly climbed higher.
Suddenly we spotted some movement in the water. It was a bottlenose dolphin on a morning swim in the sparkling ocean.
A few minutes later we passed the northernmost tip of Caladesi Island. White sand, shore birds … and more dolphins, all swept in the soft blue of the morning.
We watched them quietly for a while – and got another delightful surprise. A mother dolphin with a baby beside her “floated” by on the other side of the boat. They might have been sleeping. It certainly was a dream-like moment. Dolphins are such enchanting beings, meeting so many of them first thing in the morning was a treat. The universe was smiling.
The boat ride was short, about 20 minutes, and soon we started to navigate our way into the marina, the only establishment on the island. I was excited to finally experience the beauty of the island I had read so much about.
The island is about six miles (9.6 km) long. We decided to start by walking south on the beach, and then hike the 3-mile (4.8 km) nature trail in the interior of the island. The beach was pristine, so beautiful I could have walked there for the whole length of the island!
But we wanted to see more. I knew that unlike Honeymoon Island, this was not a place where I could spot lots of birds inland, but I anticipated that the nature itself would be breathtaking. And it was, Florida in its natural state, as it used to be.
The trail passed through beautiful old pine, oak and palm forests. And soon we came across the beautiful waterway along which one could reach the interior of the island by kayak.
When we came closer to the former homestead, we found the only fresh water pond on the island. That’s where Myrtle and her family got their water for daily use. Trees were bending over the pond, as if protecting it from the passage of time. And silence… was breathing in mesmerizing colors.
Fairly close to the pond, we literally stumbled upon the famous “Harp Tree” or twin pine as it’s also called. Numerous photos were taken there, and are exhibited in the book, by early photographers who came to the island to visit Myrtle’s family.
It was a beautiful spot. I could feel the wing beats of history in the air. It was easy to imagine how life used to be there a hundred years ago, and how exciting photography had to be for these early pioneers. There would always be someone willing to climb up to be pictured sitting in the Harp Tree.
Then the trail turned back towards north and the harbor. We were admiring the old trees when we heard some rustling in the bushes next to the trail. We stopped, looked carefully, and saw a nine banded armadillo trying to dig a hole in the ground, either to find food or to prepare a new burrow. His head was already far down there, and he was working hard.
The last part of the trail was equally beautiful. I felt like I’d been thrown back in time. A harsh time in many ways, but much more simple and peaceful in this island paradise.
The tranquility of Caladesi Island was tangible. Being dipped so deep into untouched nature was inspirational and soothing for the soul. Like coming back to my real origins.