You have to go by ferry or private boat to reach this 500-acre park. That's one of the beauties of visiting here. But then, everything about this unpopulated island retreat is beautiful.
Stephen Leatherman, a coastal geologist famous for his annual ranking ''Best Beaches in America,'' says the 15-minute ferry ride (which departs hourly) to the island provides a pleasant foreshadowing of the experience to come - a visit to a beach where the sand is as soft as baby powder and the beach slopes gently into lapping waves.
''The sand has a nice, gradual decline,'' says Janet Corrado, a social worker from Seminole. That makes it safer for swimming children, she says, watching her three sons play in the water.
Corrado and a friend on the trip, first-grade teacher Beth Kaufholz, agree Caladesi is one of the best in America. They have been to Maine, Hawaii and throughout Florida, but they like this beach best, mostly because of its soft sand and relatively uncrowded shore.
''It's an island getaway,'' Leatherman says of the 3-mile beach. ''You look out at the Gulf. You look around, you don't see anything but nature. It's a day adventure, a wonderful place to get away to.''
Leatherman praises the mangroves, the sand dunes, the egrets and blue herons - even the concession that sells ice cream.
Caladesi, visited by 135,000 to 175,000 people a year, has a 99-slip marina where boaters can camp overnight if they register before sundown. Other amenities include picnic shelters and tables, a 3-mile nature trail and bathhouses with showers.
And don't forget that concession with ice cream.