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Caladesi Island rises to top on Dr. Beach's list

Coastal scientist Stephen Leatherman likes wide, soft beaches that are family friendly and unspoiled by development.

Tourism marketers drool over the promotional possibilities of Leatherman, otherwise known as Dr. Beach, designating their stretch of sand as the finest in all the states.

Their interests intersected 2 miles off the north Pinellas coast Thursday when Leatherman named Caladesi Island State Park as the top pick in his list of America's best beaches for 2008.

The 3-mile-long island — with its powdery sand, kayak trails through thick mangroves, abundant wildlife and remote location — inched up his list for a decade, most recently as second best the last two years.

On Thursday, the Florida International University professor called Caladesi his favorite getaway beach in six live interviews from the beach on MSNBC.

He happily repeated it to newspapers, local television and radio. Today, he's scheduled to chat via satellite with 35 television programs from Portland, Ore., to New York City.

Leatherman grades beaches on 50 criteria, from physical attributes to biology to safety, on a scale of 1 to 5. In 18 years of compiling the list, no beach earned a perfect 250. Caladesi got a "real high" score of 239, he says.

The beach has lifeguards, few rip currents and not a pickpocket in sight — all good for safety. Caladesi's sand is fine-grained and bleach-white, not yellowish and pebbly like beaches renourished with sand dredged up offshore. Another big plus, says Leatherman.

The island's cafe and bath houses are nice touches. Cars, condos and crowds don't intrude on nature. "You've got to kind of figure out how to get here," he says. The only drawbacks: a little too much seaweed in the swimming areas and lots of hungry bugs.

Those annoyances don't get much time in his interviews or in the marketing Pinellas and state officials will unleash.

Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, sent out 100,000 e-mails Thursday trumpeting Caladesi as well as No. 3 Siesta Key near Sarasota and No. 9 Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne. The agency also ponied up $54,000 for a truck, a crew of 14 and the satellite time to beam Dr. Beach interviews to television stations.

This spring, the travel Web site TripAdvisor.com picked Fort De Soto as the nation's top beach. The combination of respected independent endorsements for two local beaches is unprecedented, says D.T. Minich, Pinellas tourism director.

He's already ordered promotional totes with TripAdvisor and Fort De Soto on one side and Dr Beach and Caladesi on the other.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Caladesi Island rises to top on Dr. Beach's list 05/23/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2008 10:09am]
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