CLEARWATER — North of Clearwater Beach, beyond the last brown beach house, where the mangroves jut nearly out to the sea, lies seclusion.
Keep walking on the sand as it turns from smooth grains into millions of tiny seashell bits that crunch under your feet. The beach will narrow as the dense mangrove brush creeps up on your right, the turquoise Gulf waves crashing in on your left.
The Gulf of Mexico has a way of taking over your senses here, with its overwhelming salty smell and the rhythmic roar of waves drowning out passing speedboats.
Keep walking past the sea turtle nesting site. If it's close to high tide, you may find yourself wading through the lapping water.
On this narrow strip of land, you're between crowded Caladesi Island and Clearwater Beach to the north and south. But you may pass over the land bridge connecting these two shores without encountering a soul — only oystercatchers, terns, pelicans, plovers, gulls and ibises.
Keep walking and you will reach Caladesi Island, which of course, isn't, really.
To get to Caladesi, most people ride the $14 ferry from Honeymoon Island. The short trip on St. Joseph Sound takes about 20 minutes.
According to the ferry's website, there are two ways to access Caladesi: by ferry or private boat. But a third course, along this land bridge north of Clearwater Beach, offers an alternate route for visitors willing to make a short hike.
The trip runs about a mile and a half if you hit the Clearwater Beach sand at its northernmost public access point, at Juniper Way and Eldorado Avenue a few blocks up from the Regatta Beach Club. After passing through the Carlouel Yacht Club segment of the beach, continue to the north end of Clearwater Beach, past the beach houses, to where the mangroves stretch out toward the water.
The whole trip from the yacht club to the main stretch of beach on Caladesi takes about 30 to 45 minutes.
At low tide there is plenty of room to walk along the sand, even enough space to accommodate the man who on July 20 livestreamed his joyride along the beach in a Jeep Cherokee. Low tide that day occurred at 4:44 p.m.; police had received calls about the driver just before 4:30.
If you don't mind getting a little wet, don't worry about high tide. At this point, the waves reach the mangroves, forcing you to wade. But this part only takes about five minutes, and the water feels refreshing.
The peaceful stretch is a dead zone of human activity between two popular beaches, and best of all, it's free. You may find yourself, in Florida's most densely populated county, completely alone on a beach that's annually ranked as one of the nation's best. You will be exposed to the sun the entire walk, though, so wear a hat and bring sunscreen and water. Snacks are recommended, too, because amenities are as scarce as people.
The area wasn't always like this. The link formed in the 1980s, when sand began accumulating in Dunedin Pass. Hurricane Elena rolled through in 1985 and sealed the channel. Now, boaters can get from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Gulf of Mexico through Hurricane Pass, between Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands, or Clearwater Pass, between Clearwater Beach and Sand Key.
Peter Krulder, Honeymoon Island's park manager, said the walkable area has thinned during the last several years. But the next major storm will likely deposit more sand, he said, expanding it further.
Others hope the next local hurricane will reopen the channel, allowing boaters to pass through while possibly improving Clearwater Harbor's water quality by re-establishing a water flow.
In 2009, the city of Clearwater found that dredging the channel would prove costly and require jumping through too many bureaucratic hoops. So unless nature has other ideas, the pass will remain closed, offering a rare opportunity.