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Florida park an island of relaxation to itself

The McCullough brothers of Apopka, Fla., Nick, 10, left, and Noah, 12, stirred up the surf in the Gulf of Mexico on their first visit to Cayo Costa State Park last December. The McCullough brothers of Apopka, Fla., Nick, 10, left, and Noah, 12, stirred up the surf in the Gulf of Mexico on their first visit to Cayo Costa State Park last December. (WESSEL KOK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / February 17, 2008
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CAYO COSTA, Fla. - After setting up camp amid palm trees, palmetto bushes, and sea grapes, we took a stroll past the other campsites on this island state park, accessible only by boat.

"Merry Christmas!" called out a fellow camper, sitting at his picnic table with a boom box, a cooler, and a laptop. The holiday was only three days away, keeping the human population to a blissful minimum. "You want to use the Internet?" he said. "I have access!" "No thanks," I said. "I'm here to get away from all that." "That's what everyone says," he said, looking disappointed.

Despite Cayo Costa's strong cellphone signal, this is not a place where staying wired is appreciated. The vast majority of overnight and day visitors (50,400 last year) come to this mile-long, 7 1/2-mile-wide piece of paradise west of North Fort Myers to swim, fish, kayak, beach comb, walk, bicycle, bird watch, and watch the sunset. Some of the 30 tent-only campsites are just across the dunes from the Gulf of Mexico, while others are 50 yards farther inland, away from the wind. There are also 12 cabins, nothing more than wooden tents with bunk beds. Wherever you rest your head, a symphony of breaking waves will reach your ears, accompanied by the cries of egrets, ibis, osprey, pelicans, and seagulls.

The only electricity is generated by a couple of car batteries that power tiny beams of light in the bathroom. During our two-night stay, a full moon made flashlights all but unnecessary. The park does have drinking water, flush toilets, and several places outside to take a cold shower. Alcohol is allowed at campsites, though not on the beach.

The only provisions sold at the tiny air-conditioned park office a mile away are bug spray, sunscreen, and, surprisingly, ice. "We generate our own power and have our own water plant," said Herb Benecke, a ranger who came to Cayo Costa State Park almost two years ago with his wife, Bess, after spending more than 30 years in and around Bangor, Maine.

While civilization feels far away, it's not. From the beach and various parts of the island, you can see populated Boca Grande on the bridged island of Gasparilla.

If someone were to pack up your things, transport them, and set up camp for you, camping here would be a totally relaxing experience (unless you're the type who must have a warm shower). The reality is that to get here, there's a lot of arranging and schlepping to do before you can relax.

For warm-weather months, tent sites and especially cabins are often reserved a year in advance. Unless you have your own boat, you'll need to book a spot with Tropic Star, the park's ferry concessionaire, which leaves from Pine Island, an hour away. If you want to rent kayaks, that's also done through Tropic Star. (Beach bikes can be rented on the island.) You load your gear onto the ferry dock, then the ferry, then the park dock, then the park tram, which takes you to the camping area, then into a wheelbarrow to your campsite.

So is it worth the trouble? Don and Monica Duczkowski from Cheboygan, Mich., gave a resounding yes. They've held family vacations here yearly since 1989. In December they spent an entire day setting up everything, including the kitchen sink, for about 25 relatives and friends. (They rent one cabin and a handful of neighboring tent sites.) Their tarp-covered kitchen included two stoves, multiple plastic bins, and even hanging baskets for fruit.

That night Monica's brother, Mike Easter of Mountain Home, Ark., was preparing to grill the 14 whiting he caught that day, his contribution to the group meal.

Angling is a big lure. In a week's time, Dagan Alexander of St. Augustine, a frequent visitor to the park, had caught and cooked grouper, blue fish, snapper, and sheepshead. The fish weren't biting for Fiona Kelly and Charles Cullen of Atlanta, but they didn't much care. "We didn't know to bring bait, so we were surf casting with sausage," Cullen said with a laugh. "We really came here to rejuvenate. Mostly we're just reading and relaxing."

For kids, Cayo Costa is one giant playground. Within an hour of arriving on the island, first-time visitor Kyle McCullough of Apopka was watching her sons Nick, 10, and Noah, 12, swim in the surf, while dad finished setting up camp. "We're already loving it," said McCullough, her chin and nose dotted with sand. "The natural Florida stuff like this is amazing. We drive three or four hours, and we're in a totally different place."

My husband and I were too wimpy to swim in the cool water. Instead we walked, cycled, and kayaked. Our favorite of the 5 1/2 miles of unpaved biking and hiking trails was Cemetery Trail, for its evidence of the 18th-century community here. The tops of the handful of graves were adorned with crosses made of seashells, and live oak, pines, and shells bordered the area. (The Calusa Indians lived in this area for centuries before being driven out in the early 1700s.)

Our favorite sunset spot was a lagoon shielded from the shoreline breeze and full of jumping fish and diving birds. One resident alligator keeps swimmers away. We also joined other stooped, eagle-eyed shell collectors at the beach. (The park service has put up a shell identification board, but unfortunately runs no interpretive programs.) "Everyone talks about shelling in Sanibel, but these are the best shells I've ever seen because they're so big," said Diane DeQuinzio of Tega Cay, S.C., who encouraged admirers to take specimens from her bounty.

For a different vantage point, kayaking is a great way to explore the island, which is on the route of the Great Calusa Blueway water trail. Kelly and Cullen spent an afternoon paddling to and from Cabbage Key, where there are a restaurant and cabins. "When we were going there we saw a pod of dolphins only five feet away from us," Kelly said.

Although we saw no dolphins, we did hang out with two frequently surfacing manatees in a cove, with great herons, egrets, and osprey flying overhead. Farther along, we rested in a cluster of mangroves to watch a busy crew of pelicans dive-bomb for food a few feet away.

For repeat visitors, Cayo Costa has had a different look since Hurricane Charley blew in on Aug. 13, 2004. Winds of 145 mph knocked down dozens of Australian pines. Ironically, what campers lost in shade and ambience, the park service gained, as it had planned to remove the invasive species. The park didn't reopen to campers until Dec. 23, breaking some families' hearts that year, said Teresa Foster, who works in the district park office on Gasparilla Island.

"I had people calling literally in tears because they had children who had never spent a Thanksgiving anywhere but Cayo Costa."

Diane Daniel, a freelance writer in North Carolina, can be reached at diane@bydianedaniel.com.

If You Go

Getting there Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers is the closest airport. The island can be reached by private boat or passenger ferry. The park's ferry concessionaire is Tropic Star of Pine Island, which departs from Pineland Marina on Pine Island twice daily, about a 40-minute drive from Fort Myers. Reservations required. Call 239-283-0015 or visit tropicstarcruises.com. Camper ferry ride to Cayo Costa is $30 for adults, $17 for children under age 8. (Transporting a kayak costs an additional $20, a bicycle $10.) Day-trip ferry ride is $25 for adults, $17 for children 7 and under. Pineland Marina parking is $7.50 a day for campers using Tropic Star, $5 for half-day, $15 for full-day day-trippers. Kayak rental through Tropic Star is $40 per day for a single kayak, $50 for a tandem. Bike rental through the park service is $5 a day. Information Cayo Costa State Park 941-964-0375 floridastateparks.org Day entrance is $1 per person. Tent camping or overnight boat docking is $18 per night. Cabins are $30 per night. Call 800-326-3521 for reservations or visit reserveamerica .com.

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