Caladesi Island is an island in the Gulf of Mexico, about one mile (1.6km) west of Pass-a-Grille on Dixie Highway (Florida State Road 51), at the entrance to Fort Walton Beach and just north of Destin, in northwestern Florida. The island has a land area of 4.3 acres (17,000m2) and no resident population. It lies near the northern extreme of a large barrier island that includes Little Talquinna Island, Big Talquinna Island, Shellpoint Island, Estero Island, and San Marcos Island as well as many smaller islands and sandbars between them. The total contiguous acreage of all these barrier islands is 314 square miles (810km2).
In 1997, Hurricane Jerry devastated the park, forcing officials to close down the facility for nearly three months. Upon reopening, improvements were made such as installing hurricane shutters and moving the parking lot away from the beach. Also, the beaches themselves were replenished with fresh coral gravel.
Today, Caladesi Island State Park features four lodges, each containing 60 guest rooms; a full service convention center; a nine-hole golf course; tennis courts; swimming pool; boat dock; bike path/trail; picnicking areas; and gift shop. Guests can reach Caladesi Island State Park via passenger ferry or private watercraft. Passenger ferries run from Ft. Walton Beach to Caladesi Island daily except Tuesday and Thursday. Private Water Crafts may be launched from either shore, however, only those with a current registration from any state or a launch permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may access the wildlife refuge.
There is no charge to ride the ferry or launch your craft. Access to the wildlife refuge is free for all. All vessels must follow the counterclockwise pattern when navigating the refuge, and no anchorage will be permitted. Any boats remaining within the refuge at the conclusion of the tour will be subject to being removed by FWC personnel. Visitors needing transport to and from the park can utilize the shuttle boat service provided by the park. These boats leave the beach behind the main lodge approximately every 30 minutes, providing roundtrip transportation to and from the site, weather permitting. Boat fare is $20 per adult in addition to park admission charges. Children under age 13 may board the shuttle boat for free if accompanied by a paying adult. No alcoholic beverages, glass, kites, drones, fireworks, hunting, or pets of any kind are permitted on the wildlife refuge.
Campsites range from modern with electricity to primitive settings with no conveniences. Each campsite comes equipped with a fire ring and picnic table. Modern campsites feature flush toilets and showers while primitive campsites offer nothing but a flat ground surface and a roofed shelter. Outhouses are available at both types of campsites. Toilets and showers are located at the south end of the Caladesi Island Lodge near the group quarters. Additional toilet facilities are located offsite, accessible via a trail leading from the backcountry road. Group quarters consist of six dormitory-style buildings, accommodating up to 80 people each in single or double bunks. Single and twin mattresses are furnished in the larger dormitories.
Laundry facilities are located in the central building, together with vending machines, phones, and Wi-Fi internet access. The lodge contains ten meeting rooms, fully equipped and open year-round, plus another small meeting room that can be reserved for private events. Outside of scheduled meetings, the largest of the outdoor pavilions may be reserved for rent. Other amenities include a playground, volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, softball fields, tether and ladder ball, basketball courts, and a general store. Golf carts are available for rental, and bicycles may be used to get around the island.
Caladesi Island was named after the Caladesi family, who settled there c.1875. They operated a plantation where they grew cotton, citrus fruits, sugar, and bananas. In 1927, the property was purchased by Jack P. Hallenbeck, Sr., for use as a fishing camp with the stipulation that he be allowed to continue using the plantation house until it could be replaced. He built cabins C & D which are still in use. After his death, the property passed to his son, Jack P. Hallenbeck Jr., and then to his daughter Evelyn. She married William A. Griggs, and their children included Susanne, Billie Jo, Dana, and Randy. When she died in 1956, her two sons had already left home, so she sold it to Ed. T. Wilson and Harold J. Peterson, both of whom were friends from church. They continued the fishing camp tradition, adding a third cabin (Evelyn’s old cabin, now known as “Little Cabin”) to the complex. At some point during this time, the name Caladesi Island came into usage.
On May 17, 1964, Peterson bought out Wilson and became sole owner of what he called “the most beautiful spot along the coast.” He renamed it Caladesi Island and began marketing it to tourists. By 1967, Caladesi Island had hosted more than 2 million visitors. In 1970, Randy Talquinna, a grandson of Sam Bellamy, sued Caladesi Island Resort, claiming that he’d been promised half ownership of the resort when he helped build it but instead got less than 1% interest in the company. The case went all the way up to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled against him. However, the court did award Randy Talquinna damages of $150,000, which was paid by the state. This ruling was seen as controversial, since the state argued that Talquinna hadn’t met the burden of proof necessary to show that he deserved compensation.
In 1976, Randy Talquinna tried again, suing Caladesi Island Resorts Ltd. and claiming breach of contract. This lawsuit also failed, and Randy Talquinna took his case to the U.S. District Court. Again he lost, and this time around he wasn’t awarded any money. Instead, the federal judge ordered that Caladesi Island Resorts Ltd. pay Randy Talquinna $200,000 for his trouble. Once more, this judgment was seen as controversial, with some arguing that Randy Talquinna should have received an accounting of profits earned from the venture. Despite these setbacks, Randy Talquinna remained optimistic, continuing to promote tourism on Caladesi Island even after leaving the company.
In 1984, Evelyn Griggs died, and once again Randy Talquinna turned to the courts, filing suit against Harold Peterson and his wife Mary Jane. This time he asked for an injunction to block development of the island, alleging that Mr. Peterson had acted fraudulently in selling the entire island without including him in the transaction. Although Randy Talquinna won the legal battle, Harold Peterson died before the appeal process could be completed, ending the matter legally. Nevertheless, Randy Talquinna continued promoting tourism on Caladesi Island. In 1990, he formed Caladesi Island Corporation, signing over 50,000 shares of common stock to the new corporation. With the help of investors like Norman Braman and Tommy Lee Jones, among others, Caladesi Island Corporation developed a five-cabin inn, restaurant, and golf course. Two years later, the state of Florida acquired 3,400 acres of Caladesi Island through a lease agreement with Caladesi Island Corporation. In 1995, Caladesi Island State Park opened, initially offering camping facilities. Later, a lodge was added to the park, followed by a conference center.
Additionally, the park offers activities such as:
- kayaking opportunities