You can dig your bare toes into the sands of Cayo Costa Island and never be distracted by miles of high-rise towers or restaurant crowds gobbling up free space along the shore.
"It's one of the few untouched islands on the west coast," said Linda Potter, a Pineland resident and a "Friends of Cayo Costa State Park" volunteer. "The island is still in its native state. We see it now as the Calusa Indians saw it a thousand years ago. And one of the reasons why I fell in love with this area was because we would come here to Pine Island and always visit Cayo Costa, too."
Like Potter, Margi Nanney of Manatee County, also cherishes this protected barrier island. She immediately fell in love with the seven-mile stretch of rich history, embroidered by sea oats and flora of centuries ago.
The entrance to Cayo Costa State Park.
Nanney and her husband own a cabin on the island, which is one of only 22 private homes. Their sons spent childhood summers and many holidays, too, throwing a line in the backwater and hiking the peaceful paths made from crushed shells.
"It's the ultimate getaway," Nanney said. "It's a natural environment that's beautiful."
She and her family "have been tent camping across the US, in more than 20 state parks," Nanney said. "But there's still nothing prettier than Cayo Costa."
Records dating back to the early 1500s indicate that Florida's Calusa tribe was discovered by Spanish explorers. Protecting their territories along the west coast, now known as Charlotte and Lee Counties, the tribe may have traveled as far south as the keys. And at one time, their population swelled to 50,000.
When they claimed islands such as Cayo Costa, Calusa Indians were resourceful and comfortable with their environment along the ocean's shore. They constructed homes on stilts and wove Palmetto leaves into natural blankets of shelter from unforgiving sunshine as well as heavy downpours. Other tribes farmed the land in their territories, but the Calusa tribe fished along coastal waters. Instead of planting crops in sand, they created fishing nets with palm tree webbing and spearheads from shells found on the shallow ocean floor or shore line.
By the late 1700s, enemy tribe attacks reduced the strength of the proud Calusa tribe. Dangerous afflictions, such as Measles and Small Pox, brought to the Southwest coast by Spanish and French explorers, furthered the death of the tribe.
But their amazing skills are celebrated often at Cayo Costa State Park.
Volunteers like Potter and Nanney are committed to keeping the island's yesterday intact. Another goal is to protect these pristine stretches of sand and vegetation so the history of the island is just as authentic for future generations.
"We are a small group, but we very determined," Nanney said of Friends of Cayo Costa. "We want future generations to enjoy the island in the same way we enjoy it."
Proceeds from the Cayo Costa Heritage Day event benefit limited budgets of park rangers while volunteers also hope to enhance educational tours and reading materials about the island's history.