A shell mound at Cayo Costa State Park

The 2,426-acre Cayo Costa State Park offers acres of pine flatwoods, mangrove swamps and oak-palm hammocks lined by nine miles of beautiful sandy beach on a barrier island near the mouth of the Charlotte Harbor estuary in southwest Florida.

You can only access Cayo Costa State Park via private boat or public ferry, but the trip is well worth it. In addition to the spectacular bird population, you might see manatees and dolphins in the waters near the island.

On the island there's a series of nature trails that criss-cross the island and give lots of opportunities for hiking, biking, shelling, birding and wildlife watching, especially in the winter months. Summer brings swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing and picnicking. I hear the surf-fishing is as good as the boat fishing in this neighborhood. Park rangers sometimes offer educational programs about the island's history and ecology in the park amphitheater.

Cayo Costa State Park also offers tent camping and primitive cabins for those who'd like to hang out for the night. There are 12 cabins and 30 tent sites available, each with its own fire pit/ground grill and picnic table.

The ferry leaves from Pineland (Pine Island) and reservations are required. Unless you're camping, the park is open from 8 am to sundown every day of the year. Admission fees: $2 per person. You'll want exact change because you're paying into an honor box. Tent camping fee: $22 (plus tax) per site, per night. Cayo Costa Cabins: $40 (plus tax) per cabin per night. Boat camping fees: $20 (plus tax) per night, per boat. The folks at Tropic Star of Pine Island (the ferry) also offer cottages at Jug Creek (on Pine Island) for $90 (plus tax) per night, or $540 (plus tax) per week. Call them at 239-283-0015 for info and reservations.