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Family Trip: Florida's Cheeca Lodge

In February I dream of t-shirts. Tiny T-shirts—sizes 2 and 4 in particular—the kind that slip over toddlers' big heads in a blink. I think about bathing suits, too. And small bare feet.

If you are a parent living in a wintry climate, you've probably had these longings yourself. There comes a morning when you are unable to wrestle one more little body into its dreaded snowsuit, and you wish you could fast-forward your family to a place where the days are warm and getting dressed is easy. On a chill dawn last winter, fed up with clinging turtlenecks and missing mittens, I began plotting my family's airlift to paradise.

Our destination: Cheeca Lodge, just a 2 1/2-hour flight from our home in Manhattan. I'd been hearing rave reports about Cheeca, a low-key luxury resort on the laid-back island of Islamorada, 75 miles south of Miami in the Florida Keys. It was probably former president George Bush who really put Cheeca on the map. (Remember those front-page photos in the papers, our determined leader in hot pursuit of the wily bonefish?) Well, the word in my play group had it that Cheeca was no longer a watery playground indulging wealthy sportsmen; in the spirit of the nineties the exclusive resort now catered to kids (and their parents). This we had to see.

We went to Cheeca seeking a warm winter's break and stumbled into the first lesson of family travel: stay at LEAST as flexible as your two-year-old. The family suite we'd reserved had sounded palatial by phone, but when dawn broke the first morning, dark and stormy, and we faced the possibility of spending the entire day indoors, our new digs seemed about as roomy as a Port-A-Crib.

Tuning in the Weather Channel, Jeff learned that near-hurricane conditions were bearing down on Key West, with the worst winds expected to hit Islamorada that afternoon. As the sky over Cheeca's nine-hole golf course turned gray and ominous, raindrops began pummeling our screened-in porch.

I wish I could tell you that the storm blew out to sea, but it didn't. Although by the end of the week we had found our tropical paradise, the first 72 hours were every parent's nightmare come true. Cheeca is basically a bust in bad weather. But on better days, kids in its award-winning children's camp spend hours outdoors; guests fish off the 525-foot pier, smash serves across the six "all-weather" tennis courts, splash in the three swimming pools, windsurf, sail Hobie Cats, snorkel, scuba, and prowl the backwaters of the Everglades for prize game fish.

What's a parent to do when all of the above are cruelly out of the question, you suspect the gods must be crazy (or at least in a very bad mood), and your little ones grow restless?

It was cold (record cold in Key West, at 47 degrees), and we hadn't packed our winter jackets, so we tried shopping. We took Sam and James to the fly-fishing store in town, ducked into a Harley-Davidson shop to check out the baby Harley T-shirts and fringed black leather jackets, and cruised Islamorada's main drag. By then it was about 11 a.m. Just 2 1/2 days of hurricane to go.

Surprising how much more fun you can have the morning after a big storm. The battle of waiting out a hurricane with two exuberant little boys seems a mere inconvenience, a small price to pay for the possibilities now spread before you.

Cheeca is a self-contained kingdom for kids, and I suspect that if it hadn't been for our bad weather, we would have spent the entire week, blessedly relaxed and completely entertained, within its sprawling confines. The resort spreads across 27 intensely landscaped acres, with more than 200 guest rooms divided among several two-story wings—some overlooking a small lake, others edging the compact golf course. The main complex, which sits on a man-made beach, has a big view of the Atlantic, but the rooms in that building, all doubles, are much too small for most families.

All the families we met had booked either one- or two-bedroom suites. Our one-bedroom unit—which included a bedroom with a king-size bed for Jeff and me; a living room with a sleeper-sofa for Sam and a crib for James; plus a small kitchen, spacious bath, and screened-in balcony—was just the right size for the four of us. Although our rooms were in a quiet wing overlooking the golf course, the most popular accommodations are the lake-view suites next to a figure-eight-shaped pond. I saw a two-bedroom suite there that could comfortably sleep six—or a family of four with an au pair in tow.

The lodge's quarters are comfortable but functional: practical Berber-style carpeting in the living rooms and bedrooms, lots of white tile everywhere else; cane furniture upholstered in kid-proof navy-blue and red wool; two TV sets (and a VCR—a godsend if you're holed up waiting out the rains); and, best of all, lots of thick white terry towels and two big white terry robes, one for Mom and one for Dad. The kitchen was a great convenience, allowing us to serve the boys their morning favorites (Cheerios and Nutri-Grain waffles) and to pacify Baby James with a warm bottle of milk when he awoke, ravenous, at dawn.

Exploring the grounds our first sunny day, we were amazed to see kids everywhere: running down the shrub-lined paths in neon-colored bathing suits, skating around the circular drive in Rollerblades, helmets and kneepads, splashing in the pools, digging on the beach, scrambling over the rocks lining the saltwater lagoon. I've had the good fortune to visit some top hotels in recent years, but never have I seen this many children so seamlessly integrated into the style of an upscale resort.

This phenomenon is no coincidence; Cheeca began catering to families about five years ago with the start of Camp Cheeca, its unusually intelligent "marine education/environmental awareness" program for kids 6 to 12. Although Sam and James were too young to enroll, we watched older campers intently examining the small creatures teeming in the shallow water off the beach.

One morning I sat in on a camp session—just to see what my boys could expect a few years down the road. Campers meet each day in a small bungalow that's part hideout, part classroom. The walls are draped with sprays of seaweed, and instead of buckets of crayons there are buckets of seashells, samples of coral, a gurgling saltwater aquarium, and a funky old fishing net suspended from the ceiling. When I arrived, about 10 boys and girls dressed in shorts, oversize T-shirts, and sneakers were brushing up on the different species that inhabit the Florida Keys.

Camp counselor Karen Van De Voorde coached the group on the fragile ecosystem of the Keys, explaining the roles of red mangrove, turtle grass, sea cucumbers, loggerhead turtles, spiny lobsters, and hogfish. I learned a lot but was grateful not to be picked for one of the two teams in the name-a-fish game—because I certainly would have let my teammates down. After a briefing on environmentally sensitive snorkeling etiquette (the kids were going out for an underwater expedition after lunch), we all suited up in reef shoes and gobs of sunblock for a dip-netting walk off the beach.

That night a single professional mom from Dallas on vacation with her nine-year-old daughter told me the afternoon snorkeling excursion had been the high point of their week together. Eleven kids, four parents and Van De Voorde had motored out to the reef for two hours. Coached in the buddy system, everyone had eventually gone in—and saw firsthand the corals and fish they'd learned about in camp. As if that weren't enough, during the ride back to shore 25 or 30 dolphins had magically appeared, leaping in pairs and surfing the boat's bow wave.

Although I wished Sam and James could have shared in these adventures, we made our own fun. The boys managed to run into several other young vacationers, and introduced us to their parents. We also befriended two couples from Charleston with kids the boys' ages and struck up an instant play group. Sitting in our beach chairs on the sand, shading the sleeping babies from the sun, or building elaborate sand castles with the two- and three-year-olds, we talked, compared lives, and discovered we had much in common.

Our three sunny days drifted by. We signed up Sam for his first swimming lesson and became permanent fixtures in the wading pool, ideal for James. We rented a fishing pole and a bag of shrimp at the Cheeca dive shop—where even the saleswoman seemed unusually eco-aware, warning us not to hurt the fish when removing the hooks—and spent a Huck Finn-style morning hanging out on the pier. The sun warmed our bare feet, the water danced, and big brown pelicans swept in for aircraft-carrier landings on the dock, delighting James, who learned one of his first words: "bird."

Sam had a first, too. His rod was twice as tall as he was, but we hooked a plump shrimp to the end of his line and, not 30 seconds later, his pole was bent double. Jeff braced him, I ran to grab my camera from James's stroller, and together we played that first fish, reeling it in slowly. When Sam finally pulled it out of the water, all shiny and feisty, everyone on the dock let out a cheer. Sam posed with his catch, proud as a three-year-old can be. Then, very carefully, we removed the hook and tossed the fish back.

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