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Florida's Gulf Coast Colony Resort: Tennis, Everyone!

For nine months of the year, our household is governed, a hair too sternly, by three sheets of paper taped to the refrigerator. Three schools, three calendars: nursery school for Catherine, age four; grade school for Maura, 11; and the college where my wife teaches. From these schedules flow appointments, recesses, assemblies, conferences, swim meets, test days, half-days, field days, and, with careful study and preparation, a few golden moments of stillness.

As the only non-academic in the house, I am the family wild card, a utility parent, available on command for recreational purposes. One vacation week early last spring . . . which one was it?The post-presidential-partum holiday?The Easter-Passover spring-maypole thing?Doesn't matter. The kids were off, but Mom had to teach. And the girls just wanted to have fun. Dad, too. So we headed south, for five days far from the blustery tatters of the New York winter. We chose the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Florida's Gulf Coast, a place famous— justly so, as it turned out— for tennis and kid-friendliness.

The Dwyers have a mixed record with vacations built around the concept of Fun for the Entire Family, which is resortspeak for "no mirrors on the bedroom ceiling." Once, we took a trip on a short-lived, all-family cruise ship. On board were 900 kids and 700 parents, a combination of an elementary school at recess and an insane asylum 10 minutes before medication. A few days after we returned, a letter arrived from the Centers for Disease Control, warning that the ship was being investigated for something too horrible to dwell on.

Now, with my wife sitting out the Florida journey, we changed from our normal man-to-man coverage to zone defense: one parent versus two kids. The Colony has a game plan for people like me, or us. I could gorge on tennis and the kids could go to day camp, for a five-day, four-night package that cost $835.

We settled into a very comfortable one-bedroom apartment, with a large combined living and dining room. The Colony is an all-suite resort, and when I reserved I was assured that this setup— equipped with twin Murphy beds— would provide ample space. It did. And to the kids, a bed that disappeared into a closet in the dining area was positively magic. In fact, as soon as we stepped into the suite, we were enchanted— not just by vanishing beds or the opportunities for structured fun, but by the whole spirit of lumpy freedom, far from the usual marching orders.

After breakfast in the Colony's Bistro, a beachside dining room, we strolled to one of the resort's two main attractions: the kids' camp. Its location in a converted suite makes it seem like an afterthought, but it isn't. Every day is programmed with the simple stuff that kids love: straw painting, stringing shell necklaces, taking nature walks, and swimming in the pool. The activities are bracketed into age groups: Kinder Kamp for the three-to-six-year-old set, and Kidding Around for children up to age 12.

Catherine had to ease into the social scene. Four-year-olds may look tiny, but most of them have a grip as powerful as a gorilla's, to be used when a parent is leaving them at nursery school. Or day camp in Florida.

"You don't have to go to Kinder Kamp," I told her, "but you can try it. And if you don't like it, come get me at tennis."

"Okay," she said.

The staff knew not to butt in while Catherine and I were negotiating, but at the first opening they invited her to join in the paints or books or puzzles. She quickly became comfortable; the kids seemed well supervised, with three or four counselors looking after 20 or 25 of them.

Camp breaks at noon and resumes at 1:30. But from 1 to 1:30, the little kids can join a Tiny Tots tennis lesson. Catherine thought it was a blast. The tennis pros slap five, leap for joy over a well-connected shot, shout encouragement to kids who are walloping only the breeze, and deal with each child in a giddy fizz of attention.

A word here about serious tennis, child department. The Colony has a busy junior program, but kids who merely enjoy the game once in a while— such as Maura— will find plenty of non-tennis fun at the camp. Maura quickly bonded with another fifth-grade girl. In the evenings, the 9-to-12-year-olds had supervised outings. One night they went to an arcade that featured laser tag, go-carts, and miniature golf. Another evening they took in dinner and a movie.

But enough about the kids. Let's talk about my fun.

As a tennis player, I apparently will be a late bloomer: I'm ambulatory but not dangerous. However, players at nearly any level can enjoy themselves here. Court time is included in the room rates— and far more important, the Colony will arrange a match. If they can't dig up another guest, a staff member fills in. That hits the sweet spot, especially if you arrive without a partner. Before taking them up on the matches, I headed off to a two-hour tennis clinic. If you've done one six-ball drill, you've done them all. Still, the instructors had energy and insight.

Lunchtime was a peaceable hour. We ate in the suite, with provisions bought at the on-campus deli. Some days, the kids spent a couple of afternoon hours at camp, but whenever we felt like it we'd drop out of the scheduled activities to go to the pool, or to the beach with its flour-fine sand and tiki huts for shade.

One's appetite for a vacation can take surprising turns: while grinding out work in the New York winter, I imagined how great it would be to play tennis in the sun for a week. And the tennis was fine. But far greater was the chance to hang out with my girls. A resort isolates you from the run of ordinariness, opens you up to the simple pleasures that often get bulldozed by calendars. We reinforced the resort state of mind by not renting a car, but resisted it by avoiding, for the most part, the Colony restaurants (we generally subsisted on macaroni and cheese in the suite).

But we did eat out two nights in the Colony's gorgeous restaurants, where the Gulf sunset seemed to inhabit the dining rooms. The casual Bistro has a pizza and burger and stir-fry menu with decent choices for the kids, and in the Colony Dining Room, the resort's rack-of-lamb-grade restaurant, our entrées were impeccable. But both restaurants were disorganized. On our last night, we nearly missed our flight because the quick meals we thought we were ordering in the Bistro took nearly an hour to arrive.

But so what. The mellow glow lingered until the pizza and chicken fingers hit the table. It's an easygoing place. When we checked out at midday, our luggage was stored safely away and we were invited to play around for the rest of the day. We made it all the way home without a thought about the refrigerator door.

JIM DWYER, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1995, is a New York Daily News columnist.

The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort (800/426-5669) has a dizzying array of packages. With the "Ultimate Fun and Sun Package" (available through December 19 this year), our suite was $835 (plus $83 tax) for five days and four nights (kids free), with breakfast and two $10 dining vouchers. A one-hour tennis clinic was also included, as were tennis and children's camp. Other expenses besides airfare ($450 total): airport transportation ($40), kids' programs extras ($45), meals ($275), extra tennis clinics ($90). (Most packages are offered outside the peak season, which runs from early February until mid-April.)

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