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Four Beach Hotels for the Family

Quick—what's the best bet for a family vacation?The beach, where double-dipping into sea and sand has unbeatable value as free and long-lasting entertainment. The stretches along Florida's Gulf Coast are particularly family-friendly—broad and soft and awash with shells, the natural collectible for all ages. Also, the surf's a bit calmer and warmer than it is in the Atlantic. We found four island resorts that go one better, putting you a bridge or a boat ride farther from civilization and closer to nature. You'll notice that the clock ticks a little more slowly—because, other than the lapping of waves, it may be all you hear. In some places, it seems to have stopped altogether. Welcome to a vacation from "Mom, Dad, have you seen my shoes?"

CASA YBEL,
Sanibel Island
Because Casa Ybel has catered to families since 1978, it has mastered the everything-under-the-sun menu of activities: tennis courts available around the clock, sea-life explorations with a marine biologist aboard Miss Paradise, bikes that range from 16-inchers with training wheels to six-speeds with baby trailers, and every bit of water sports gear you could dream of. The resort also has 14 acres of grounds bordered by a private stretch of beach on an island famous for shelling. So where were my kids?Marinating in chlorinated water, of course.

Once I spied the fiberglass slide that extended from a lookout tower into the deep end of the Olympic-size pool, I surrendered. Losing one's kids to yelps of joy is, after all, the point of staying at a family resort. At Casa Ybel, the highlights for parents and kids are different but compatible. Accommodations are distinctly well outfitted, down to the handsome wicker furniture complemented by vintage photographs of island life. "You mean they had to go swimming in all those clothes?" the young ones gasped, donning their suits with new appreciation.

Even the smallest one-bedroom suite is a floor-through with a full kitchen and a westward-facing screened porch perfect for sunset cocktails and, for the kids, easy in-and-out access away from cars. For everyone, liberation was being able to say "Go ahead" each time there was a request to dash to the (attended) pool, a decided luxury with kids who are more seal than sandpiper.

Other children kept the sink in the Shell Shack busy, rinsing and identifying the treasures amassed during dawn-till-dusk beachcombing. Our closest encounter with flawless specimens came after ordering breakfast at the Sanibel Café in the Tahitian Garden shopping plaza: tracing the exquisite shells arrayed in glass-topped dining tables, bemoaning our relative ignorance of the Miocene and Pliocene epochs. It made the wait for waffles speed by.

We've found going out for breakfast to be a quick and cool launch to the day, and we've learned to interpret a resort's well-equipped kitchens as a sign that on-site dining options are few. Casa Ybel does, however, have a worthy restaurant, Thistle Lodge, housed in a much-renovated turn-of-the-century building that recalls the resort's halcyon days as Sanibel's first beachfront getaway. Over coconut shrimp and Gulf stone-crab cakes, we noticed other couples—surely parents, too, since childless pairs were unlikely to be drawn to dine at a family resort—uncharacteristically lingering over their meal. We were all beneficiaries of the Munch 'n' Movie program, which frees parents by occupying kids with popcorn and films, pizza and games, and more soft drinks than ours see in a month.

Casa Kids Camp proved to be the linchpin of a vacation that still has our children talking about Casa Ybel. We all spent most of our time together, but when my husband and I wanted to roller-blade or bike at grown-up speed, or sink lone footprints in the sand, camp stepped in. From the Seaside Shop at the pool, kids (ages 3 to 12) and counselors depart every morning for lizard prowls, scavenger hunts, and the ever-popular Beach Bash, pause for lunch, then carry on with crab races and bingo.

The camp's flexibility (you sign up by showing up) allows for easy changes in routine. One day Ivy, eight, joined her new friends while we set off with five-year-old Cole on a safari through the "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Throwing good judgment to the wind, we let Cole ride parade-style in our rented convertible, sitting on the folded-down top, as we rolled very, very slowly along the five-mile route. We returned to tell Ivy of the cormorants and egrets, pelicans and roseate spoonbills we had sighted, all soon outdone by Cole's triumphant defiance of the law: "I rode in the car without my seat belt!" Ivy countered with a re-creation of the synchronized act her improvised five-girl swim squad had put together: pencil jumps followed by eggrolls from the pool lip, finished off with sleek dives. Fun doesn't get any better, or cleaner, than this.
CASA YBEL, 2255 W. Gulf Dr., Sanibel Island; 800/276-4753 or 941/472-3145, fax 941/472-2109; doubles from $220.

COLLIER INN & COTTAGES,
Useppa Island
Had we never set foot on Useppa Island, our trip there would still have been a roaring, rather than a wave-making, success. Shortly after we pulled away from Bocilla Marina and headed into Pine Island Sound, the kids shrieked, "Shark, shark! We saw a shark!" Indeed, we spotted a fin off the port side, but it was arcing, not slicing through the water: the welcoming committee of one was a friendly bottle-nosed dolphin. Our Flipper kept us company nearly all the way to the dock and came back to visit (or was that his brother?) during our stay at Collier Inn.

Though the 100-acre island operates mostly as a club, the recently renovated turn-of-the-century Collier Inn (former home of Florida land tycoon Barron Collier) has seven rooms and suites for nonmembers. It also provides access to privately owned houses that offer more-rambling family accommodations. Our clapboard cottage, like most on an island that feels as if it's one big nature camp, was the man-made link between aquarium and botanical garden. The screened porch at the back became a giant sifter for the miscellany gathered by the kids from the sand just below. Three steps beyond the front door, our own little boardwalk intersected with a pink paved path, the main "road" looping around the island.

Only a mile long, the path can easily provide a full day's amusement if you walk it with the Useppa Island Garden Club's botanical guide in hand. For a tiny island, the range of flora is staggering. Not only was Collier an avid horticulturist, so were his friends and neighbors Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who frequently collected rare plants on their travels and presented them as gifts to Collier. We kept the guide handy, consulting it on our way to the pool or tennis courts or Snook Pond, the favored fishing hole, reading out fun facts as we went: Bamboo can grow as much as a foot in one day. The lightweight, easily carved gumbo-limbo was once the preferred wood for carousel horses. Christopher Columbus returned to Queen Isabella with a shipload, not of gold, but of sisal hemp, so impressed was he with the properties of the fiber.

Threaded through the bromeliads and mangroves of jungly Useppa are layers of history—the pirate kind, especially appealing to young imaginations. Cole dug more deeply in the sand after hearing tales of (thus far) fruitless forays for treasure on neighboring keys. At the island's small museum, a field station for the Florida Museum of Natural History, we learned about the wandering Paleo people, who, 10,000 years ago, occupied Useppa before it was so named, even long before it was an island. Seven thousand years later, the Calusa Indians camped out there, and more recently, the CIA used the property as a training camp for Cuban officers who were to take part in the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Indians, pirates, spies—Useppa has it all, plus fishermen. Though the surrounding waters are legendary for tarpon fishing, our children are a little young for reeling in big game. We settled instead for ogling the stuffed prizes mounted in the bar and for sizing up the catch—and the catchers, male and female—frozen in vintage photographs that hang throughout the inn and museum. The pictures capture the old Florida of reading and sipping lemonade on shady porches, of shelling and strolling on the beach, of dropping a line into the water from the dock. On Useppa, a time seemingly lost is found again.
COLLIER INN & COTTAGES, 8115 Main St., Bokeelia; 941/283-1061, fax 941/283-0290; doubles from $225.

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