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Four Beach Hotels for the Family

Gasparilla Island
This inn is open only from mid-December to mid-June, offers only American plan rates, accepts only cash or checks. At dinner (served from 7 to 9 p.m.—no earlier, no later), gentlemen are required to appear in jacket and tie during the social season; during tarpon season (if you have to ask . . .) a jacket alone will do. Who says rules can't be fun?We loved Gasparilla.

Finding the inn was no problem, even at night: its main 1912 three-story building, with a colonnaded entrance portico, is the biggest thing on this sandbar of an island (seven miles long, a home run wide). But finding someone at home took a minute or two. By our 9 p.m. arrival, it seemed everyone had gone to bed. Since dinner at the inn was a lost cause, we scurried over a few blocks to Temptation, "Temp" in islandspeak, for fresh fish sticks amid vintage murals.

Daylight revealed the lay of Gasparilla-land—20 cottages (where most families are placed), tournament croquet lawns, a golf course wrapping around the mother building—and a palette true to conservative Florida: kelly green and bright yellow. Since we were newcomers rather than fourth-generation guests with standing reservations, our "suite" was in a white-brick suburban house around the corner instead of one of the more typical old-fashioned clapboard cottages across the road.

Luckily, the meal plan ensured that our time indoors (when awake) was spent mostly at the inn itself, where mahogany floors gleam, ceilings tower, and the public rooms incarnate the saying "A place for everything and everything in its place." The west card room is the setting for bridge and backgammon, and pre-dinner cocktails are stirred in the bar overlooking the fifth hole.

From the "getting to know us" pamphlet at reception, we knew that tea is served every afternoon amid clusters of floral-slipcovered armchairs and white wicker. But that's when we were most likely to be at the inn's Beach and Tennis Club—in the cloverleaf pool, on the sand, or astride rental bikes. Our regular path between inn (bay-side) and club (Gulf-side) crossed another trail: a paved seven-mile bike route along the tracks that once brought du Ponts and Vanderbilts onto the island in private train cars.

Even with one member of our family on training wheels, we were able to ride all the way south to the historic Boca Grande Lighthouse, aided by the flat terrain and the prospect of all-we-could-eat shrimp for the grown-ups, ice cream for the kids, at the casual South Beach restaurant. Heading back north, we paused more often: to watch a tern among the reeds or a kite swoop and soar over the Gulf; to cool off in the shade afforded by Banyan Street's canopy of trees.

After a long day outdoors, there is no more radiant image than children fresh from the bath, clad in clean cotton clothes, having shed salt and sand, though not the sun. Put them in a dining room with white-aproned waitresses, at a table with big cloth napkins on their laps, and they take on an angelic aspect. Ivy politely asked for more water; Cole concentrated on his roll and butter knife, steadfastly converting pat to spread, calmly declining offers of assistance. An elderly couple stopped at our table on their way from dinner. "We just wanted to compliment your children; they are so well behaved." On cue, Ivy and Cole sat taller in their chairs. Like an educator setting new standards, Gasparilla has certain expectations. Having lived up to them, children feel grown-up and proud. Which, in turn, makes parents feel, well, grown-up and proud. If ever our kids were marooned on a desert isle, and then rescued by a commodore, we know they'd do just fine.
GASPARILLA INN & COTTAGES, 500 Palm Ave., Boca Grande; 941/964-2201, fax 941/964-2733; doubles from $362.

Given a few more years and a bit more planting, Palm Island Resort will grow into its name. For now, Long Beach Resort would be more suitable. Two miles of soft sand scalloped by sharp drifts of shells define the western edge of an island identified, for some reason, as Knight on nautical charts. You don't come here for restaurants or culture, and there's not even much shade, other than the man-made variety; you come to spend all day, every day, outside, burning calories and trying very hard not to burn anything else.

Palm Island Resort is packed with activities, 90 percent of them the physical kind. After crossing the Intracoastal Waterway on the hourly launch to the island, we checked in and then got fitted for bicycles at the Rum Bay recreation office. We biked to find our new temporary home, a spacious two-bedroom suite with a screened porch overlooking the Gulf. (Luggage is delivered to your door, and a tram circles the island once an hour for the less-than-energetic.) With metal roofs, stained gray wood siding, and white trim, the two-story buildings on stilts hark back to traditional Floridian architecture, though none of them are more than a dozen years old.

We biked to the tennis courts; to the general store for breakfast provisions; to the Nature Center, home base for programs such as slide shows (good), nature walks (better), and field trips to see turtles and waterfalls (best). But mostly we rode for the pure thrill of pedaling hard down a sandy lane without having to worry about traffic, other than wildly darting young riders and the occasional golf cart. To our disappointment, the latter had all been reserved by the time we arrived, though the fine print requiring drivers to be licensed meant that our underage pair could have experienced only the brief thrill of anticipation.

Our stay was too quick to delve into the Island Kids Club (ages 6 to 12), though the offerings were impressive—scavenger hunts, making crafts with shells, sandcastle contests, kids' "Olympics"—and judging by the number of happy campers, successful. Teens are encouraged to be masters of their own universe on canoe trips, the basketball court, and in the pool.

When all the activity brought the heat up to boiling, we simply dove in—into the Gulf water or one of the five pools around which the buildings are clustered. Low latticework fences surround the pools, and access to the beach is by boardwalks that skip over the tops of gentle dunes, so it was safe to turn the kids loose. Unlike the other resorts we visited, Palm Island offers room to roam and an environment in which children can do it independently. And as any parent knows, freedom from worry is the best amenity.
PALM ISLAND RESORT, 7092 Placida Rd., Cape Haze; 800/824-5412 or 941/697-4800, fax 941/697-0696; doubles from $299 for two nights (two-night minimum stay).


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