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Vacationing on Sanibel and Captiva islands

Max Kim-Bee

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

A fundamental axiom of the Family Vacation holds that if the kids have a good time, then the vacation is a success. This is more or less true, and yet, if you're a parent, it's also a little . . . pathetic. Because it means that your own enjoyment of a place is simply a by-product of your child's. That's a perilous emotional logic, for where it usually leads, as swiftly and inexorably as a water slide, is to yet another week at Disney World.

Not that the obvious alternative is anything to get excited about: dragging the kids, I mean, to Sites of Significant Cultural or Natural Interest, a high-friction slog that can leave you savoring the tranquillity of that first Monday back at the office. Factor in a child such as Isaac—a somewhat quirky, none-too-flexible eight-year-old who objects on principle to doing/eating/experiencing anything he hasn't done/eaten/experienced in the past—and this sort of vacation quickly becomes more work than work. The last time I told Isaac we were thinking of going somewhere new, he gave me a look of genuine pity. "Remember, Dad," he said, bouncing his thumb off his chest, "this is Captain Picky."

Judith and I had all but decided to shelve family travel for the foreseeable future when a friend suggested we check out Sanibel and Captiva islands, on Florida's Gulf Coast, which he claimed in no uncertain terms constituted "the easiest family vacation in America." I was skeptical, not just because I associate Florida with too much development and too many early-bird specials, but because I couldn't believe a place that was "easy" could also be interesting. I was wrong. Somehow, Sanibel Island manages to be both.

The easy part first. The grooves of a vacation week on Sanibel are well-worn but agreeably smooth: Rent a two-bedroom condo on the beach (you can tour hundreds of units on the brokers' Web sites [see The Facts]); fly in on a Saturday (when the leases all start); stock up on everything you'll need (fresh fish, groceries, wine, beer, beach reads, sunblock) at Jerry's; rent bikes first thing Sunday morning; and settle in. Sure, you can go wild—stay at a resort instead, eat out every night, arrive on a Tuesday—but this is one case in which conformity to custom has its rewards.

Sanibel and its smaller, narrower sister island, Captiva, form a slightly bent arm of sand reaching up from the Gulf Coast off Fort Myers, where the arm is joined to the mainland by a causeway. The causeway wasn't built until 1963, so up to that point the islands were spared the thoughtless high-rise development that has wrecked so much of the Florida coast. By the time the causeway opened the floodgates, visionary land-use controls had been put in place. Fully two-thirds of Sanibel has been declared off-limits to development and left in its natural state: mostly spartina grass in the highlands and mangrove swamp in the low. Along the beach no building may exceed the height of a palm. Today the island's gulf coast wears a long white necklace of low-rise condos, most of them invisible from the shore road, carefully folded into groves of stately palm and feathery Australian pine.

Your typical Sanibel condo complex consists of a trio of three-story buildings around a pool and is connected to the beach by a narrow boardwalk on stilts, to protect the fragile dunes. What the individual units lack in distinctiveness or charm—picture coral carpeting, Kmart wicker, and every seashell tchotchke known to man—they more than make up for in spaciousness, convenience, and water views.

In the company of Captain Picky, eating dinner out is seldom a treat. (C.P. is even finicky about McDonald's, preferring the cuisine at certain higher-volume outlets to that at others.) For us, being able to cook dinner ourselves is a boon, especially when there are communal gas-fired Webers by the pool, and a screened terrace with a nightly view of a fiery sun capsizing into the pale blue gulf. So while the Captain picked at his pasta cooked just so, Judith and I ate grilled fish or shrimp in a setting to rival any island restaurant's.

An important corollary to the axiom of the Family Vacation is that if the kids can meet other kids early on, everyone benefits. This is almost guaranteed to happen here—the scale and layout of Sanibel's condo complexes are just right for fostering a marvelous sense of community. (The fact that everyone arrives and departs on the same day contributes to the instant-community effect.) By midweek Isaac's new buddies, Soren, 7, and Ingrid, 11, from Iowa, had been over for dinner and out for miniature golf, and he'd spent a cloudy afternoon at their condo making seashell refrigerator magnets. (The shell motif is inescapable.)

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