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Vacationing on Sanibel and Captiva islands

Max Kim-Bee

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

There's probably an optimal number of families around the pool to facilitate not only kids striking up friendships but also their parents getting well enough acquainted to keep an eye on one another's broods. (A minimum of six families, I'd venture, max of 10.) By Tuesday the dads were taking turns in the pool playing with the gang of kids (a blessing, because when you're off duty you can actually read your book with both eyes), and before long kids were running in and out of our various units in search of the best-stocked fridge, like some sweet dream of suburbia circa 1962.

In fact, Captain Picky found condo life so much to his liking that he never wanted to leave the grounds, which posed a problem for his parents. The easy part of a week on Sanibel threatened to cancel out the interesting parts, most of which lie beyond the condo gates. There is, for instance, the beach, a spectacular strand of sugary sand that runs the length of the island and offers some of the best shelling in the world. (From dawn to dusk you see people doubled over in "the Sanibel stoop," as if an entire society had simultaneously lost their contact lenses.) Captain Picky felt that the shells on sale in the shops were far superior to the ones on the beach (true enough), so what exactly was the point?Birding, another excellent Sanibel diversion, struck him as equally purposeless, and Isaac isn't yet good enough at biking to really enjoy it.

So the first few days, Judith and I took turns exploring the island by bicycle, without a doubt one of the most exhilarating pleasures it has to offer—and perhaps the ultimate Sanibel marriage of easy and interesting. Easy because the island's bike paths are so well maintained and flat that you don't need to shift gears or even be in shape, and interesting because the landscape is so captivating. Twenty minutes after leaving Condo World I was deep within the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, riding along dikes that bisect broad plains of still water fringed with mangroves. Prehistoric-looking birds on improbably tall stilts patrol the mirrored waters, which are flustered every now and then by the silver flash of a mullet.

I found the areas outside Sanibel's nature preserves just as striking. The island is divided into two sovereign kingdoms, Nature and Civilization, making it a place of startling frontiers. In the very same frame, you can watch a poodle romping on a manicured lawn and an alligator sunning itself on a mudbank. Somehow, it works: the unreconstructed, swampy wild appears to be thriving in the very shadow of Condo World. (Somehow, too, there seemed to be virtually no bugs.)

While biking around the island, wondering about how I might entice Isaac away from the pool and into this landscape, I hit on an idea. One thing Captain Picky does like is games—we'd organize a Sanibel Island treasure hunt for Isaac and his pals. So I drew up a list of a dozen creatures, plants, and shells likely to be findable on the beach, at "Ding" Darling, or just while walking around: lizard; alligator; snowy egret; saw palmetto; bromeliad; roseate spoonbill; fighting conch shell; banded tulip shell; oyster shell; tortoise or turtle; osprey; sand dollar. Judith, a painter, made simple sketches to illustrate each one. Whoever ticked off all the boxes on the checklist first would win the (under $5) souvenir of his or her choice.

Suddenly "Ding" Darling was no longer "a boring old swamp" but a vast storehouse of potential points, and Isaac and Soren couldn't wait to go. It was low tide when we arrived, and right away we spotted through our car window a flock of roseate spoonbills—an awkward, pink, Dr. Seussian shorebird—snagging minnows in the shallows. Later we spied a saw palmetto, and a pair of adolescent alligators snoozing in the mud. Captain Picky's competitive instinct now fired, he drew me aside to ask if we might get up early the next morning to go shelling on the beach before his opponent was awake.

For the rest of the week, Isaac was eager to venture out beyond Condo World, bringing his checklist and eagle eye everywhere we went. Hoping perhaps to knock off a few more boxes, he joined us on a water tour of "Ding" Darling, which turned out to be a high point of our week. Following a blond naturalist-dude, a dozen of us in one- and two-person kayaks paddled deep into the mangrove forest, tracing a web of water trails through one of the weirdest, most beautiful places I've ever seen. The canopy of trees closes overhead, forming cool, shadowy tunnels walled in by extravagantly contorted roots crusted with oysters (check!) and barnacles. Because the black water was so still, Isaac and I went several miles with ease, adding egrets and bromeliads to his checklist, not to mention an Actual New Experience to the heretofore rather thin official Captain Picky biography. Unfolding our legs from the kayak after three hours, we both felt a sense of triumph.

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