AFTER A WEEK ON SANIBEL WE PULLED UP stakes and made the half-hour drive north, crossing the two-lane bridge onto Captiva and entering a very different world. Captiva is a six-mile-long finger of land lined with powdery white beaches and, in place of condos, grand houses, many of them rentable by the week. Occupying the entire northern third is the sprawling South Seas Resort, where we spent our last couple of days.
It's a pleasant walk from the resort to the town of Captiva, a compact district of restaurants and shops that is funkier than the commercial strip on Sanibel. Andy Rosse Lane, the main street, runs right to the beach—and to the Mucky Duck, a legendary English pub where, at sunset, adults sip ale at picnic tables while kids play ringtoss beneath a towering pine.
But there's tons to do without ever leaving the 330-acre resort—from shuffleboard and fishing to parasailing, waterskiing, and sailing, to golf and tennis and crafts and swimming, either in 18 pools or off two miles of blindingly white beach. The resort's trolley means older kids can get around on their own. They can also charge ice cream cones on their folks' South Seas credit cards and put together their own Good Time from the kit of parts the resort offers them. For a teen or preteen, I imagine, the South Seas Resort would be as much a utopia as Condo World was for Captain P.'s younger set.
Eager to break out of the somewhat bland bubble of the resort, on our last afternoon we chartered a motorboat and set out to explore the unpeopled islands to Captiva's north. Our second adventure-by-water wound up being easily as memorable as the first. Our captain, Brian Holaway, not only knows the local waters intimately, but is also up on botany, shells, birds, fish, geology, history, archaeology, and Indian lore; plus, he has a deft touch with kids. As we motored north toward Cayo Costa—where the shelling was unrivaled, we'd heard (by now we too were hooked)—the boat threaded its way through go-slow manatee zones, between pods of arcing dolphins, and past great blue herons fishing intently in the tidal flats. After a half-hour ride, Brian tied up at a rickety dock on Cayo Costa, a paring of pristine land that's a state park. We crossed the pencil-thin island on a boardwalk raised above a shadowy mangrove swamp. Within minutes the boardwalk abruptly ended in a breathtaking crescent of beach we had all to ourselves. Isaac and I went for a swim, joined by a trio of dolphins drawing lazy loops in the water with their dorsal fins no more than 30 yards away.
The shelling was good if not quite as spectacular as advertised, but with help from Brian, Isaac managed to complete his checklist: together they found an intact sand dollar and a piece of a sea turtle's shell that the contest judge (i.e., me) ruled acceptable. By the end of the afternoon, Captains Picky and Holaway were fast friends, and Isaac had learned not only how the Calusa Indians made rope from palm fronds, but, for the first time in his life, about some of the pleasures of the new, which is to say, of travel.
CAPTAIN PICKY'S PICKS
THE BEST OF SANIBEL AND SURROUNDINGS
Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Rd.; 941/395-2233. "They have a treasure hunt for kids, and you can pick a shell to take home. But the slide show is bor-ing." Mona Lisa's Pizza 2440 Palm Ridge Rd.; 941/472-0212. "Really good pizza. And there's a TV showing the Cartoon Network, but no sound." Three Crafty Ladies 1620 Periwinkle Way; 941/472-2893. "This is where to get the magnets and glue to make shell magnets." Butterfly House Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation's Nature Center, 3333 Sanibel-Captiva Rd.; 941/472-2329. "You go inside a big tent and butterflies land on your head." Pinocchio's 362 Periwinkle Way; 941/472-6566. "There's a lot of good ice cream on Sanibel, but this is my favorite. The sundaes are immense." Tuttles 362 Periwinkle Way; 941/472-0707. "Baskets with shells and stuff for under a dollar. I got a shark-tooth necklace." Castle Golf 7400 Gladiolus Dr., Fort Myers; 941/489-1999. "Awesome miniature golf, with tons of water features. We go on our way to the airport."