Beachcombing, crab races, surf 'n' turf, and room to roam at four top island beach spots

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?"

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.

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.

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).