WANTED: Relaxing beachside getaway for family in need of warm sun and ocean breezes.
Clean seashores, gentle waters and kid-friendly activities a plus.
Overcrowded and frenzied destinations need not apply.
There is nothing wrong with mountain peaks or world-class cities. These destinations have a beauty all their own. At times, though, I dream of the sun, the smell of the sea and the squish of sand between my toes.
So it’s no surprise to anyone who knows me and my family when we opt to spend our vacation on the beaches of Florida. Yet, as we pull out the guidebooks to plan our trip, the question comes up: Where in Florida do we go? After all, travel in Florida is full of possibilities. America’s Sunshine State has more than 1,200 miles (1,930 km) of coastline to choose from.
We eventually decide on Fort Myers, a scenic, kid-friendly town of 48,000 on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Besides the city’s own beaches, the region boasts some 100 barrier and coastal islands — a virtual playground for lovers of sand and sea.
Wanting to stay right on the beach, we choose the Gulf Breeze Cottages on Sanibel Island, the largest of the outlying isles, as our initial base. We’ve never stayed in our own beach cottage before, and the kids barely drop their luggage in the simple, but well-appointed small house before they’re out on the beach.
But that doesn’t matter. Within minutes, they’re in the water, squealing as they jump over the waves. The cottage has provided beach chairs, coolers and umbrellas, so we give in and spend the rest of the day on the sand, sipping cool drinks and reading.
By day two, we’re up for exploring the island. The 12-mile-long (19 km) Sanibel is home to some 6,000 year-round residents who fiercely protect its natural beauty. Bike paths crisscross the isle, and there are no traffic lights. You won’t find chain restaurants and there are no structures taller than the largest palm tree.
Sanibel is known for eco-tourism and one of its best offerings is the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
The preserve, with more than 5,200 acres (21 km²) of mangrove ecology, is home to manatees, alligators, otters and other creatures. We plan to take a family kayaking trip through the refuge.
But it’s already hot when we arrive, and my winter-hardy kids virtually melt in the humidity and heat.
“It’s too hot out here,” our oldest whines.
“And there are bugs!” our eight-year-old adds, slapping at her back.
Sure enough, we forgot the bug spray — a must for outdoor activities in Florida — and there is no way we’re going onto the water without it. So we sprint back to the pro shop and slap down an outrageous price for the precious spray.
While our kids are still not happy, we forge ahead with the kayaks and try our hand at paddling. As we glide across the waters, fish jump out of the water, egrets swoop in and a curious alligator eyes us. Little by little, the heat is forgotten. The mangroves form tunnels over the waterways, and it’s otherworldly as we wind our way through their fairy-tale maze.
By the end of our tour, we are tired but happy. “Did you see that cool ‘gator?” our son asks, comparing notes with his sisters as if the trip were the kids’ idea all along.
In celebration of our kayaking success, we head to what turns out to be one of the highlights of the trip for our kids, The Bubble Room.
The pastel-colored restaurant is done in a Christmas theme, with thousands of dollars worth of antique toys on display, while every room has a train going around the top. It’s the food, though, that draws the locals back again and again.
Waiters are called Bubble Scouts at the restaurant, and our scout asks the question we’ve been asked over and over on the island: “Have you found any good shells yet?”
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