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Sanibel and Captiva Islands -- Far Away from the Other Florida

CAPTIVA ISLAND, Fla. -- The white sandy beach was nearly empty, but this was no time to kick back and revel in solitude and sunshine -- not according to my 8-year-old daughter anyway.

``HURRY UP, Mom!'' Melanie commanded impatiently, tapping her foot in the sand. She had her neon-pink net bag in one hand and waterproof shell identification chart in the other. With her Yankees cap holding back her pony tail and a pair of oh-so-cool wraparound shades keeping the sun out of her eyes, Melanie was ready to roll.

Our mission: to collect as many different shells as we could find -- from a squiggly worm shell to a smooth oval that resembled an olive to angel wings and delicate sand dollars.

Here just a few miles off Florida's southwest coast, we were smack in the middle of some of the finest shelling beaches in the world. The twin islands of Captiva (named for the women pirates held captive here) and Sanibel, a half-hour drive from Fort Myers, jut out into the Gulf of Mexico and provide a natural catch-all for some 275 different kinds of shells and hundreds more offshore.

Shelling is such a big deal, in fact, Sanibel is home to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the only museum in the world devoted to shells. I couldn't get Melanie out of the children's hands-on learning lab. (Soak your finds in a bucket of bleach to remove the smell, museum experts advised Melanie, and then polish them with baby oil.)

But shells aren't all kids can discover along the miles of beaches here. There are dolphins jumping and manatees lolling in the harbor, and egrets, pelicans and ospreys -- more than 100 species of birds. Loggerhead sea turtles nest on the beaches here in the summer and early fall.

At Sanibel's 6,000-acre J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, we joined a group of families kayaking amid the red mangrove forest. Melanie's only complaint: I kept bumping into the trees' above-ground roots as we navigated the narrow passages.

We were about as far away from the Other Florida -- the theme-park hustle bustle of Orlando -- as a family could get, I thought as I navigated our kayak through the silent mangroves and hunted for shells with Melanie.

``We saw so many dolphins from our window, we stopped running to look,'' said Karen Pike, laughing, who was vacationing with her family at the sprawling South Seas Plantation resort on the tip of Captiva Island. At South Seas Plantation, there are 600 units, from hotel rooms to condos and cottages, spread over 330 acres. Melanie loved the giant trampoline inner tube anchored in the water and the chance to fish off the dock with a fishing pole we rented for an hour right there. I liked coupling the resort amenities with condo convenience. We could even order room service for dinner. ``It's so relaxing here,'' continued Pike, ``You don't even feel like you have to get up early.''

That's not to say there isn't plenty to keep the kids happily busy -- fishing off the dock, swimming, playing tennis, water skiing or sailing. The Offshore Sailing School runs a family learn-to-sail program here. South Seas and its sister resorts have just unveiled a new expanded children's program. There were also plenty of poolside activities every day, crab racing or crafts projects, as well as ``just-for-teens'' action.

But their easily accessible natural attractions make these islands such a good family vacation choice, an ideal spot to to mesh a little eco discovery with a lot of R&R -- for parents as well as the kids.

``There's so much for the kids to do that this is one place we parents really get to relax by the pool,'' observed Ray Hynson who was back with his wife and three kids for a third stay at South Seas from their North Carolina home. The place is expensive, he acknowledged, but a vacation value, too, because everyone has such a good time.

Melanie never wanted to get out of the pool -- except to go to the beach. To hedge our own shelling bets, we'd hopped a pontoon with some other shell seekers to the completely undeveloped state park on even smaller North Captiva Island (no beach bars or even bathrooms here).

Melanie couldn't have been happier. The shells were inches thick on the beach, and within an hour she'd filled her bag and another I'd brought along with perfect specimens -- plenty for her second-grade ``research project.''

We took every smelly shell home. The project was a big success.

IF YOU GO:

There are scores of places to stay, from hotels to condo complexes. Condos at South Seas Plantation start at under $300 a night in spring and fall, significantly less at the recently renovated and expanded 'Tween Waters Inn on Captiva (across the road from the beach) and Sundial Beach Resort on Sanibel, which boasts its own eco center equipped with a 450-gallon teach-and-touch tank. Sundial and South Seas are owned by MeriStar Resorts, along with several other resorts in the area, and have uniform children's programs.

Call South Seas or Sundial at 800-554-5454 or www.southseas.com.

Call 'Tween Waters Inn at 800-223-5865 or www.tween-waters.com.

Call the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce at 941-472-1080 or www.sanibel-captiva.org for other options. In late spring and summer, rates are about half those in winter, but be prepared for hot weather.

Call the Offshore Sailing School at 800-221-4326 or www.offshore-sailing.com.

Call the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum at 941-395-2233 or www.coconet.com.

Call Captiva Cruises for shelling trips at 941-472-5300 www.captivacruises.com.

Call the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge at 941-472-1100 or www.dingdarlingsociety.org

Don't forget plenty of sunscreen and a net bag for your shells.

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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