From the February 2016 issue

Fort Myers, Florida Beach Vacation for Families

Scoop up seashells, meet an alligator in the Everglades – and much more – in Florida.

What beach are we going to today, mom?” my 12-year-old asked, already in her swimsuit and flip-flops (it was barely 8 a.m.). Before our seven-day trip in Fort Myers, I told my three kids there were enough beaches in the area that we could go to a different one every day. This southwest Florida tourist lure didn’t disappoint.

Shells and sand

Beaches blend one into another starting from the Fort Myers Beach Pier all down the coast into neighboring Naples before fading into Everglades National Park. But each is unique – and even individual beaches change with the tides. It’s prime seashell conditions, too: Shores teem with thousands of types.

For our first foray, we packed the chairs and snack-stocked cooler and hit popular Bonita Beach. The good: It’s convenient and there’s a free parking lot and alcoves along the main road. The tricky: Parking can be limited, both here and at nearby Fort Myers Beach, and restrooms tough to find if you’re not near the main lots. The beaches, lined with resorts, homes and condos, have a cosmopolitan feel.

Our favorites, though, were designated preserves. These sandy oases, surrounded by tropical plants, felt tucked away, though there were still plenty of people. My kids declared Barefoot Beach Preserve the best – and begged for a repeat visit. With an $8 entry fee, you can hang out from dawn to sunset. As the name suggests, pitch your shoes. We rotated through sitting on our chairs mesmerized by the waves to walking the surf looking for shells to taking a swim.

Lovers Key

My top pick, meanwhile, was Lovers Key State Park, for its more outlying location. We started early with a guided kayaking tour from Lovers Key Adventures, where you can also rent bikes, canoes and pedal boats. Our enthusiastic guide spied osprey and hawks in the nearby foliage as we paddled. He even took dip and brought up a sea urchin and horseshoe crab to show off the underwater ecosystems. Early on, my kids tried to convince me a water ripple near our kayak was something more. It turned out to be a manatee mama and her cub! I didn’t question their spotting skills later when a dolphin swam right under their kayaks ($38-$58/four hours).

Save your $8 entry receipt to use all day. We headed inland for lunch and then returned. We were one of two families left as the sun set.

Alligator quest

The Everglades lies just east of Fort Myers, about an hour’s drive away. We devoted a day, though you could spend many, to Everglades National Park.

In Everglades City, we took a 60-minute airboat tour through the mangrove-lined waterways. Our captain pointed out local vegetation and wildlife, including a friendly raccoon and a more menacing looking alligator that popped up nearby. Besides the chance to spy a gator, the real thrill of the tour is racing through the trees, where your boat seems to be barely touching the water – my kids decided it was better than any roller coaster. We opted for Everglades Island Airboat Tours (prices vary).

Save some time to stop at neighboring Big Cypress National Preserve. You’re guaranteed to see an alligator at the Oasis Visitor Center, where a large pond out front houses several.

Six Florida trip tips

Help your family avoid a few common beach-novice pitfalls.

Don’t over pack. Most days, all you need is a swimsuit and a cover-up. Ditto the kicks. One set of flip-flops and sturdy walking shoes: That’ll do.

Finding swim gear is easy. Finding boogie boards, sand pails and extras is a breeze – even 7-Eleven had cheap beach chairs. We gave ours away the last day.

Roll the windows down. There’s no need for the air conditioner in the car. Feel that warm breeze on your face, right in the middle of winter.

Consider a rental. Houses and condos abound here. We found a rental on HomeAway.com and got a three-bedroom house with a pool attached for less than a hotel.

Buy bug spray. Staves off bugs called no-see-ums (really) that cause itchy bites.

Save room for shells. The beaches are covered! Bring a large plastic bag for kids’ collections.

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