Passion Points: Family
Spring break in Florida: for East Coasters, it’s just so easy and tempting. The weather in March and April is pretty much flawless, the ocean the perfect temperature for swimming; the only question is where to stay. If you’re looking for a big, full-service hotel with so many bells and whistles that it feels like a theme park (such as the Breakers in Palm Beach) or a hot spot with glamorous nightlife (like the Setai in Miami), you’re in luck. But for someone like myself who strongly prefers hotels that are small, distinctive and non-corporate, the options dwindle significantly. My husband and I have three boys, ages 4, 7 and 9, and our idea of a perfect vacation with them involves three things: (1) a short, direct flight from Manhattan (2) enough outdoor activities and excursions that the boys are completely tuckered out by the end of each day (3) a relaxed, family-oriented atmosphere where they can have a high degree of freedom and no one needs to dress up, ever (because nothing is more draining than constantly enforcing collared shirts, hushed tones and best manners in young boys). Triangulating the recommendations of friends and colleagues, we zeroed in on the Gasparilla Inn & Club, on the west coast of Florida.
Set on Boca Grande, a long, skinny barrier island near Naples, Gasparilla turned out to be a wonderful choice for us. We enjoyed all the facilities at the resort (tennis, gym, beach club, spa, impeccable Pete Dye golf course), the gracious architecture and the remarkable warmth and friendliness of the staff, but the real trump card for us was the old-fashioned atmosphere of the island. Gasparilla is situated two blocks back from the beach in a charming small town that’s about four blocks square. It’s low-key and über-preppy, the type of place where all the boutiques stock madras shorts, Nantucket reds and Lilly Pulitzer. There are a handful of stores, restaurants, ice cream stands and sandwich shops. But the clincher for me is that nearly everyone gets around either by golf cart or one-speed bike—which, come to think of it, is the perfect metaphor. It’s very much a one-speed vibe: simple, slow-paced, casual, thrown back in time. Because things are so calm and quiet, kids can be quite independent. (There aren’t many cars, and when one does pass, it’s usually going 5 mph.) We devoted our days to the beach club, pool, tennis, walks into town for sandwiches or ice cream, and golf cart rides around the island exploring. The boys: exhausted, elated. My husband and I: relaxed, happy. My BlackBerry: ignored, forgotten. Everybody won. And hey, I perfected the art of driving a golf cart with an ice cream cone in one hand and three rambunctious boys with boogie boards and inner tubes hanging off the back. Proud. Here are some dos and don’ts for those traveling with young kids:
- Do rent one of the two- or three-bedroom villas at the Inn if possible. They are more expensive than the rooms, suites or cottages, but worth every penny because they are quite spacious and equipped with a complete kitchen. (Note, however, that they don’t have WiFi, unlike the rest of the resort.)
- Don’t bother with the official resort meal plan. You can just as easily do a few meals at the Inn and the rest at the restaurants or sandwich shops in town. Our favorite finds: the sublime lobster rolls at Newlin’s, coffee ice cream at the Pink Pony, chocolate malted milkshakes at the Loose Caboose, pizza at Sisters. The Loose Caboose and the Pink Elephant (downstairs) are good family friendly dinner options. I shopped for pasta, fruit and other staples at Hudson’s, a small grocery store a few blocks away, and cooked most of the kids’ dinners at home, then got a sitter and went out to a restaurant with my husband. (Temptation was our favorite.) I appreciated that there was no minimum number of hours for the sitters, so you could easily get one for just an hour or two.
- Do stop at the Barnichol hardware store your first day to buy inflatable inner tubes and boogie boards, and at Fugate’s for water toys and sunblock.
- Do rent a golf cart for your entire stay. Sure, you could walk everywhere, but a golf cart is infinitely more fun and convenient, and allows you to explore the island. Be sure to arrange it prior to arrival.
- Do visit the Boca Community Center playground on First street, about a five-minute golf cart from the Inn. It’s fantastic, modern and much better than the playground in front of the Inn.
- Do rent bikes at Gasparilla Adventure. There are really wide, great bike paths that run the length of the island.
- Do rent stand up paddle boards for a morning. It’s easy to get the hang of it and loads of fun. And nothing tires kids out faster.
Getting There: Fly to Fort Myers RSW, an amazingly civilized and pleasant airport (who knew such a thing existed) which is a 90-minute drive from Gasparilla.
How Long to Stay: Great pick for a long weekend. Three to five days is ideal. I might get stir crazy after a week. You do run out of restaurant options after a while.
Read our review of Gasparilla.
Read our review of Caneel Bay, a low-key gem on St John.
Read about Jumby Bay, a private island where everyone gets around on bikes.
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