Serenity and adventure pair for a great getaway. Let me tell you about my perfect vacation.

Come Play on Captiva
Gary Clark

Top Five Vacation Favorites
1. Do the Captiva Crouch or the Sanibel Stoop early in the day, especially after a storm. The terms refer to your position as you gather shells and driftwood.
2. Watch manatees loll around in the marina waters and graze on thick beds of sea grass.
3. Gaze at the sunset from the beach--either at South Seas Island Resort or at Blind Pass, where Captiva and Sanibel meet.
4. Drive over the new causeway from Fort Myers to Sanibel (finished at last!).
5. Paddle a kayak alongside a pod of dolphins near the harbor.

Under the glow of a southwest Florida sun, sleek sailboats dance on turquoise seas. With every gentle lapping of the warm blue water on Captiva, a whispered tinkling sound settles around your bare feet. It's the murmur of the Gulf of Mexico tumbling pink, orange, red, gray, and blue shells on the ivory sand.

My family comes to this island paradise to play far from the crowds. Any place named for a pirate getaway has to be thrilling. This little spit of land includes a tiny village and a gleaming newly rebuilt resort (see "Charley's Aftermath" below). You'll discover a laid-back atmosphere that lacks the try-too-hard trappings of other destinations. Amid the lush palmettos, sea grapes, and sea oats, you'll find no buildings taller than a palm tree, no traffic lights, and no fast-food drive-throughs. Even when neighboring Sanibel spills over with visitors, Captiva feels uncrowded, tranquil, and private, yet it offers everything we desire in a vacation.

Charley's Aftermath
On August 13, 2004, Hurricane Charley turned ashore, sliding its eye directly over South Seas. Meanwhile, 150-mph winds flattened palms and gouged homes. In its wake, a 1/4-mile inlet, named Charley's Cut, severed North Captiva in two.
The village of Captiva appears intact. But the reincarnation of South Seas has been rockier. Its new owners (LXR) poured $140 million into rebuilding. Today, there's barely whisper to the island's wind-blown past, but the wetlands will take time to recover.

At Home at South Seas
Perched at the end of the road on Captiva, the 330-acre South Seas Island Resort lures guests with natural beauty. A nature preserve covers more than half the property that's tucked between 2.5 miles of beach and the fish-rich bay of Pine Island Sound.

Arriving here on a Saturday, our car packed with groceries for the week, we knew we'd rely on other transportation―walking, sailing, motorboating, or riding the resort's blue trolleys into the village. We opted to stay in the Marina Villas. These two-bedroom units, with full kitchens, face the harbor and sailing school where we watched the yachts come and go. Other lodging choices include beachfront condos or villas, cottages, or even large guest rooms near the pool complex.

Although we planned plenty of downtime at the beach and the pools, we filled our days with activity. Options included golfing on the resort's new emerald-hued executive course, parasailing above the Gulf, kayaking, tennis, and Steve and Doris Colgate's Offshore Sailing School.

Setting Sail
The resort offers plenty to fill a week, but we couldn't resist the sailing school. You see, just a few years ago, I married a man with a sailboat. While I grew up on the water, I generally use a paddle or a motor to get around. This is the best place I've found to learn how to harness the wind. The Offshore Sailing School maintains its headquarters nearby in Fort Myers and runs its largest selection of classes out of Yacht Harbor at South Seas.

I signed up for Learn to Sail and spent five days tackling an entirely new language where port and starboard replace good old left and right. The magic started the first afternoon, when my instructor turned off the motor. I took the tiller and listened as the wind and the waves pushed our swift Colgate 26. The boat responded to my hand like a well-trained horse.

Each day I gained confidence. One day, my instructor made sure I could handle a solo man-overboard drill. Another time, I took the helm and sailed "close to the wind" (tight sails with no luffing) while the craft heeled onto its edge. As the boom splashed deep into the water and the spray hit my face, I found a thrill better than any theme park ride.

My husband's days were much calmer. Enrolled in the Bareboat Cruising Preparation course, he wanted a certification to charter a big sailboat for a future Caribbean vacation. His group set off in a lovely 44-foot Hunter, with a gorgeous mahogany cabin, a kitchen, and four staterooms. By the end of the week, he felt he could handle a boat that could actually cross the ocean. If we sail around the world (a big if), I can be a capable first mate now.

If sailing is not your idea of a vacation, take some off-island side trips. One morning we met Capt. Mike Fuery for a journey aboard his boat. We motored past North Captiva Island beyond the resort, where we could see a new pass cut to the bay by Hurricane Charley. Our destination was a slip of privately owned paradise called Cabbage Key.

There, two generations of the Wells family run the compound featuring the Cabbage Key Inn. The inn's restaurant serves up some of the most famous food on the West Florida Coast. Locals say the burgers here inspired Jimmy Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise." Come for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, as well as to drink in the Dollar Bill Bar, wallpapered with autographed dollars. Be sure to add your John Hancock to the likes of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Jimmy Carter.

We left after lunch to head to the mecca for shellers: the southern tip of Cayo Costa State Park. The shells are so deep on this undeveloped island's beach, you'll want to wear shoes for comfort. Captain Mike backed his boat into knee-deep water where he helped us spy shells. We learned to look on the sand at the high tide line, as well as in the water where a shallow ledge just offshore catches washed-up shells.

I searched for the junonia--the coveted spotted specimen found on these islands--to no avail. But in an hour I pocketed 16 lettered olives, a half-dozen angel wings, shark eyes, cockles, and true tulips.

Don't Miss: Paradise Found
South Seas Island Resort: or 1-888-222-7848. Rates: High-season accommodations start at $419 for a one-bedroom, $699 for two bedrooms, and $1,259 for luxury homes. Summer rates drop more than 50%.
Steve and Doris Colgate's Offshore Sailing School: or 1-800-221-4326. Rates: Five-day Learn to Sail packages (including hotel room and taxes) start at $1,855 per person, double occupancy. Call for more information, pricing, and availability.
Capt. Mike Fuery Shelling Charters: (239) 466-3649. Rates: $225 for a three-hour shelling trip for two people or $250 for four folks.
Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau: or 1-800-237-6444.

Favorite Dining Spots on Captiva & Sanibel
When visiting the islands during spring high season, we had to decide whether a meal was really worth getting in the car to sit in logjams on Sanibel. Here are a few restaurants I'd trudge through traffic for anytime.

Traders: 1551 Periwinkle Way; (239) 472-7242 (reservations a must). Friendly, fresh, and local describe lunches and dinners at this perennial favorite. Fabulous macadamia-crusted grouper and lamb shank.

Dolce Vita: 1244 Periwinkle Way; or (239) 472-5555. Upscale Italian, ideal for families looking for a dressy dinner. Excellent pastas, seafood, steaks, and wines accompanied by live music nightly.

Keylime Bistro: 11509 Andy Rosse Lane; or (239) 395-4000. Sit outside and enjoy casual Floribbean cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Save room for the eponymous pie.

The Mucky Duck: 11546 Andy Rosse Lane; or (239) 472-3434. The number one sunset pilgrimage restaurant on both islands features live music on the patio this time of year. Once inside, order crab cakes, lobster tail, or steak from this odd-duck English pub on the beach.

The Bubble Room: 15001 Captiva Drive; or (239) 472-5558. Yes, this weird 1970s favorite is getting tired, but it's still the quirkiest meal. Where else can you eat red velvet cake slices the size of bread loaves served by Bubble Scouts? Makes no sense? Then you'll have to go to see for yourself.

Lighthouse Cafe: 362 Periwinkle Way; or (239) 472-0303. Wander to the east end of Sanibel for the best breakfast omelets on the islands.

Doc Ford's Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille: 975 Rabbit Road; or (239) 472-8311. Some come to eat, some come to people-watch, we go to drink and do both. Order the fish tacos or the prosciutto-wrapped barbecue shrimp, and settle into a cold drink. Yum.

Sunshine Seafood Café & Wine Bar: 14900 Captiva Drive; (239) 472-6200. Sit outside and watch Captiva go by as you enjoy a lovely snapper picatta, paella, or tuna au poivre. The food is upscale, yet the ambience is decidedly friendly.

RC Otter's Island Eats: 11506 Andy Rosse Lane, or (239) 395-1142. Families looking for super-cool, casual environs will love the deck here with its song-filled keyboard player. Fried shrimp, quesadillas, burgers, and barbecue make it a favorite with the still-in-swimsuit crowd.

"Come Play on Captiva" is from the March 2008 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.