Fort Myers Beach: More than sand and shells

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FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. -Years ago, I broke ranks with my college girlfriends who headed to the Florida coast in lemming-like fashion in search of wild times each year.

But the strangest thing happened a few light-years later: Florida seemed like a great place to travel on a different sort of girls-only trip, as the lone grown-up with my 7-year-old daughter.

There was something appealing about the idea of Floridas Gulf Coast, powdery sand, seashells galore and low-glam lodgings that provided enough comfort and simple conveniences as a framework for a vacation without a relentless roster of activity.

And it was a quick, one-flight hop from New York.

At the ripe old age of 39 (again), I was finally a spring-breaker.

Before flying south, Id learned that the cab ride from the airport to the hotel would cost about $40 each way, and as Id planned to do some exploring, it was more cost-effective to rent a car instead. 

Set loose on the roads of Fort Myers in my ubiquitous white midsize sedan, I did my New York best to drive fast.

I covered the short and well-marked distance from Southwest Florida Airport in Fort Myers to Estero Island, home of Fort Myers Beach, in just under an hour and endured just two are we there yets during our journey.

As we drove over Matanzas Pass Bridge onto the island, the Main Street entertainment area announced our arrival in vacationland (see sidebar below).

Sophie easily spotted the 12-story DiamondHead Beach Resort, which is fronted by a long, flat, white beach.

In another 20 minutes, we were in bathing suits on the beach with our feet in the gulf. A box of beach toys provided by the property offered the necessary inspiration for an hours worth of digging and hunting for beach critters.

The nearby heated pool came with a priceless commodity -- a herd of playmates.

Sophie quickly networked her way into a group of kids, frolicked until dark, drank the first of many virgin strawberry margaritas served poolside and, after a room-service dinner, conked out face down on the king-size bed while I snoozed on the pullout sofa of our waterview, one-bedroom suite.

Both the hotel and Fort Myers Beach seemed uncrowded, and the bellman later explained that a large convention had just left town. Although the areas reputation called for crowds, our stay was delightfully quiet.

Fringed by a mix of private homes, businesses and unglitzy, mostly low-rise hotels, the atmosphere was laid back and child-friendly.

With the exception of one particularly stormy day, the gulfs flat-as-glass water was very safe for smaller children, and the wide beach was fine for shelling and exploring. 

Two teens we met said theyd explored the beach independently and prowled Main Street to escape the gravitational force of their parents.

We spotted families at DiamondHead carrying bags of groceries -- to take full advantage of their well-equipped kitchenettes to prepare quick meals and snacks.

Convenience stores were within walking distance, but I opted to make a 10-minute drive to one of several nearby grocery stores for better goodies.

By night, the town fairly hummed with activity, with lots of tourists exploring on foot. We spotted some fellow guests downtown at Main Street, hoofing around the surf shops, restaurants and ice-cream parlors.

For adults who wanted a bit more nightlife, there seemed to be a fair amount of traffic in and out of the open-air bars and restaurants that dot Estero Boulevard, but after our early dinners, Sophie and I took the slow lane instead.

We witnessed dolphins breaching offshore from our screened balcony as the sun set, walked on the beach and, after much splashing and diving and playing outdoors all day, welcomed an early bedtime.

This had been a spring break I could tell my Mom about.

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