Spring Break

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The best family vacations combine mind-improving visits to museums and historic houses with enough recreation to keep the kids happy; the older and moodier your children grow, the more carefully you choose and apportion your ingredients.

Last April my husband, Kevin, and I took our two teenage boys to Lee County, Florida. A visit to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates would be the educational uplift, relaxing on Sanibel Island the reward.

Thomas Edison’s winter home, in Fort Myers, Florida
 
edison-ford winter estates2006_1_histhapphere

The best family vacations combine mind-improving visits to museums and historic houses with enough recreation to keep the kids happy; the older and moodier your children grow, the more carefully you choose and apportion your ingredients.

Last April my husband, Kevin, and I took our two teenage boys to Lee County, Florida. A visit to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates would be the educational uplift, relaxing on Sanibel Island the reward.

We flew into Fort Myers, once an Army post for fighting the Seminoles and later a cattle-ranching town. The historic hotel we’d chosen to stay in on Sanibel had no room for a day or two, so we had made a reservation in Fort Myers Beach at the Pink Shell, a shiny new family resort with a waterfall spilling into the swimming pool. Since our flight was two hours late, we arrived, ravenous, at 9:59 p.m., just as the hotel dining room was closing. Fortunately, in the town’s neon-lit center a few restaurants were still open. We washed up at the Beached Whale, sat on the roof deck, ordered grouper sandwiches, and felt our hair curl in the warm, humid breezes off the Gulf of Mexico.

This stretch of beach, also known as Estero Island, is where Ponce de León careened his ships to make repairs when he first explored Florida in 1513. On his second visit Calusa Indians shot him with an arrow; he died in Cuba soon afterward.

The next morning we took a walk on the beach just outside our hotel. Within seconds we saw a dolphin swimming parallel to the shore. As we wandered into town, we saw half a dozen more dark fins rise to the surface and sink again, the unpredictability of their appearance part of the joy of seeing them.

Our son Dan, 15, was so exhausted by the first hour of his vacation that he went back to bed; Kevin and I and our 13-year-old, Jim, headed for the pool to see what it felt like to swim under the waterfall (it’s something like lying under a shower massage set to pulse). By the pool a man was giving lessons on how to operate a Segway Human Transporter, the adult-size scooter that uses a battery and gyroscopes to waft the rider along. “There is no accelerator and no brake,” he explained. “Lean forward and you move forward. Straighten up and you stop. Lean back, and you move backward.” The three of us took turns, and two of us were completely carried away.

Although Jim wanted to take up the man’s offer of a two-hour ride for just $60 per person, we grabbed Dan and set off for the area’s most celebrated attraction, the riverfront property where Thomas Edison (and later Henry Ford) went when the weather turned cold.

Edison first visited Florida in 1885, drawn by the prospect of mild temperatures and fishing. He bought property on the Caloosahatchee River. (“So many tarpon and other fish come up the shallow river,” Edison wrote a friend, “that it raises it 11 inches every season.”) He ordered two identical houses from a builder in Maine and had them shipped south on schooners. (The second house was for a friend and business partner with whom he soon had a falling-out.) In 1915 Henry Ford bought the property right next door.

As you drive into the estates, a huge banyan dominates the parking area; the tree was part of a botanical garden Edison created to test plants for their rubber content. Edison’s house was closed for restoration when we visited, but we stood on the wide wraparound porch and looked in the windows. (His wife Mina liked wicker, indoors and out.) We also visited the laboratory Edison built so that he could spend his vacations working. With its Bunsen burners and glass tubes, the lab struck Kevin, a chemistry teacher, as comfortingly like the one he used at college; I enjoyed seeing the cot where the great man took his naps.

Edison and Ford liked to take car trips into the Everglades; their wives would bring home orchids to plant in the crooks of trees on their property. During the week there are guided tours of the gardens, and if you arrive early enough, you can sign up for a one-hour river cruise in a reproduction of Edison’s electric launch Reliance . The museum here displays some of the fruits of Edison’s labor: phonographs, Kinetoscopes, light bulbs of all shapes and sizes. “Opportunity is missed by most people,” Edison said, “because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

The next morning we set off for Sanibel, a half-hour drive from Fort Myers Beach over a small causeway. The island, 12 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest, is one of the few islands anywhere that is oriented east-west rather than north south, which means that currents in the Gulf of Mexico deliver shells right up onto the shore.