SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. - On her last morning in Florida, 9-year-old Monica Winter finds a small crab washed up on shore amid the anemones and calico scallops.
She touches it with her pink-painted fingernails, then picks it up.
"Grandma, look," she says, plopping the little crab onto the sand in front of Lola Winter, part-time Sanibel resident from Ithaca, N.Y.
Her grandma oohs and aahs at the lifeless crab.
Monica lives in Chicago. Sanibel, a quiet barrier island across a causeway from Fort Myers, is about as far from the big city or Disney extravaganza as you can get.
"Kids might make some friends here," Monica says. "And there are lots of swinging hammocks that kids would like."
When it comes to Florida vacations, is it possible that Grandma and Grandpa know best?
It's a critical question, because as thousands of snowbirds flock to the Fort Myers-Sanibel region of southwest Florida this winter, their grandchildren aren't far behind.
Snowbirds often find themselves acting as entertainment committee for friends and family from up north. While some don't want visitors, others welcome plenty.
"I just had a reunion with two old friends from grade school," says Barb Awe of Southfield, Mich., who with her husband, Roy, lives eight months of the year on quiet Sanibel.
Although the 12 mile-long island has neither a speck of neon nor a single roller coaster, all five of the Awes' grandchildren, ages 9 to 17, have visited during the seven years they've had their place.
Up in North Fort Myers, Shorty Frame of Toledo spends January to April each year at his winter home. He's got 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and they've all come to visit, he says with a smile.
But what do you actually do with a visiting grandchild? That's a huge worry for grandparents who think kids will be bored.
"You mean, after I get done hugging her for three days?" says Judith Papier, a Sanibel winter resident whose 4-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, just arrived for a visit.
"The little ones like the shelling, and the teenagers work on their tans. They just sit on the beach and keep lifting up the edge of their bathing suits to see if they are tan yet," says Papier, who spends summers in New Jersey.
Frame says it's easier than you think to entertain grandchildren: "Swimming in the pool, that's the main thing they want to do." He also takes them to the Fort Myers Shell Factory to ride the bumper boats and to Manatee Park near the power plant to watch the manatees.
He sends the teenagers to funky Fort Myers Beach, with its bikinis, hunks and jet skis.
Not every grandparent wants to invite his or her grandchildren to visit. That's no crime if you don't have the space or inclination. But if you want the company in southwest Florida, don't be afraid that there will be nothing for kids to do. Just explain to kids up front that Fort Myers and Sanibel are not near Disney World. Orlando is 175 miles northeast - too far for a day trip.
Focus instead on all the cool stuff children can do nearby - most of it is free or cheap in this balmy region where the average January temperature is 74 degrees. The miniature train at Fort Myers' Lakes Park is just $2 a person. A little bird show at Sanibel's Periwinkle Trailer Park is free. Shelling on the beaches costs nothing.
Southwest Florida "is not Disney-fied," says Candy Harris of Rochester Hills, Mich., who lives part-time in Sanibel with her husband, Larry. She thinks that is a good thing.
"My son was 7 when we first came here, and he loved shelling so much that you would have thought it was buried treasure," she says.
One time, Harris and her son saw an alligator eating a pelican at Sanibel's Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Let's see Disney top that.
Data for Lee County, where Fort Myers and Sanibel are located, show that in November alone, nearly half its visitors stayed with friends or relatives rather than hotels or rentals.
But if you don't have a grandparent to bunk with, this is the year to rent a place and give it a try.
The real estate meltdown in Florida has left plenty of southwest Florida properties still for rent, even this month and in March. The most expensive rentals and hotel rooms (more than $200 a day) will be on Sanibel and Captiva Islands and south to Naples, but you can find better deals inland.
Tourism is still recovering from Hurricane Charley, which slammed into Sanibel-Captiva in 2004. Another plus? There's been none of the red algae pileups along shorelines that drove away visitors in previous years.
The Moffett family of Golden, Colo., found a January condo to rent on Sanibel through www.vrbo.com. Now they're about to go home. Before they do, I ask Melissa Moffett, 7, her favorite part of the trip. "Sand castles," she says. "Making the sand castles."
Cost: Nothing. Value: Well, you know.
Sanibel and Fort Myers
Places to stay
For condos, check www.greatrentals.com.
Places to eat
Can be expensive on Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach, with the children's menus featuring $8.95 grilled cheese sandwiches. Splurge with the children at the Bubble Room, 15001 Captiva Dr., a kitschy, cluttery place with toys on the walls and waiters in scout uniforms.
Activities on Sanibel
3075 Sanibel-Captiva Rd.
It's a treasure trove on the beach every morning. And after you've been to the shell museum, you have a new respect for shells and the little devils that inhabit them. Free.
If your grandchild will be in town longer than a week, he or she might like to meet other kids at a day camp for ages 6-13 (414 Lagoon Dr.) that focuses on the environment. About $55 for a half-day.
Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge Sanibel-Captiva Rd.
(Mile Marker 2).
Sanibel's biggest attraction. Tram tours, children's exhibits, kayaking, canoeing and more in this nature nirvana. (Kayak trail tour $30 adult, $20 child; tram $12 adults, $8 child.)
Billy's Bikes and Segway
1509 Periwinkle Way
Teens will enjoy renting Segways ($60 for a tour) for an adventure.
Periwinkle Trailer Park
1119 Periwinkle Way
Very little ones will enjoy the free bird show at 10 a.m. For details on all these attractions, see www.sanibel-captiva.org.
Activities in Fort Myers
Fort Myers Beach
Send older teenagers or college students to this funky beach with bikinis, hunks and all the tourist traps, including parasailing and jet skiing.
A city park that features a miniature train ride, great for little ones; adults can ride, too. Main cost: about $7 for parking.
2787 N. Tamiami Trail, North Fort Myers
Calls itself the world's largest. Elementary-age kids will also like the bumper boats ($5).
Spring training baseball
The Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins both train in Fort Myers; most games are next month.
www.fortmyers-sanibel.com - Ellen Creager