Growing up in Naples should have been unimaginable bliss, but I was a kid, and craved "excitement" over the natural paradise. I couldn't wait to leave for college in the northeast, and only returned to live there many years later, when I could truly appreciate it. Naples had changed, but it was still a tropical paradise.
For a variety of reasons, we moved to Highlands Ranch, CO almost two years ago, and we have been happy here ever since. So it is an interesting experience returning to Naples as a tourist.
It has been my experience that you either prefer the more natural west coast of Florida or the east coast of Florida, which usually includes the glitz and the crowds of Miami, Boca and Palm Beach. The people who seek out the west coast are generally looking for the beauty and tranquility of the whitest beaches and calmest water anywhere.
Naples' 10 miles of pure white sugar colored and textured sand beaches are not only unique for their sand and water, but they are virtually all public. Every avenue in the town terminates in a public entrance to the beach. Voted the Best Beach in America by The Travel Channel in 2005, it is easy to see why. The pristine white sand feels heavenly under your feet, and the water in the Gulf of Mexico is generally warmer than the Atlantic on the other coast, with no steep drop-offs or frightening undercurrents. It has been described as bathing in a large, calm bathtub full of clear turquoise water.
Night or day, the expansive Naples beaches are a must-see, but the sunset is mandatory. Seeing the sun set in the west over the Gulf is amazing! Watching it from the beach, with the famous city pier to one side, is unforgettable!
Then there's the "green lightning"at the point when the sun puddles (it does not sink, but puddles) into the horizon on the water. If the conditions are just right, you may be one of the lucky few to see the quick flash of green lightning, and know that it isn't a baseless legend. It exists! But, even without it, the sunset rarely disappoints. Afterwards, given the right cloud formations, an enormous multicolored afterglow blossoms and covers, not only the area where the sun set, but often encircles the entire sky with a radiant display well after the sun has puddled below the watery horizon.
Popular ways of getting around this relatively small town include bicycles, Segways, scooters, and old-fashioned walking. The latter is particularly convenient if you are centrally located near Fifth Avenue (the main drag), Third Street (another main drag) or other area convenient to the beach. However, much of the time, cars are the usual and necessary conveyance. So, if you rent one, consider a convertible--and use sunscreen, as the tan will be worth it! Also, Naples has a strictly enforced code that pedestrians rule. Unlike large cities where you take your life into your hands by venturing across a street, feel free to step out onto all but the few high-speed roads, and cars will immediately stop for you.
Beyond the endless and accessible beaches, there is the sheer natural beauty of the town. It was not "planned" or created as a development, it was discovered years ago, and, until the last few decades, was largely a well-kept secret secure in its natural habitat. Given its location as almost the southernmost area on the west coast of Florida, finding it once meant wandering through the lush tropical wilderness filled with alligators and snakes. The first permanent residents were two brothers who settled in what is now the Gordon Pass area in 1876. During the land boom of the 1880s, Naples first became known to a select group of wealthy businessmen who founded a company to survey the land and began offering lots at $10 each. The town was reorganized by a group of prominent Kentuckians in 1887, who, along with Walter Haldeman, a newspaper publisher, began building the town for the purpose of attracting tourism. As there were no improved roads or rail access to the area, a huge wooden pier was built out from the beach to allow visitors to unload from steamships. However, despite all their marketing efforts, the remote paradise languished until the 1920s when roads and railroads began to reach the wilderness. In 1932 Charles Lindbergh landed his plane in Naples so that he and his wife could vacation in the area.
During World War II, the Army built an airfield there to train pilots for combat. After the war, the once remote paradise became more populated, and serious development was underway. By 1950, many luxurious subdivisions were formed along the lazy canals of the intracoastal waterway and the Naples Bay. Soon there was a bank and hospital, and improvements came as a result of contributions from the wealthy early residents. Naples was no longer isolated, and, although still Florida's last frontier, tourism flourished. It survived and rebuilt after two devastating hurricanes; Hurricane Donna in 1960 was the most destructive causing over $25 million in damage to most existing structures in the city.
The lush tropical foliage has remained the same and is all native and natural to the area. A 2/3 mile walk out on the boardwalk from Clam Pass to the beach (Clam Pass is where Pine Ridge Road ends at the beach) winds through an environmental preserve which demonstrates the flora and fauna native to the area. It is the perfect after-dinner exercise when timed to reach the beach for the sunset as a finale. We have experienced frolicing manatees there at the water's edge close enough to touch. Shelling is still good, and watching the phosphorescent mini-waves licking the smooth sand after dark makes it romantic and serene. I used to just sit there for hours, watching the waves lap the sand, feeling as though I could see forever.
If you tire of the beaches and the more than 80 championship golf courses in this relatively small 14 square mile city, you don't have to look far for other entertainment. The Naples Players, Philharmonic Center for the Arts, Philharmonic Orchestra and several theater companies provide first class art and entertainment. The Naples Zoo was formerly the lush Caribbean Gardens, rivaling Cypress Gardens for its botanical treasures. Today it sports animal life of all kinds from lions and tigers to monkey island cruises, as well as camel rides. Children love the small scale train rides at the old Naples Depot, all that remains of the train station that brought thousands of visitors to the area. The Botanical Gardens identify all the natural flora and has a delightful butterfly house. For athletes, the Naples Half Marathon has been acclaimed by Runners World Magazine as one of the best half-marathons in the country.
For a wonderful peek inside what old Naples was like and how it came to be, a visit to the preserved Palm Cottage, just down the street from the Naples Pier, is a must-see. It includes a hilarious faux Hollywood movie made by some of Naples' first vacationers to entertain themselves over a century ago.
If you see Naples, you will love it. And you are not alone. Some of Naples' better-known property owners include astronaut Buzz Aldrin, NBA's Larry Bird, author Robin Cook, Mike Ditka, author Janet Evanovich, Microsoft's Bill Gates, Papa John's Pizza founder, Dominos Pizza's founder, Florida's Governor Rick Scott, Bob Seger, Judge Judy, Dick Gephardt, and Donald Trump to name just a few.
Venturing outside of Naples provides easy access to the Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and of course, Alligator Alley and old US 41(Tamiami Trail) connecting Naples to Florida's east coast. Airboat rides on the Seminole Indian reservation are an interesting way to see the vast swamp that is the Everglades.
But most of all, you'll love Naples because it is truly a paradise. With its own airport, it is easy to access now, and well worth the trip.