By Susan & Simon Veness
While the Sunshine State’s beaches and theme parks are the prime draws for the majority, Florida still boasts superb city experiences that are equally compelling. This series of blogs looks at the fabulous array of attractions that await in the state’s many urban destinations.
Florida’s deep south-west corner is a bit of a mystery to many Sunshine State visitors. It is quite a hike from each of the main international gateways, and its charms are more subtle than most. But, if you are missing out on Naples (and its neighbour, Marco Island), you are missing an essential Floridian experience.
Founded in the late 1880s by two perceptive Kentucky businessmen, it suffered several false starts as a destination thanks to the Great Depression and World War II and only really began to catch on in the 1960s with the state’s own tourism boom.
While the long stretches of gorgeous beach (hence the ‘Paradise Coast’ marketing slogan) and expanses of nature preserve are all perfectly natural, many of the waterways and canals are man-made and add a glamorous, upscale touch. This is where a lot of Florida’s ‘old money’ resides, and the opulent touch it lends to the general vista is undeniable.
Even better, Naples is the western gateway to the magnificent Florida Everglades, and there are a variety of tours you can take that will showcase this astounding natural phenomenon, or just take a drive east along Highway 41 – the Tamiami Trail – and discover it for yourself.
The Luxury Side of Naples
Take a (slow – the speed limit is only 25mph) drive along Gulf Shore Boulevard and Gordon Drive and you will catch glimpses of eye-catching mansions that are only the second homes of people who live ‘up north’ for parts of the year!
Consequently, just about everything in Naples has a luxury cachet, from the resorts to the shops, restaurants, art galleries and parks. This is the place to come for a swish and soothing holiday experience, albeit there are still plenty of active options for those who want to go kayaking, paddle-boarding, fishing or sailing while they enjoy the full Florida vibe.
DID YOU KNOW…?
The city of Naples takes its name directly from its Italian namesake after the founding fathers promoted the area in newspapers and magazines by insisting its scenic beauty “surpasses the bay in Naples, Italy.”
Getting Around Naples
While this isn’t a big city (and even ‘city’ is stretching it a bit, as there is no core ‘downtown’ area as such), it is fairly well spread out, hence having a hire car is important for getting around at your leisure and see some of the more off-the-beaten-track areas.
The hop-on, hop-off Naples Trolley Tours (8.30am-6pm seven days a week) are great for providing an overview of the main areas while also offering the next best thing to a bus service to get you to places like some of the beaches, Naples Pier, the City dock and several museums and shopping centres.
For pure entertainment, Trike Tours USA, who operate out of the Tin City Shops complex – the old fishing hub – offer a series of two-hour trundles around Naples in highly convivial fashion on electric trikes that are suitable for all the family. You’ll get an enjoyable tour to the Pier, main beach, shopping and residential areas, and have fun at the same time.
The Best Naples Museums
You’ll discover a wealth of small-scale treasures in the cultural scene hereabouts, highlighted by the impressive Artis-Naples, home of the Baker Museum and Naples Philharmonic, and the region’s centre for the visual and performing arts.
Step back in time at the Naples Historical Society’s Historic Palm Cottage, depicting life in the 1890s, then stop by the moving Holocaust Museum and Cohen Education Center for some thought-provoking history. Naples Depot Museum is a must for train enthusiasts, while Golisano Children’s Museum is fun for the little ’uns.
The Best Naples Nature
This is definitely a great part of Florida to revel in the state’s natural aspect, with several notable state parks, wildlife preserves and the immensity of the coastal waterways to explore by kayak, paddle-board or boat.
Masses of birdlife is on offer at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the Bird Gardens of Naples, while Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park is a lovely stretch of natural seaside splendour, with miles of walking trails and superb beaches to highlight both aspects of the coast.
For more exotic animal encounters, head to Naples Zoo – one of Florida’s best – for an all-day experience with giraffes, lemurs, panthers, lions, black bears and more, much of it with an enjoyable educational quotient.
The Best Naples Dining
If you’re looking for a memorable meal, Naples can provide a wonderful array of great restaurants and cafes, both in the two main ‘high streets’ of 5th Avenue South and 3rd Street South, and beyond.
Start in the happening area of 5th Street South – the Bond Street of Naples – and take your pick from a tantalising range of local and international cuisines. Steak and seafood lovers should make a beeline for upscale Ocean Prime or Truluck’s, creative American fare at Hobnob Kitchen & Bar, the bistro style of The Café, Bistro 821, Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro, Osteria Tulia or The French Brasserie Rustique, or, for fine Italian, Bice, Bar Tulia or Alberto’s.
Make sure you cruise 3rd Street South for any of D’Amicos (an impressive steakhouse), Jane’s Café (ideal for brunch), lively Tommy Bahama Café (with its island-style vibe and wonderful coconut shrimp), Sea Salt (for seafood with a modern twist), Mediterrano (a heavenly mix of local seafood and Mediterranean cuisine) Old Naples Pub (true gastropub style) or Campielo or Barbatella (more excellent Italian).
Beyond these two main areas you will find more culinary gems, especially for lunch, at The Village Shops on Venetian Bay (eight great choices), and notable individuals such as the Latin flair of Van Van Cuban Café, Peruvian flavours of Lima Restaurant, fabulous gastropub Fuse Global Cuisine and, for a special occasion, Watermark Grille.
For something completely different, head to Celebration Park. This purpose-built combination of Food Truck park and open-air bar sits on a canal with lovely waterfront views and some surprisingly tasty – and stylish – food offerings.
The Best Naples Shopping
If you’re not coming to Naples for the shopping, you are missing one of the main events here. This is the epi-centre of retail chic in south-west Florida, and there are few places that do it better anywhere in the state.
As with much of the Naples, it all starts with 5th Avenue South, the chic street of all that’s good and glamorous hereabouts, with almost a half-mile of boutiques, galleries, restaurants and cafes, almost all of a distinctive, original nature. Then there’s 3rd Street South, a complementary centre of one-off shopping and dining, including superb art galleries.
Other purpose-built shopping complexes – all of which feature excellent restaurant choices as well – include The Village Shops on Venetian Bay, with a glorious waterfront location; the eye-catching Waterside Shops, with fabulous water features and key department stores Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue; and Tin City, the converted fishing warehouses that are now home to a selection of gift and souvenir shops, and two restaurants.
It all adds up to a distinctive adventure in fashionable charm and discovery, not to mention outstanding dining and wonderful nature. If you miss Naples, you have really missed out!
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.