Paradise Found

The Local Sandwich

Philly has the cheesesteak sandwich, Chicago has the deep-dish pizza, New Orleans has muffaletta and San Francisco has sourdough bread. Southwest Florida? It has the grouper sandwich.

You can find grouper sandwiches on the menu of any self-respecting restaurant in the Naples area, and many take it to new heights with their particular versions.

Grouper, of course, is a member of the sea bass family with solid white meat and an almost sweet flavor. The standard grouper sandwich takes a filet and deep-fries it until the exterior is golden and the interior is tender. Slathered with tartar sauce for flavor and served on a grilled bun like a burger with onion, tomato and lettuce… yum!

But if the idea of deep-fried anything makes your cholesterol start to bubble, you can also find restaurants that serve healthier versions that are broiled, grilled, pan-seared or even blackened Cajun style.

Other renditions of the grouper sandwich have it deep-fried with a breading of cornflakes to give it a crunchy coating, as a Reuben on rye bread, or open-faced with melted Swiss cheese.

Whichever way you prefer it, the grouper sandwich is just one more reason to visit this area. —C.C.

Shelling Secrets

Marco Island is famous for an abundance of beautiful shells and, if you’d like to take home a collection as a reminder of your visit, here are some insider tips.

Shelling is all about the tides. Low tide exposes the maximum number of shells, so check the tide table. If you’re shelling at low tide remember the tide comes back in, so don’t get caught on a sand bar.

Beware of the sun. Slather yourself with sun lotion and wear a hat. Don’t forget to put lotion on the tops of your feet if you’re not wearing shoes.

Take a mesh bag, so water and sand can run out easily, but also take smaller bags to protect delicate or tiny shells separately.

Don’t bother taking live shells, since they are often illegal to procure and require a complicated cleaning process. Sand dollars are fragile and should be dried in the sun for several days, then hardened with either Elmer’s Glue or a special sand dollar hardener available at shell shops. To clean your finds, soak them briefly in bleach and then rinse thoroughly. —C.C.

Resources

Paradise Found

By Chris Caswell
Florida’s Paradise Coast, including the charming and eclectic city of Naples, offers a little something for everyone.

If you were to fly over Naples, you might have good reason to think this western Florida city is nothing more than one very long golf course that seems to block the wilderness of the Florida Everglades from encroaching on the pristine white beaches lining the Gulf of Mexico.

Depending on whom you ask, you might not be wrong. With more than 90 golf courses in Collier County, the Naples area always ranks at the top of the National Golf Foundation’s “Golf Holes Per Capita” listings. Handy tip: Bring your golf clubs!

But there’s much more for visitors to enjoy, from world-class culture and sophisticated dining to affordable family fun on the edge of the sparkling Gulf of Mexico. Even if you don’t have your boat with you, the waterside location of Naples means you’ll never be far from getting your toes wet.

Located on the so-called Paradise Coast in southwest Florida that extends more than 30 miles, Naples is centered in an area that includes Marco Island to the south and Big Cypress National Preserve to the east. West, the Gulf of Mexico stretches to the horizon.

Unlike many cities, Naples makes no pretense at being an industrial or manufacturing or technology center. Naples is an attractive resort community with miles of condo towers drawing heavily on snowbirds during the winter and retirees year ’round, while the resorts are a prime destination for anyone looking for a warm getaway.

Of course, you can’t mention Naples without mentioning the great weather. As you read this, you’re likely somewhere very cold, very wet, and very slushy. As I write this shortly before Thanksgiving, the temperature in Naples is in the low 80s, and it is exactly that balmy weather that launched Naples into being.

The perfect winter antidote

Once populated exclusively by the Caloosa Indians, the first settlers arrived in present-day Naples in the late 1860s, but it was the magazine articles of the late 1800s describing the mild climate and abundant fish that set the stage. Promoters compared it to that sunny Italian peninsula and, when one described it as “surpassing the bay in Naples, Italy” the name was born.

The Naples Town Improvement Company was founded and lots were sold, with brochures touting “where roses bloom in December, where sickness is the exception and health the rule, and where surf bathing is enjoyed in January.”

Naples quickly became known as “the” winter resort, and social life revolved around the Naples Hotel, which, over the years, hosted the likes of Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, and Gary Cooper. As the area was discovered, prices soon rose, and it wasn’t long before a beachfront lot cost a whopping $125!

Today, Naples is still “the” winter resort, but it’s grown into a beautiful city as well. Pedestrian walkways are lined with tropical landscaping, while the streets are filled with art galleries, an eclectic collection of shops, and restaurants to meet every taste (and budget).

If you arrive by boat via the Intracoastal Waterway, perhaps as part of a Great Loop adventure, Naples is likely to be one of those let’s-stay-another-day-or-two places, so plan your schedule accordingly. There are a multitude of great marinas offering transient moorings, but first a word of warning. Naples is a popular destination, particularly in the winter season for boats escaping to the warm south, so make your slip reservations as early as possible because the marinas can fill up quickly. Recognizing that the boating community is essential to Naples, the city has worked to improve and maintain waterfront facilities, setting standards that many larger cities might emulate.

The Naples City Dock is a good example of an effective municipal marina. Set in the Crayton Cove artsy community with shops, restaurants and a hotel, the marina handles yachts up to 120 feet. To get around town, there’s a trolley that runs throughout the city as well as a water taxi serving the Naples waterfront.

Several yacht clubs offer reciprocal privileges and slips for visiting yachts, and there are a number of privately owned marinas in the area as well.

A good time to be had by all

Now that you’re in Naples, what to do? Let’s start with the beaches because, after all, they’re regularly on the various “Best Beaches In America” listings. Although the miles of beaches were already beautiful, Naples has worked (as it did with the waterfront) to make them accessible with parking, concessions, restrooms and showers. And, since they face west, they provide absolutely astounding sunsets on a regular basis.

If you arrived without a boat, you’re in luck because you can rent a bowrider or center console from Boat Rentals Naples or at the Naples Bay Resort to explore the waterfront and Intracoastal.

Naples has something for everyone, and it’s a wonderful place for kids. Check out the Naples Zoo, which has critters from A to Z (alligators to zebras) as well as boat cruises and wildlife shows. Take a look at Tin City, once the working docks of Naples and now an array of tin-roofed shops and restaurants.

The Everglades are fascinating to kids of all ages, and there are a variety of airboat tours and cruises that will show off the wildlife from alligators to wild boars and about a million types of birds. Want to eat the wildlife? Check out the Oyster House Restaurant in Everglades City, which includes fresh Florida ’gator tail in a remoulade sauce.

Marco Island is about 18 miles south of Naples and its 4-mile shoreline is noted for abundant shells. Not as famous as Captiva or Sanibel islands to the north, Marco Island is a good place to get “shell stoop,” that bent-over stance brought on by hunting seashells on the seashore (see sidebar on shelling).

The Dolphin Explorer on Marco Island (reservations required) is a 3-hour tour to observe marine life that includes the wild dolphins that populate these waters. The adventure also stops at a barrier island for shelling.

For more active water play, the Sun-N-Fun Lagoon in Naples is an immense water park with a lazy river, five different water slides up to 350 feet in length, and a toddler activity pool.

The Paradise Coast is also an angler’s paradise, with 37 miles of barrier islands for every possible fishing challenge. Stalk tarpon, snook and redfish in the backwaters, or head offshore in search of grouper, snapper and king mackerel. Ask your hotel or marina about fishing guides and charter boats.

Naples has a sophisticated side, with museums, galleries and fine dining at every turn. Art galleries with something for every taste line the shopping areas of Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South and, if you’d rather just view art, the Naples Museum of Art has outstanding permanent displays augmented by traveling exhibits.

Performing arts aren’t overlooked, and the Philharmonic Center for the Arts is an exceptional performance hall as well as the home of the Naples Philharmonic and a host for the Miami City Ballet. For more relaxed entertainment, take in The Naples Players, one of the best community theaters in the nation, with its state-of-the-art Sugden Community Theater on Fifth Avenue South.

Fancy history? The Collier County Museum in Naples tracks area history from mastodons to millionaires, and has gardens, restored cottages, a Seminole village and a Calusa Indian camp. The newest museum is the Naples Depot Museum, set in the restored railway station and free to visitors, with a look at the railroading boom days of the Roaring Twenties. Museum of the Everglades in Everglades City has rotating exhibits as well as numerous special events and re-enactments.

Delicious dishes and stupendous shopping

Restaurants on the Paradise Coast may have started as mere fish shanties decades ago, but today gourmets and critics have lauded the cuisine found in Naples, putting it up against the best of Paris and Rome. Your choices are many, including sidewalk cafes in downtown Naples, multiple restaurant choices at many resorts, and the finest linen-and-silver offerings at upscale eateries.

Don’t miss out on the local fare, though, with stone crab being one of the most popular choices. Funky restaurants along the Barron River offer stone crab in every possible style, and it often shares the menu with another local fave: Seminole Indian fry bread.

Seafood in local restaurants is straight from the Gulf, including everything from fresh shrimp and lobster to Cajun snapper. And, though technically not part of the Florida Keys, don’t miss out on Key Lime Pie for dessert.

If your idea of a vacation is shop-’til-you-drop, then Naples has something for you, with fashion boutiques and shops with island-style delights. The malls are unusual as well, such as Waterside Shops with its many fountains, and Village on Venetian Bay on the waterfront.

Looking for a deal? Just south of Naples is the Naples Outlet Center with more than 40 brand-name outlet stores. And if you’re wanting the unusual, hit the Naples Treasure Trail with more than two dozen consignment shops in a 6-block area, all filled with art, clothing and furnishings to delight.

I guess I can’t leave golf out of the story and, with 90 courses in the county, you can pick your punishment from hit-and-giggle to grueling championship levels. With balmy weather the norm, remember to bring your hat and sunscreen. Most resorts and hotels offer “golf getaways,” combining a package of hotel and golf into a vacation delight. And if you want to improve that swing, Naples has three of the finest teaching programs in the country, with everything from hour-long clinics to intensive week-long programs.

Naples is a town that literally has something for everyone. Whether you want ballet or beachcombing, five-star cuisine or stone crabs on the pier, family fun or a romantic getaway, Naples has it all. Boating, golfing, or just sprawling on the beach with a trashy novel, Naples is what you make it.