Paradise Coast: Naples and Marco Island
It had been two years since my husband and I had flown anywhere for a vacation. We felt like bears emerging from hibernation — or maybe more like Rip Van Winkle.
So, last spring, not quite ready to travel abroad and risk being stranded if we got Covid, we chose as our first venture the “Paradise Coast” of Southwest Florida.
Along this 18-mile stretch are a pair of gems, Naples and Marco Island, each with its own vibe. Both have beautiful sugar-soft white beaches, warm Gulf waters and great golf courses.
The Naples area offers miles of beaches, calm waters, culture, top-rated restaurants, and an abundance of championship golf courses.
In 1887, a group of wealthy Kentuckians purchased the entire town of Naples. They immediately built a pier 600 feet into the Gulf of Mexico with an unusual “T” shape, allowing large ships to dock, importing goods and wealth to the area.
Over the years, Naples became an “it” winter escape for the rich and famous: Thomas Edison, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr and Gary Cooper.
A place to people-watch
Today, Naples is home to the second highest proportion of millionaires per capita in the U.S. The city displays its wealth with multimillion-dollar mansions, perfectly manicured landscapes and upscale shopping districts.
Naples’ arts and music scene thrives on Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South, with dozens of art galleries and several live music venues.
The area is a blend of historic and modern architecture, showcasing columns, archways, recessed plazas with fountains, whimsical public art, and pedestrian-friendly promenades — all overflowing with a kaleidoscope of colorful tropical blooms.
A great way to experience this area is to stroll and wander in and out of the shops. We often sat outdoors at a café in the evenings: the perfect front-row seat to people-watch. You’ll definitely see lots of paisley prints and pink and greens that scream Lilly Pulitzer.
An easy walk from Third Street South is the iconic Naples Pier, which attracts anglers and sightseers. The pier, made of Brazilian walnut hardwood, now stretches 1,000 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico and has restrooms and a concession stand selling bait, food and beach supplies.
From April to June, you might even catch a glimpse of dolphins and stingrays. It’s also one of the best places to view a magical sunset.
The beach scene
Naples has a slew of first-rate beaches, each offering something a little different, so you’ll find no shortage of choices. If you like lively, you’ll enjoy five-acre Vanderbilt Beach Park, near many hotels and restaurants.
Want a place with no high-rises or development? Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, located on a barrier island, provides a pristine habitat that attracts bald eagles, ospreys, owls, loggerhead sea turtles, manatees and, yes, nature lovers. It also has some of the best swimming beaches in the area. There are concessions with snacks, drinks and rentals of umbrellas, beach chairs, paddleboards, kayaks and canoes.
Clam Pass Park is home to wildlife, native plants, a long boardwalk, and a perfect white powdery sand beach. To get to the beach, you can take a tram or walk three-quarters of a mile on a scenic boardwalk lined with mangroves and coastal habitats. It’s a great bird- and sunset-watching spot.
Lowdermilk Park is located in a beautiful residential area. The wide beach offers visitor parking, public restrooms, a snack bar, and a large rental area for chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.
More beauty awaits at the Naples Botanical Garden. The 170-acre oasis features the plants and cultures of the tropics and subtropics from around the world. There are water features and waterfalls. And if you always have an orchid blooming at home like I do, you’ll love the LaGrippe Orchid Garden.
Public golf resorts
Being experienced hackers, we were excited to play golf, since some say Naples is the Golf Capital of the World (but a lot of places claim that).
While many clubs are private, 30 out of 90 clubs are open to the public. Three luxury resorts, The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, the Naples Grande Beach Resort and the LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort, which we played, have championship courses.
We had read the exceptional reviews for LaPlaya’s signature restaurant, so we decided to stay for dinner. A splurge, the restaurant with a terrace afforded us grand views of the beach.
Sipping a “Cocotini” (made of Ciroc Coconut Vodka, Sobieski vanilla Vodka and Coconut Cream) next to lit torches added to the tropical feeling. The servers were very attentive, and my filet mignon was so tender that I didn’t need a steak knife. Other favorites were oysters, tropical ceviche, fresh bread and pan-seared red snapper.
While I love being outdoors, Naples does offer places to visit if you want a little culture or a respite from the sun.
For an all-encompassing look at both local and international art, visit the Baker Museum. The museum’s lobby showcases a signature piece by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. Depending on the schedule, you may catch first-rate traveling exhibitions from major collections.
If you want to learn about the history of Naples, take a guided tour at The Palm Cottage House Museum, the oldest building in town.
In the northern section of the city is The Philharmonic Center for the Arts, where you can go for theater, dance and classical and popular music concerts.
Marco Island’s natural beauty
South of Naples, Marco Island is the largest and only developed land in Florida’s “Ten Thousand Islands.”
Don’t be put off by its high-rises, malls and shopping strips. Concentrate on the fact that the island is surrounded by the Gulf on one side and pristine mangrove estuaries on the other.
Despite the proximity of two beautiful public beaches, we immediately wished we had a boat. Just about every house on Marco Island has a canal in its back yard that weaves out to the Gulf.
Many homes are available to rent through Vrbo, Airbnb or local rental sites. Make sure a boat is included (or at least a kayak). Or rent one for your stay.
Luckily, we learned about several boat tours, from fishing excursions to shelling and birding tours. You can even take a guided kayak tour through mangroves (which grow where saltwater and freshwater meet), where you’ll learn about bottlenose dolphins, manatees, sea otters, white pelicans, egrets and more.
We took a day trip to Keewaydin Island, a barrier island between Naples and Marco Island. With no cars, roads or bridges, it’s accessible only by boat. You can take the Hemingway Water Shuttle or rent a boat.
There you’ll find soft sandy beaches for swimming, unique shells galore, stretches of beach to walk along or relax on, and local wildlife, including frolicking dolphins.
Instead of food trucks, food boats docked on the shoreline serve grouper sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, fries, ice cream and more.
Back on Marco Island, fresh local seafood is king, and it’s easy to find a restaurant with great views. Shrimp, grouper, snapper, mahi-mahi and sea bass are on every menu. And of course, key lime pie is a must.
If you go
Southwest Airlines has direct flights from BWI to Fort Myers (RSW) starting at $260 round-trip. Naples is located 43 miles from the airport; Marco Island is 47 miles.
During peak season, December through April, temperatures are comfortable, but prices are high. In the fall and spring, the temperatures are in the 80s. Winter temperatures are in the mid-70s.
After spring break, the rates at hotels and rentals drop, but summer temperatures are in the 90s with high humidity.
Unless you have a free place to stay, it’s best to choose Naples as a home base. It has plenty of condos and homes to rent, hotels from high-end to more “reasonable” depending on the season, and cuisine for all taste buds. And it’s a short distance to other fun and adventurous places.
If you don’t want to stay in Naples’ high-end hotels, two more moderately priced hotels are Cove Inn on Naples Bay and Inn at Pelican Bay.
On Marco Island, high-end resorts include JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, Marriott’s Crystal Shores, Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa, and Marco Beach Ocean Resort.
For more information about the area, visit paradisecoast.com.