NAPLES, Fla. – This is where the golden parachute lands. And the private jets. And the snowbirds.
A breezy 85 degrees in early December, this elegant southwest Florida gulf coast city draped along 16 miles of sugar-sand beaches is relatively empty at the moment. Nobody is sitting outside at the caviar lounge on Fifth Avenue South. A beach umbrella has elbow room. You can even find a parking place for your Porsche.
All that is about to change, of course.
Naples, a darling of winter, is ready for its annual close-up. Just after New Year’s Day, Collier County’s population jumps by about a third, with thousands of snowbirds flocking to Naples and nearby Marco Island.
What’s new here? The Naples Zoo got honey badgers and may get an anteater. The botanical garden is getting new orchids. Residents still complain about too many private jets flying over the beaches. And an algae in the gulf, the red tide, has been lurking again offshore.
Other than that, well, Naples is pretty much cushy money, shopping, going out to eat and golf.
In other words, it’s absolutely nothing like real life.
With an average January temperature of 76, warmer than Miami, Naples reliably has some of the best wintering weather in the nation.
This town also has a refreshing European feel. Walk along the street and you can hear French, proper British English and German spoken.
Naples this year made the list of Forbes magazine’s “top 25 places to retire rich,” which noted that 42 percent of its residents are age 65 and up.
For all its popularity, Naples is somewhat of an insiders’ town. Yes, you can shop on the main avenues. But beyond that, a lot of restaurants, shops and beach access points are fairly hidden.
Locals know you can reach a stretch of beach called North Gulf Shore by taking back streets, but it’s unlikely a day visitor would find it. Locals know about the romantic patio at Alexander’s, but the restaurant is hidden in what looks like a strip mall and doesn’t advertise. Many of the region’s touted 90-plus golf courses are private. Even the hotels are low-key. Beyond a basic series of Hampton Inn-type spots on U.S. 41, the big hotels are the Waldorf Astoria and the Ritz Carlton, both tucked away far off the main drag.
Even Naples’ downtown attraction Tin City is a bit hidden. It is a warren of shops and restaurants in what used to be the fish-processing shacks at the harbor. Once you find it, it is nice. The other day I sat at an outdoor restaurant eating sweet local pompano fish for lunch. Just then, a private jet flew low overhead in a blue sky. A tour boat glided past in the sapphire water. Pelicans preened on dock pilings fluffing their glossy feathers in the 84-degree sunshine.
It’s a rough life, but somebody’s got to live it.
See it in Naples
• Fifth Avenue South: The main shopping street. Designer olive oil, antique jewelry, artwork, bronzes and patent-leather coats for little dogs. Dine on everything from caviar to cappuccino to calamari. (( www.fifthavenuesouth.com, (239) 435-3742.)
• Naples Pier: Historic fishing pier now mainly used for strolling and people-watching. If Naples Beach there is too crowded, try other spots – there is access at the end of nearly every east-west street (if you can find parking) along the gulf. (12th Avenue South at the water, www.naplesgov.com, (239) 213-3062.)
• Artist studios: Art Alliance Naples has 26 working artist studios set up on Shirley Street in North Naples; buy direct from the artists twice a month. “People want to know where the real art is,” says painter Susan Shipman of Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Naples. Hear schedule at (239) 821-1061. (No website.)
• Tin City: Former fish shacks turned into stores and restaurants. A lot of T-shirts here but some interesting shops as well. (1200 Fifth Ave. S., www.tin-city.com, (239) 262-4200.)
• Dream houses: Drive Gulf Shore, Gordon Drive and Galleon Drive to see enormous mansions, including two that sold for more than $40 million last year. Nice cottage, huh?
• Naples Botanical Garden: Best is the Brazilian garden with its colorful mural and pond with lily pads as big as car wheels. New visitors center and orchid garden will open next fall. (4820 Bayshore Drive, www.naplesgarden.org, (239) 643-7275.)
• Naples Zoo: See the Snakes Alive! demonstration featuring Florida’s native poisonous snakes, and take a little boat tour. I was uncomfortable seeing the zoo’s seven giraffes wandering in a barren pen, but a better habitat for them is planned. (1590 Goodlette-Frank Road, www.napleszoo.org, (239) 262-5409.)
Two side trips:
• Everglades City: A wonderful antidote to chi-chi Naples, this rural town has airboat tours, mobile homes, the western entrance to Everglades National Park ( www.nps.gov/ever ) and Smallwood Store, a museum that once was a trading post (about one hour east on Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41; www.evergladeschamber.net ).
• Ave Maria: Ann Arbor pizza magnate Tom Monaghan’s utopian dream of a Catholic town is now 7 years old. Created amid farmland 35 miles northeast of Naples, it still looks pretty much like a movie set waiting for action to start. Still, the Ave Maria Oratory church is worth the trip alone to see the architecture (about one hour from Naples; Annunciation Circle, Ave Maria; www.avemaria.com, (239) 352-3903).
If you go
Naples is a 50-minute drive south of the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.
Naples tourism information: www.paradisecoast.com