NAPLES, FLORIDA, IS WHERE NATURE & CULTURE COMBINE

Naples has become a cultural center for Gulf Coast Florida, but still offers some of the most fabulous nature sites.

By Karen Rubin

Coming in to Naples, on Florida’s western coast, from the Palm Beach area on the east coast (it is an easy 2 ½ hour drive, much of it along the incredible “Alligator Alley”-Interstate 75), we veered off at Route 29 North to make our way to theCorkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the “crown jewel”of the National Audubon Society sanctuary system. (Indeed, Naples is the closest place to stay to visit this incredible sanctuary.)

Our walk along a 2.25-mile raised boardwalk that meanders through the 11,000-acre preserve, is a journey through five distinctly different ecosystems-a change in elevation of only a few inches makes all the difference. We were able to transverse through North America’s largest old-growth cypress forest–the trees that may have been saplings when Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in quest of a Fountain of Youth, now tower 130 feet, with a girth of 25 feet, their massive branches draped with mosses, lichens, air plants, orchids and ferns-and on through swamp, marshes, and prairie grass.

Legendary among photographers, birders and other wildlife watchers, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary hosts hundreds of alligators, otters, Florida black bear, white-tailed deer, green tree frogs and red-bellied turtles. It is a veritable mecca for birdwatchers, with almost 200 bird species that are permanent or temporary residents. Corkscrew is world-renowned for supporting the largest colony of nesting wood storks, and you may well see a red shouldered hawk, an anhinga (known as the “snake bird”), pilleated woodpecker, heron, ibis, egret, limpkin. Seasonal birds include black-throated green warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos in spring and fall; winter visitors include pine warblers and painted buntings. You still have to look with an eagle eye, though, because this is a vast area and the birds are not necessarily concentrated in profuse numbers, but that makes it all part of the fun and the serendipity of each visit. Surprisingly, there are few mosquitoes, thanks to tiny mosquito fish that eat the mosquito larvae.

The Sanctuary is owned and operated as a private, nonprofit by the National Audubon Society. Audubon’s first encounter was in 1912, when the society dispatched wardens to protect egrets and other birds from plume hunters; later, in the 1950s, Audubon bought the land to protect the cypress forest from loggers. Their foresight is our good fortune.

Begin the “adventure” by stopping in at a video presentation in the new Blair Audubon Center, the first of a new generation of education centers to open at National Audubon sites nationwide. Among the six exhibits is the multimedia “Swamp Theatre”-a kind of dynamic diorama that you become part of, depicting the daily and seasonal changes in the swamp. Here, the narration discusses how water-or more properly, the water level that rises and falls with the cycle of rainy and dry seasons–is the defining natural element in the swamp; how “rain is the elixir of life” and fire is an important part of the natural cycle here (and in fact, a controlled burn had just been done by the staff only a few days earlier). Unlike the usual “video” of a welcome center, you step into this created environment that changes lighting, focus and perspective along with the narrative about the flora and fauna to conform with the daily and seasonal changes that make for a circle of life in this primeval place.

I thought that the major attraction for us would be seeing birds, but the whole atmosphere of the sanctuary and the way the boardwalk meanders through these different environments for such a distance, is the real adventure.

On the boardwalk, there are excellent explanations of what you are looking at; we were particularly focused on the information about the medicinal properties of some of the flora. It is frankly fascinating to realize what humans knew even before formalized medicine. The bark of slash pine which we see in front of us contains Vitamin C; Native Americans simmered the bark of young pines and used the solution to guard against infection and to create paste to apply to sores and wounds. The pioneers would cut a slash in slash pine and use the sap for pine tar and oil for disinfectant, insecticide, and turpentine. The leaves of the Coastal Plain Willow we see in another section contains salicylic acid, used today as a component of aspirin and also to treat acne; Native Americans used its bark in tea to treat arthritis and reduce fever and pain; the crushed leaves, bark and seeds were used to treat nosebleed, toothache. Colonists used wax myrtle for medicine to treat stomachaches, ulcers, dry skin and relieving congestion associated with the common cold.

The boardwalk is wheelchair accessible (wheelchairs are even provided if needed), and there are cut-offs for those who cannot complete the 2.25-mile distance ($10/adult, $5/child, $5/college; hours are 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 1-April 10, and until 7:30 p.m. April 11 through Sept. 30; 239-348-9151, www.audubon.org/local/sanctuary/corkscrew).

We were the last to leave the sanctuary, hurried along by a ranger who needed to secure the place at precisely 5:30 p.m., and made our way into Naples, to the Bellasera Resort Hotel (see Discovery, 2/27).

A few blocks walk from the Bellasera Resort Hotel, we spent a pleasant evening in Tin City, a funky waterside shopping spot on the site of an old oyster-processing plant, with 40 shops-really distinctive and not your usual souvenir stuff–and a couple of restaurants. We thoroughly enjoyed dining at Pier 41, which had a pleasant atmosphere, extremely friendly service, marvelous selections all deliciously prepared.

From here you can enjoy a sightseeing, lunch or dinner cruise on the 149-passenger Naples Princess into Naples Bay and the Gulf ( 550 Port O Call Way, 239-649-2275 ).

 

Downtown Naples

Our second day in Naples was devoted to its art and cultural pursuits–which just happened to be centered just a couple of blocks off the stunning powder white sand beach, providing a pleasant diversion.

There are 94 galleries in Naples : Gallery Row along Broad Avenue off the Third Street South shopping area is in a section of Naples that evokes the turn-of-the-century, located just two blocks from the beach and Naples Pier. The von Liebig Art Center, next to Cambier Park, houses the Naples Art Association and changing exhibitions in five galleries ( 585 Park Street , 239-262-6517 ).

We took a break from gallery hopping to have a restful lunch at Trio’s Café, a French-style bistro.

Mere steps from the galleries, shops and dining spots is the beach and the 1,000-foot long Naples Municipal Pier. This is a popular gathering spot for fishermen, strollers (this is the best place to watch the sunset on the Gulf), pelicans and dolphins (12 Ave. South, 239-434-4696 ); off to the side is the Naples Municipal Beach, a gorgeous, white-sand beach (metered parking available).

Fifth Avenue South is the posh main street, offering sophisticated shops (each is distinctive), sidewalk cafes, bustling bistros, galleries (the Wooden Horse Gallery boats the largest collection of wooden carousel horses) and two charming hotels, along a lushly landscape promenade (guided walking tours are available from the Fifth Avenue South Association, 239-435-3742, www.fifthavenuesouth.com ).

A focal point on Fifth Avenue South for a pleasant lunch or dinner is McCabe’s Irish Pub . Owner Phil McCabe wanted an authentic Irish pub, so he actually had it built in Dublin, and then shipped in pieces, where it was assembled by six Irish journeymen on the site of what used to be a bank. The pub has delightful atmosphere, that includes a walk-in sized bank vault now used as a wine room, and is the headquarters for the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration. But there is no shortage of dining choices in Naples, with an estimated 300 different eateries.

Even after gallery hopping, bistro dining, and beach and pier walking, we still had time to drive to the north section of Naples to visit the Naples Museum of Art, housed within the Philharmonic Center for the Arts complex (in fact, the Philharmonic center offers incredible art on display).

Opened in 2000, the Naples Museum of Art is the first full-scale art museum in Southwest Florida, features 15 galleries a glass-dome conservatory with a 10-foot wide icicle chandelier designed by world-renowned glass sculptor Dale Chihuly; not to be missed is Chihuly’s “Persian Ceiling,” which is in one of the galleries. The entrance doors to the museum were created by celebrated metal artist Albert Paley.

The museum hosts some marvelous special exhibits and we thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit on view, “Modern Mexican Masters”, part of a permanent collection of 277 works by American masters from 1900-1955. However, its collection of miniatures, one of the world’s largest, may well be unique. The Pistner Collection, which took 10 years to produce by 60 of the finest miniaturists in the world, depicts the Louis XV and Louis XVI periods, with such breathtakingly intricate detail. The exhibit of miniatures continues across the plaza at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, with a ” Grand Tour in Miniature” of antiques and antiquities, including a scale reproduction of St. Peter’s Basilica, of Vatican and the Doge’s Palace (Naples Museum of Art, 800-597-1900 ).

Make a point of taking in one of the cultural and art events at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, which is every bit as fabulous as Lincoln Center in New York City. The Phil in Naples is the realization of the vision of founder, chairman, president and CEO Myra Janco Daniels, a former Chicago advertising executive, to have world-class classical and popular music, theater, dance and art all under one umbrella. Each year, The Phil, with a spectacular 1,222-seat hall, offers some 400 events a year including dance, opera, classical and popular music and Broadway musicals and special children’s and family events. Opened in 1989, the Phil is also home to the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra and the West Coast Florida home to Edward Villella’s Miami City Ballet. The Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd. 239-597-1900, http://www.thephil.org

Naples also has some marvelous antiques shops. Literally across the street from the Bellasera Resort Hotel where we stayed is a fabulous section of antique shops, and at the Naples Depot, a landmark from 1927 (one of the oldest remaining structures in Naples), there is a Lionel Train display, rides on a train, and where antique shows are featured (239-370-2899).

 

On the Nature Trail

Nature is never far away in Naples and we devoted the next day to these pursuits.

Caribbean Gardens/Zoo, founded in 1919, is a 52-acre botanical garden with manicured walking trails, plus a major, accredited zoo that participates in the endangered animals recovery program. The zoo (which began in 1954, basically moving in to the botanical garden, giving it a real jungle feel) offers hundreds of animals ranging from rare tigers to impala antelope and endangered wild dogs. A Safari Canyon Show is a multimedia encounter where visitors observe natural abilities of animals while viewing maps, wildlife footage and computer graphics on video screens.

A visit offers three to five hours of entertaining activities like the Primate Expedition Cruise on a pontoon boat which takes you to several islands to see at surprisingly close range various primates such as spider monkeys, lemurs and gibbons (Milly, a black, and Vanilly, a white-handed gibbon, both females, have been best friends for 12 years; the narration is fascinating and you have the chance to see natural behaviors. The audience-participation Scales & Tails Show (featuring snakes and reptiles) and the Safari Canyon presentation featuring live animals (mainly mammals) and stunning video clips, was absolutely fascinating (the highlight is when David Tetzlaff, son of the zoo’s founders, comes out completely unprotected with two giant tigers). There is also a Meet the Keeper Series and Alligator Bay Feeding. Young children can work off excess energy at two playgrounds in the gardens. The food concession features a Subway and picnic pavilion; strollers are available for rent. ( 1590 Goodlette-Frank Road, 239-262-5409, www.napleszoo.com).

Not far from the Caribbean Gardens/Zoo, is Mel’s Diner on Route 41, a 50′s style diner with marvelous memorabilia of the cornerstones of the 50s experience: cars, rock-n-roll, movies and baseball. The food was great and the atmosphere was tremendous fun (located on the Tamiani Trail, between Golden Gate Parkway and Pine Ridge Road, 239-643-9898 ).

The Conservancy Naples Nature Center , located in the heart of Naples, is where children can touch a snake, watch recuperating patients through the O.W.L.S. online video monitoring system, and see some permanent residents including a bald eagle, hawks and owls; naturalist-guided trail walks and boat tours through a mangrove forest are offered daily (1450 Merrihue Drive off 14 Ave. North and Goodlette Rd, 239-262-0304 ). The Conservancy of Southwest Florida also has a nature center offering nature trails and bike path and a boat tour at Rookery Bay.

Among the many distinctive beach areas in Naples (which has 12 miles of public beachfront) is Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Recreation Area, popular with fishermen and beach-goers (it’s been ranked among the top 10 beaches in the country), is a barrier island separated from the mainland by mangrove marshes and tidal waters and offers a pristine wooded park with wildlife habitat and an educational sea turtle program in summer (11100 Gulfshore Dr. at Rte. 846, 239-597-6196 ).

 

Other Attractions

There is so much to do in Naples, you can easily occupy a week.

Teddy Bear Museum is stuffed with nearly 4,000 toy bears from all over the world, representing the world’s most imaginative bear artists and manufacturers working in fabric, marble, crystal, wood and bronze, in every shape and size. (The museum is located two miles west of I-75, Exit 107, at the corner of Pine Ridge and Airport-Pulling Roads, 239-598-2711, www.teddymuseum.com ).

Collier County Museumis a five-acre historical park that presents over 10,000 years of Collier County history and archaeology. Alternating exhibits feature prehistoric Florida fossils, the Calusa and Seminole Indians, early Spanish explorers, the frontier life and the hardships endured in building the Tamiami Trail. Each year, during the first weekend in November, the museum holds the Old Florida Festival (two miles east of Naples at 3301 Tamiami Trail East, 239-774-8476 ).

 

You can hop a sightseeing tour on the Naples Trolley, on replica cable trolley cars, to visit the sights and area shopping and such as Old Naples General Store, Tin City, Coastland Center Mall, Gateway Shopping Center, Waterside Shops, The Naples Chamber Visitors Center (239-262-7300).

 

Day Trips

A rare experience is available outside of Naples at the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve . It contains the largest stand of native royal palms and the largest concentration and variety of orchids in North America, as well as other rare species of plants including the ghost orchid. The preserve is home to threatened or endangered species, such as the Florida panther, wood stork, Florida black bear, mangrove fox squirrel and Everglades mink. A 2,000-foot long boardwalk at Big Cypress Bend, meandering through the old growth cypress, enables the visitor to experience the beauty of this unusual swamp. From November through February, rangers lead a “swamp walk” the third Saturday of the month (weather permitting), beginning at 10 a.m. (limited to 15 people, reservations are required, 239-695-4593 ). A scenic drive through the preserve is popular with bicycles (off Highway 29 north of Highway 41, about 30 miles from downtown Naples ).

(A tour operator, Orchids & Egrets, provides a variety of nature excursions, with pick ups at most area hotels, 239-352-8586 ).

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Briggs Nature Center is a launch site for canoe and boat trips for bird watching in Rookery Bay National Reserve and for shelling on Key Island, plus other interpretive nature programs. There is a butterfly garden at the site, a visitor’s center, and half-mile wilderness boardwalk. It is located on Shell Island Road, off State Road 951, between Marco Island and U.S. Highway 41 (239-775-8569).

Collier Seminole State Park, is a 6,400 acre park where you can explore mangroves and cypress swamp; there are boat tours, canoe rentals and hiking trails (17 miles south of Naples on Rte. 41, known as the Tamiami Trail, 239-394-3397 ).

The Everglades National ParkTen Thousand Islands and Big Cypress National Preserve are also surprisingly close to Naples. This is a vast, federally protected wilderness that is home to alligators, herons, bald eagles, whitetailed deer, bobcats and endangered Florida panthers. You can take a guided tour on a boat; an airboat ride; or rent a canoe.

 

Bellasera Resort

The Bellasera Resort, which properly boasts a “Naples Heart, Tuscan soul” caters and compliments this feel, whether you are a family coming to explore “Classic Florida” with its profusion of natural wonders, or a couple on a getaway perhaps to gallery hop or shop the boutiques, or if you come on business or to attend a meeting. It offers the luxury and refined service of a four-star hotel with a European feel, but the comforts of a well-appointed apartment.

It is an ideal place to come for a stay of a night, a weekend, a week, a month or more.

Inspired by the villas of Tuscany, Bellasera features 100 units, ranging from studios to one and two, even three-bedroom suites. Each suite features a full-sized kitchen complete with all appliances (including laundry machines) and dishware, while spacious living and dining areas provide relaxation to a single visitor or an entire family.

There is a large fitness center and a beautiful lap pool and hot tub, set beside a flowing fountain, in a kind of courtyard of the Mediterranean-style building.

We found the Bellasera a perfect respite for our multi-generational exploration of Naples cultural and natural attractions.

The Bellasera is sure to be popular for business travelers, meetings and corporate and social functions, with 4,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and an executive board room. When you arrive, you are given your own direct telephone number to the room (the front desk calls you within minutes of checking in with your number) and can crate your own business card with the number. You also can be wireless any place on the property.

The resort is developing corporate team-building events. In one of the more creative programs, teams cook a meal with the Chef Paul Gold to present to the boss.

Other special events that can be arranged: the resort’s celebrity chef, Salvatore Moretti, can prepare a meal in the room, or at the poolside cabana.

It offers a delightful, eclectic Mediterranean eatery, the Zizi Restaurant and Lounge. With one of Naples leading chefs preparing Tuscan-inspired fusion dishes as well as delicacies with a seasonal theme, dining becomes a culinary adventure. Through Zizi, the resort offers fine dining prepared in-room, poolside food and beverage service and moonlit cabana dinners for two.

The pool, large enough to swim laps, is truly lovely-ringed by the Mediterranean-style building, decorated with a beautiful fountain and gardens. There is also a well outfitted fitness center.

Bellasera guests have preference at the golf courses at SunStream’s Green Links Golf Resort in Lely 10 miles away, offering highly rated courses, the Mustang and the Flamingo, in a city that boasts nearly 90 courses. The Bellasera offers a complimentary shuttle service and guests get special rates and advance tee times; two great courses, the Mustang and the Flamingo). The Green Links resort offers condominium style accommodations, all overlooking the fairway; the courses are considered among the best in Naples. Guests of Sunstream resorts get preferential tee times.

The beach is a hefty (but scenic) walk, if you are inclined, but the Bellasera provides a free shuttle service to the beach, on demand (just call).

Package offerings are available (check the website), for example, a Romance package includes dinner, champagne, chocolate covered strawberries.

The high level of service at the Bellasera is indicated by its onsite concierge, a member of the prestigious Les Clefs d’Or (golden keys).

Bellasera, which is in the $350/night price range, is the newest of the SunStream Hotels & Resorts, Inc., and the first to seek the coveted four-diamond rating. SunStream is a small group that now numbers seven properties, including three in Naples and four in Ft. Myers, including the Point Estero. The Santa Maria harbor resort in Ft. Myers is right on the newly opened Calusa Blueway, a water trail that lets you canoe or kayak about 30 miles; the resort is one of several to provide a network for paddlers who want to make their way up the Blueway.

Another SunStream Hotels’ property in Naples , the Park Shore Resort, in the north part of the city (very near the Naples Philharmonic and Museum of Art ) is a tropical oasis set on 13 acres lushly landscaped with waterfalls and a pond with fish and ducks. You might think you are on an island rather than in the heart of suburban Naples . Park Shore caters to families with a children’s activity program. Rates work out to about $150/night; weekly and monthly rates are available. (Off of Neapolitan Way, off Pine Ridge, which is road that leads to I-75).

The Bellasera Resort is located in the heart of Naples ‘ tourist district at 221 Ninth St. South ( Tamiami Trail, US 41). For information or reservations, call 888-612-1115 or visit http://www.bellaseranaples.com/ ; for information on other SunStream Hotels properties, www.sunstream.com .

Getting to Naples: about one-hour’s drive from Southwestern Florida International Airport in Fort Myers (there is new direct service on Jet Blue and Spirit Airlines from New York; Delta, American, USAir, Continental also fly from this area); Naples is also within a two hour drive from Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, and Palm Beach International Airports, on Alligator Alley (Rte 75). The Naples Municipal Airport also gets regional and private carriers.

For more information, Greater Naples, Marco Island & The Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau, 3050 N. Horseshoe Dr. #218, Naples, FL  34104, 239-403-2384, 800-688-3600 ; www.paradisecoast.com ; emailinfo@paradisecoast.com .

Naples’ public beach boasts the Municipal Piers, a popular gathering spot-and the best place to watch the sunset on the Gulf (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

 

 

CorkscrewSwamp Sanctuary, an 11,000-acre preserve, is exciting to explore with grandparents (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

 

 

The Bellasera Resort affords families the amenities of a luxury resort and the comfort of a well-appointed apartment (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

 

 

A pontoon boat takes visitors to the Caribbean Gardens & Zoo on a “Primate Expedition Cruise,” visiting islands of rare monkeys, lemurs and other rare primates (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

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© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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