I first visited Naples in the early 1990’s when the area was still relatively obscure. Quite taken with the place, I returned a few years later to see that things were clearly moving on. The place had a zing about it and the old downtown area had been transformed.
Flash forward to 2014 and I’m driving down the Tamiami Trail, the highway that passes through Naples going from Tampa to Miami. Oh my! How this little town has grown! It seems a lot more people have discovered what I suspected 20 years ago; Naples is the place to be in the Sunshine State. Chic boutiques, expensive sports cars and upscale eateries all reflect the success this area now bathes in. Naples has in fact become one of the wealthiest cities in the United States with the 6th highest per capita income and the second highest proportion of millionaires in the country. If you fancy a buying into this platinum-lined paradise, palatial pads go up for sale here in excess of $40 million.
And just when you think things couldn’t get much better, Florida’s Paradise Coast, the communities of Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades have been voted 2014’s North American Golf Destination of the Year. Some places just have all the luck, don’t they!
So what’s the skinny? What makes a place like this so attractive to golfers and buyers of super-sized haciendas? Over 90 world-class golf courses certainly help the cause! Just to hit you with another statistic, the greater Naples area is recognised by the National Golf Foundation as having the most holes per capita in the United States; 1,530 golf holes in total. Mix in a near-perfect winter temperature (a breezy 85 degrees in early December dropping to the mid-70s January through March) and you’d be forgiven if you jumped up right now and yelled ‘When’s the next flight!’
My first port of call was the rather swish Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, a few blocks inland from its sister property, the Ritz-Carlton Beach. (I know this because I mistakenly went to the Beach Resort first –SatNav’s fault). Both are seriously sumptuous abodes with superlative service and an esteemed air about the place. And both have has a major, multi-million dollar ‘re-mastering’, as the Americans like to call it, a complete overhaul of rooms, dining areas and atriums bringing everything up-to-date and in line with greatest expectations.
You can stay at either of the Ritz-Carlton resorts. A frequent shuttle ferries between the two so you can do Beach. Or Golf! Or both! You choose! I chose the Ritz-Carlton Golf for its two excellent playing options; Greg Norman tracks that are utterly dissimilar to one another. I first played the Tiburon Black back in 2002 when it opened and to be honest found it tight and testy, too much for me and I came off in tatters. My game is a bit better these days (if I do say so myself) and this time I enjoyed the Black far more. I might be even tempted to say it’s the better of the two. It’s certainly beautiful to look at with thick, Florida foliage coming right up close.
Tiburon Gold is more open, a classic Florida layout with lots of water, gentle undulations and in super-sleek condition. There are liberal landing areas off the tee so you can open it up compared to the Black. The course’s key defense lies in long, coquina-shell waste bunkers that line most fairways and you’d be very lucky to get by without at least one visit.
Basing yourself at the Ritz Carlton has fringe benefits - if you talk to the right people. Many of the courses in and around Naples are private as you can well imagine with such a wealthy clientele. But you can unlock doors with a simple word in the golf pro’s ear at the Ritz Carlton. Give them fair warning and the shop staff will do their level best to set you up at one or more of the many premier courses that are not generally on the public radar. It’s also worth noting, should you like travelling light (as I do these days) resort guests at the Ritz Carlton can avail themselves to a top set of TaylorMade rental clubs, rental golf shoes, a glove and two sleeves of golf balls - at no extra charge. Now that’s a nice touch although I do prefer my own shoes.
As I think you’ve gathered, I was intrigued by how prosperous and vivacious Naples had become. To take in the atmosphere, take a stroll along 5th Avenue and 3rd Street South and you instantly ‘get it’. This place is right on the money! Not garish! More of a continental feel mixed with good old Floridian laid-backness! People flit around like hummingbirds between the natty art galleries or sip lattes on a sidewalk cafe. Check out the new Mercato Shopping Centre a few blocks north. It offers just about everything you could wish for in terms of shopping along with a movie theatre and no less than 23 restaurants. If all this hedonism gets too much, take to the beach for a bit of Vitamin D therapy – and if the main Naples Beach is busy, drive just a block or two north and find a stretch of perfect, powdery sand all to yourself.
Having sampled my fair share of Naples, it was time to move on and along the way I stopped by Lely Resort Golf & Country Club, home to 36 holes of public play. I’d played the Flamingo Island on an earlier visit so this time tried the Mustang, designed by Lee Trevino and a free-roaming, feisty filly it is to! Its outstanding feature are its greens; quite remarkable! I don’t know how they create and maintain such smooth, billiard table quality surfaces - but they present a great putting challenge.
Migrating south towards the Everglades, I pulled into Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa overlooking the powdery white sands of the Gulf of Mexico. Although there are other hotels enjoying the same pristine prospect, you could easily imagine, looking out your bedroom window that you’re on some isolated Florida Key. The best way to get to grips with an area of such outstanding natural beauty is to jump on a jet ski and tour the nearby mangrove forests and backwaters. My guide, Mike was a past expert at getting up close with dolphins, manatee, sea turtles and the huge array of birdlife in this northern section of the Everglades National Park.
Delightful settings are the standard of the two golf courses associated with Marco Island’s Marriott. The Rookery and Hammock Bay both exist within the labyrinth of wetlands that lead on to Marco Island as part of the poetically named Ten Thousand Islands. The Rookery, a refuge to the multiple avian species that inhabit these shallow wetland preserves is a testament to how golf can help protect an ecosystem for wildlife. Bald eagles, blue herons, wood storks, egrets, sandhill cranes and ospreys are all regularly sighted. The course is more than 7,100 yards in length so birdies here might be a bit rarer but you soon find your own ‘comfort zone’ tee box. It is definitely not an easy track but great fun and one worth playing twice once you get its measure. The Rookery as we speak is undergoing a transformation, removing the old Bermuda grass and replacing it with Paspalum. It will be open for full play again by November, 2014.
Just along the way, Hammock Bay Golf & Country Club was my last golf outing and maybe the best. Designed by Peter Jacobsen and Jim Hardy amidst the beauty of McIvane Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands with marshes, mangroves and wild, sandy wasteland constantly reminding you of the area’s natural bounty, I particularly enjoyed this course mainly for its gorgeous setting but also for its intricate playing propositions. To my mind, this is Florida golf at its best with the sun on your arms, a salty tang in the air and lovely, white sandy stretches to play over. Sitting back and taking it all in, it really does feel like Paradise Rediscovered.
Naples is a 50-minute drive south of the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers or 2 hours respectively from Miami or Tampa International Airports. It’s 3.5 hours away from Orlando International Airport.
What Else to Do
Everglades City gives you a glimpse into Old World Florida, a more relaxed rural community offering airboat tours of Everglades National Park. Check out the Smallwood Store, a museum and former trading post.
Similarly the tiny community of Goodland, a few miles southeast of Marco Island offers visitors a laid back charm. Stan’s on a Sunday is the place to hang with the locals and sample some beer, outdoor music and dancing.
When to Visit
January through April is High Season along the Paradise Coast and prices are set accordingly. You can golf quite comfortably through much of the rest of the year although July and August are fairly humid. Prices tumble through the less busy times and if you get out early, you’ll enjoy great golf courses without the traffic or high green fees. You’ll also find many of the High Season Private Courses open their doors through the quieter seasons.
The South Florida PGA GolfPass (valid May 1st – October 31st) offers hundreds of South Florida courses at discounted rates, ideal if you’re visiting the area out with the ‘High’ winter season. You can find more details here: www.sfpgagolf.com/golfpass
Where to Eat Out
The resorts mentioned have endless eating options but if you like to get out for something really special try Sea Salt on 3rd Street South in Naples run by renowned chef Fabrizio Aielli and his wife, Ingrid. They really do have 100 different varieties of Sea Salt.
Tel: 239 434 7258
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