According to the people who track and project the movement of money around our great nation, Naples, Florida is expected to take top slot on this year’s Wealth Index (Woods & Poole Economics, Inc.). And in next year’s ranking of per-capita income by Washington-based tracker NPA Data Services, Naples is expected to be among the highest in the nation. The affluent, retired, golf-passionate Northeasterners who are steadily moving there have had the most influence on this picturesque Floridian West Coast spot, and money is obvious as you stroll down aptly named Fifth Avenue South with its elegant stores and Manhattan-priced restaurants. Age is not, interestingly; Naples also seems to attract lots of glam 20- and 30-somethings as well as retirees.
But what can get overlooked in all this glitz is the fact that this city on the Gulf is a great place for a family vacation, mainly because of all you can do on the water. Naples regularly makes the “America’s Best Beaches” Top 10, and the Travel Channel bestowed the title of “America’s Best All-Around Beach” in 2005 because of all the activity choices offered in the area, and its clean, white, powdery sand. The numerous hotels and resorts offer everything from snorkeling to catamaran sailing, but on a recent trip, we had two on-water excursions that we’ll remember forever.
In search of dolphins and manatees . . .
From the moment we met Capt. Rick Clouston, we were psyched for an action-packed experience. Clouston is like so many transplanted Floridians; he came to Naples on vacation from the Midwest and never really went home. For 15 years, he has been running Naples Water Tours, which offers 2 1/2-hour Adventure Tours for the remarkable price of $50 person ($25 for kids under age 7). Clouston is one of those people who gives you his all; he has the kind of boundless energy and love of nature that is infectious. Our trip took us out of Naples Bay, where we were lulled by the soft breezes and views of the multi-million-dollar homes lining the water. But soon we picked up speed, and Capt. Rick, riding alongside the boat being ably skippered by first mate Kim Godwin, throttled his jet ski and took off for a ride that would thrill a circus audience. We actually applauded as he stood on the seat and went flying off the handlebars, balancing backwards and bouncing off the waves. But when we got to Dollar Bay, it was our turn to try, and this was a different story. It was the safest Jet Ski experience we’d ever had, with Rick insisting we keep to marked channels and maximum speeds, watching out for wakes and other watercraft. Even the smallest kids could try jet skiing under Capt. Rick’s instruction; safety concerns are paramount and he is a kind, supportive instructor.
In fact, it’s hard to determine which species Capt. Rick enjoys more — humans or water creatures. One of the great thrills of this tour is the opportunity to spot manatees (not guaranteed, but we were lucky enough to sidle right up to one the day we went out). “Shy” would not be a word to describe the dolphins who live off these waters, however. Only a half-hour into our trip, Rick had scouted out the local schools from his jet ski, and we were delighted to hang out the back of the boat for the next half-hour or more, watching these sleek beauties a few feet away, frolicking on the wake of our craft, jumping in and out of the waves like kids on trampolines. Rick explained that surfing helps dolphins shed their skins, and he confirmed that they're just too smart to get caught up in the boat engine, despite being so close to us.
Throughout the tour, Rick talked about the wildlife in the water and above the waves, explaining that that there are 300,000 forms of life in the area, and 150 different species of birds. We pulled up into the quiet backwater of Keewaydin Island and walked through to the beach, where we looked for shells — Rick explaining the origin of each unusual shape we plucked off the sand, strewn with flowers along one lovely stretch. Here we took a dip in the warm water, and could have stayed for the rest of the day, but by then, it was time to head back to the dock for lunch, and to arrange our afternoon’s excursion — an electric scooter Segway tour.
Capt. Rick’s operation recently added instruction and a riding tour of Old Naples on these innovative people-movers. No license is required; and again, this is something for all ages, although Rick insists on helmets for all. The tour takes you gliding along the sidewalks to the pier and then through cool, leafy Cambier Park to Tin City, a waterfront park. One-hour Segway tours are $50 adults/$25 ages 7 and under.
Our final outing of the day was the sunset cruise, well worth doing to experience this eco-wonderland at dusk. For us, it capped off a fabulous day on the water, but when we sailed off toward the setting sun, we had no idea of the additional thrill that was in store. When we neared the mangrove swamp, Capt. Rick suggested some more jet skiing — but this time, riding with him. Always game for the jet ski experience, we did this one by one, and lived to tell the tale — although there were a couple of moments en route where I closed my eyes and actually prayed. “Duck down!” Rick warned as we darted in and out of the swamps at breakneck speed. The idea is just to hold on as Rick maneuvers the vehicle through every precarious-looking twist and turn with exact precision. I have determined there is nothing like a high-speed Jet Ski ride through a mangrove swamp at dusk; it’s like a virtual reality thrill ride, in real life!
You can contact Capt. Rick and Naples Water Tours at (239) 793-7529; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.napleswatertours.com.
… geese and gators …
When you mention Florida, New Yorkers tend to think: hi-rise condos. But what often gets forgotten are this state’s unique natural habitats, which spawn amazing animal and bird populations. An hour’s drive inland from Naples brings you to Immokalee and nearby Lake Trafford. There you’ll find Airboats & Alligators, a company that provides airboat rides on the 1,500-acre lake, an important part of the Everglades eco-system and home to scores of species of native birds, alligators, and other swamp creatures. Lake Trafford actually has the highest density of gators of any lake in Florida.
A ride on an airboat is very exciting stuff! You are required to wear headphones for protection against the propeller’s high-decibel din, and you're warned to hang on as your guide picks up speed, zooming round corners and skimming over the water’s surface, cutting through reeds and bulrushes, leaving a flattened thicket in its trail. The scenery is glorious in the Everglades, almost surreal in its vegetative scope, and every time you spot one of its residents in its natural habitat is a great thrill. We were fortunate to have Bubba Blalock as our airboat captain, a personable and knowledgeable guide who pointed out the ospreys, snowy egrets, glossy ibises and tri-color moorhens, not to mention the dozens of gators that prowl the swamps. We were intrigued to hear about the wild hogs that trample through the rushes — and even happier not to see them!
Airboats & Alligators is open for airboat tours every day, 8am-4pm. Cost is $31.80 adults, $18.55 children ages 3-12. They also offer sunset rides, which must be amazing. Info: (866) 657-2214; www.laketrafford.com.
. . . and woodpeckers and warblers
On the way back to Naples, we capped off another memorable day among nature by stopping off at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, managed by the National Audubon Society, and recognized as one of the world’s premier nature sites. A boardwalk runs throughout the 11,000 acres, which include the largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest in North America. You can choose a 2.25-mile trek, or a shorter, one-mile walk. Both take you through the sanctuary’s four natural environments — pine upland, wet prairie, cypress forest, and marsh. Pick up the field guide and Children's Activity Book before you set off. Volunteer naturalists staff the boardwalk to answer visitors’ questions. Look out for downy woodpeckers, lubber grasshoppers, swamp sparrows, green treefrogs, river otters and numerous other birds, animals and reptiles living in this vast expanse. You can print out a seasonal list of possible sightings in the visitors’ center, which also houses the Swamp Senses Media Theater. Kids will enjoy the sounds of Corkscrew’s residents by day and night in this visual presentation of the area’s ecology.
The Corkscrew Sanctuary is open every day of the year — except in “violent weather”! Admission: adults, $10; ages 6-18, $4; under 6, free. Info: www.corkscrew.audubon.org.
Where to stay
Top of the line
It’s hard to beat The Ritz-Carlton Naples for gracious living; Robb Report selected it as one of the “100 Best Places To Stay in 2006”, internationally. The five-star, five-diamond hotel and resort, set on three miles of beach, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and all 450 guest rooms and suites have been updated; three new patio suites were created, with connecting rooms, making them ideal for families. In king-size guest rooms, twin-sized sleeper chairs substitute for rollaways. Aside from the beautifully appointed decor, added luxury touches include flat screen TVs, goose down pillows, and marble bathrooms stocked with Bulgari products.
The Ritz-Carlton group’s Ritz Kids program, for ages 5-12, is one of the very best. The Naples resort has added extras recently — their “Very Important Kids” (VIK) program. Arriving kids are escorted to their own registration desk to check in, and are given a resort bracelet, their own keycard, and a Florida reptile stuffed animal. Entering at the room, they'll find a welcome note from Gumbo G. Gator, the hotel mascot, with a bucket of age-appropriate goodies like a beach ball, sunglasses and Rice Krispy Treats. They'll be invited to participate in a Scavenger Hunt to win prizes, and families can choose from a wide range of activities that include beach Wiffle Ball, kids’ snorkel lessons, sandcastle building, and kite flying. In the daily kids’ club, young guests get to meet zoo animals up-close through a program with the kids’ local nature discovery center, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Nanny services are available. And the resort is busily working to boost their teen program as well. For more info: (800) 241-3333; www.ritzcarlton.com.
There’s also a sister resort three miles away, The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, linked by frequent shuttles. This resort is ranked #1 in Florida by Conde Nast Traveler. And better than number one by man’s best friend. This past summer, the resort began offering a “Petiquette” program for the family pooch; this includes three levels of classes taught by certified Humane Society instructors — “Puppy Kindergarten”, “Good Manners” and “Obedience Level 1”. As well, doggie guests get turndown services such as nighttime biscuit treats (personalized, of course), and their owners receive guide sheets outlining the Fido-friendly parks and trails of Naples. Ruffin’ it? I don’t think so.
Beach in the backyard
A pets’ club may be unique to the Ritz-Carlton, but nearby is another set of sister resorts that offer kids’ clubs and great-for-families accommodations. All rooms at the Edgewater Beach Hotel are suites (one- and two-bedroom) with kitchenettes; it’s like upscale apartment living right on the Gulf of Mexico. (www.edgewaternaples.com/edgewater).
Nearby is the Naples Grande Resort & Club, which recently underwent a huge renovation and now has a smart, stylish look and feel. If you stay at the Edgewater, which will probably make more sense with younger kids in tow, visit the Grande for a drink or meal to experience its sleek, sophisticated “coastal style”. Their Asian-inspired Golden Door Spa will open in the spring.
The kids’ club for the two resorts is located at the Grande; it’s for ages 4-12. Check out their Adventure Passport, valid for one all-day camp, one evening camp, and two activities — at a reduced rate. (www.naplesgranderesort.com).
More for kids
Sun-N-Fun Lagoon water park opened this past summer, and a Children’s Museum of Naples is set to open next year. Naples also has a zoo; a butterfly garden in their Botanical Garden; and an indoor Dinosaur Playground.
For more info on Naples and the Paradise Coast, call (800) 2-Escape, or access www.ParadiseCoast.com.