Naples is a relatively small city in South Florida, which packs a massive punch of things to do, activities of all kinds, cultural sights, sports, adventure, nature, wildlife and it’s also a culinary heaven, not just for the fresh seafood, which practically jumps out of the Gulf and into your mouth, but a whole range of local and international cuisine, with a growing focus on fresh local produce.
As well as being home to the highest number of millionaires per capita in the country, Naples is the perfect break for any young couple or family. With plenty of options for romantic breaks, walks off the beach, intimate dining and health and spa options, Naples is perfect for a romantic getaway. The vast array of activities, sports, nature and wildlife attractions also mean that young families can be constantly entertained and amazed too.
Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Naples.
What we found best about Naples and the Paradise Coast area, is that you really can create your own perfect experience – If all you want is pampering and the finer things, then you can immerse yourself in luxury and not even notice the natural surroundings or thriving social scene if that’s your thing. Alternatively, you could spend your entire visit in the wilderness and never see a glass of fine wine next to a lobster tail.
For us though, Naples is about creating the perfect combination of all of these awesome things – waking up with a walk on the white-sand beach before breakfast, spending the day paddle boarding, kayaking and wading through swamps with alligators, then retreating back to your luxury hotel, to end an amazing day with a rejuvenating spa, a glass of wine on the sunset deck, followed by a fine meal of freshly caught seafood and Stone Crab claws.
Day 1 – Delray to Naples – Paradise Coast
We checked out of the Delray Sands in the morning to begin the several hour drive across the Sunshine State of Florida towards our next destination – Naples and the Paradise Coast! The two and a bit hour drive took us south from Delray Beach to Fort Lauderdale, before turning West onto the Interstate 75, heading inland and across from the Atlantic Ocean, to the warmer waters and colourful sunsets of the Gulf of Mexico. The road took a beautiful straight line west, through the Everglades Wildlife Management Area, through the Big Cypress National Preserve along Aligator Alley and finally skimming the edge of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, before arriving in Naples. We knew were arriving as we began to smell the change in the air, with a slight hint of salt and that unknown something that makes the corners of your mouth smile as it hits your nostrils!
Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Fort Lauderdale
As drove through town, towards the seafront, the Naples Grande Beach Resort appeared in front of us, like a giant ode to the Mediterranean, elegant despite its size and shape, softened by the sloping roof, characterized by the terracotta tiles and texturized by the pattern of the inset balconies. The entrance hall was certainly ‘grande’ with a three-story atrium space, populated by an indoor sculptural waterfall.
We checked into our room on one of the high floors, which had an amazing view over the waterside homes and canals to the left and to the right, Clam Pass Park, Outer Clam Bay and the Gulf of Mexico Beyond. We had a very large room with two king-size beds and everything else that you would expect from a five-star hotel.
There were three swimming pools! One for families and children, featuring a zero-entry, beach style entry and a 100-foot white water slide, a relaxing adult-only pool and spa pool, with private cabanas available for rent and a final pool, hidden away for guest to exercise and swim laps.
The sunset veranda is the perfect spot to have a cocktail as the sun goes down, or the beach is only a 15-minute walk, or 2-minute tram ride, along with the wooden boardwalk through the mangroves.
The hotel has 7 options for dining, including the fresh seafood restaurant, Catch of the Pelican specializing in fresh seafood and home-grown produce from the on-site garden.
We had our dinner here that night, where we tried the locally caught seasonal Stone Crab claw, pan-fried snapper and glazed pork belly.
Don’t just take our word for it though, check out their reviews on TripAdvisor
Day 2 in Naples – Paradise Coast
Naples Botanical Gardens
In the morning we left the hotel early for Naples Botanical Gardens, a local oasis of nature on the edge of the Everglades, designed to educate and connect people with nature. Designed around the principal of Gardens of Latitude, there are five gardens all of which represent the natural environment and the flora of various habitats along the line of latitude that passes through the garden itself – Florida Garden, Asian Garden, Brazilian Garden and Caribbean Garden – plus a Children’s Garden, Water Garden and Preserve.
We joined a Tai Chi class on the main lawn in the front of the garden, which was attended mostly by local residents who come to find peace and health through the art of moving meditation amongst nature.
Naples Botanical Garden is a true community project, run and maintained almost entirely by volunteers, who take care of every aspect of trimming, planting, weeding, cleaning and answering questions from visitors.
One of our favourite spots was the butterfly garden, a small, enclosed garden dome, filled with all kinds of colourful flowers and dozens of butterflies flapping all around you, or resting on leaves. You can even see the butterflies before they hatch from their chrysalis, or if you’re lucky, watch a new one climb out with, wet-winged and slightly confused, then drying its wings in the sun before its first tentative attempts at flight.
All sorts of local events take place in the gardens, some regular and some for special occasions and holidays, like the Night Lights in the Garden, a display of thousands of decorative lights to show the garden in a completely different form, with live music, food, and drinks. Normally from mid-December until early January.
Lunch at Sea Salt with Jonell
From Naples Botanical Gardens, we drove back into Naples to meet with Jonell, the manager of the Naples CVB, who had organised our stay and all of our activities in the area. We met in Sea Salt, her favourite restaurant in town, which is famous for its fresh seafood and innovative contemporary speciality cuisine. Although close to the centre of town, not on the beach, the style was relaxing and much like a beachside restaurant, with white-washed wooden boards and sea-blue trimmings.
We tried their local speciality, the pan-fried grouper, which was incredibly fresh, moist and tender with a subtle flavour enhanced by the searing of the hot pan. There was also tempura shrimp of a bed of seaweed, Octopus, lump crab meat on avocado with crispy fries and a speciality gourmet burger.
The food was amazing and it was fantastic to meet Jonell and learn more about Naples and how it has been shaped into the interesting, lively, welcoming and environmentally conscious city that it is today.
After saying goodbye, we returned to the hotel to catch the sunset from the beach, which is only a short scenic walk along the boardwalk that runs through the mangroves of Clam Pass and across the bridge over Outer Clam Bay to the beach at the end.
The sunset from the beach is spectacular, watching from the comfort of a sun lounger as the sun falls in slow motion through the sky, seemingly growing larger into a glowing orange ball, scattering reds and oranges across the sky. Giant pelicans, impossibly graceful, skimmed the surface of the water, stopping momentarily in mid-air, paused in flight, before diving into the water, emerging back out into the orange glow to swallow their catch whole.
The Lights of Naples by Night
Jonell had told us that we must see Naples’ 5th Avenue by night, so we took her advice and after sunset, drove back into town. Being close to Christmas, the streets were lit up and tall palm trees were wrapped in spiraling lights. The streets were alive with live musicians busking on street corners, open-sided restaurants with tables on the pavement and a relaxed, happy and sociable atmosphere.
Day 3 in Naples – Paradise Coast
Swamp Hiking in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
The next day we headed out for something we were really excited about – Swamp hiking in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park! We met Park Biologist and Botanist Mike Owen at the Fakahatchee Park Ranger Station to find out more about where we were going and what we’d be doing there. Often referred to as the Amazon of North America, Fakahatchee is a linear swamp approximately 5 miles wide and 20 miles long, which has been formed over thousands of years by the flow of fresh, slow moving water. The unique microclimate created here are home to a high level of rare and endangered tropical plant species. The preserve is packed full of wildlife, including the Florida Panther, black bears, Eastern indigo snakes, Everglades minks and diamondback terrapin, white-tailed deer and plenty of Alligators.
Animal life is not the only important aspect of Fakahatchee, as it is also home to more species of orchids and bromeliads than any other location on the continent – 44 native orchids and 14 native bromeliad species, including the extremely rare and protected Ghost Orchid.
Birding (bird watching) is hugely popular here as Fakahatchee preserve hosts thousands of resident and migratory birds including – Swallow-tailed kite, red-shoulder hawks, Barred owls, warblers, Buntings such as indigo, woodpeckers, ducks, wading birds, Roseate spoonbill, eagles, osprey, shorebirds, turkeys and vultures.
There are plenty of activities to do for people who like to explore, with or without wildlife spotting. Fakahatchee has a network of land and waterways which are perfect for walking, cycling, kayaking and fishing from non-motorised boats.
It’s the job, actually the passion, of Mike Owen and his small team to monitor and maintain Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, part of which involves regular ventures out into the swamp on foot to count numbers of birds, animals, reptiles and of course, rare orchid and bromeliads. This is what we were here to see first-hand, with a guided tour of the swamp. Mike leads tours like this on special request, only outside of the hottest summer months.
The journey starts with a 30 minute drive down Jane’s Memorial Scenic Drive, about twelve miles of hard compact dirt leading from the Ranger Station to its end at Picayune State Forest. This is where many residents and tourists come cycling and walking. We only had to drive for a few minutes before we had spotted our first deer, followed by a sunbathing alligator! A few kilometres down the dirt road is where we parked the car and started walking down the path to our entry point into the strand. As we were driving and walking, Mike explained all about the preserve, the swamp, the unique habitat it creates and all of the wildlife within it with complete unbridled passion and excitement, the kind you expect to see from a scientist who has just made a new scientific discovery! It was heartening to witness someone with such love for their job that it’s no longer a job, but pursuing a passion with the benefit of being rewarded for it. Mike’s enthusiasm is also extremely contagious and you find yourself eagerly shouting out, ‘BIRD! DEER! ALLIGATOR!’ as Mike calmly adds them to his hand-written sighting notes for the day, which will later be added into the computer system.
We approached the edge of one of the many strands which make up the swamp and with a walking pole in one hand and camera in the other we took our first tentative steps into the black tea coloured water. It’s a strange feeling to deliberately step waist deep into the sort of place we have trained ourselves not to step into, but once in that feeling passed and we followed Mike into the swamp amongst the royal palms, cypress trees and other vegetation.
Placing the pole into the water ahead of us to alert any potential alligators under the surface, we waded peacefully through the waters, Mike explaining the plants and trees, noting them all down as he saw them. As well as taking note of all bird and animal life, the main focus was on keeping count of all of the orchids and other rare plants that grow symbiotically on the sides of the trees. The Ghost Orchid in particular is so rare that someone had stolen one, prompting the installation of several cameras in the swamp. Keep your ears to the trees and you could hear the tapping sounds of a woodpecker echoing through the trunk!
We spent over an hour in the strand, but you could easily lose an entire day in there, as the peace and tranquillity of this other world totally envelops you. Our favourite part of the Fakahatchee story is the story of how Mike Owen met his wife whilst leading a tour through the swamp and one lady in the group seemed to love it as much as he did. It’s lucky she did, because separating Mike from Fakahatchee would be tough, if not impossible! When they decided to get married, she suggested that they have the ceremony in the place they first met, waist deep in the Fakahatchee Strand – all of the guests joined the watery ceremony and the two have been happily swamping together ever since!
Mike and his team at Fakahatchee are supported by the Florida State Parks Department, but also receive lots of extra support and public fundraising from Friends of Fakahatchee.
Suggested Afternoon Activity
Sightseeing cruise with Pure Naples
If you have time in the afternoon after your swamp hike, a great way to learn more about Naples in a relaxing setting is to take a sightseeing cruise with Pure Naples, where the captain and crew will give you a narrator tour of the history of Gordon Pass, the Naples Coastline and the huge mansions that border Naples Bay. There is also a good chance of seeing dolphins playing alongside the boat!
Early dinner at The Local
We headed for an early dinner at the local, a chef-led restaurant specialising in taking fresh produce from farm to table as quickly as possible, using only local ingredients where possible. We had a Red Lentil Soup starter, Kale Caesar Salad, Local Pan Seared Snapper and the Palmetto Creek Butcher’s Cut of Pork, all of which was amazing!
If you get there early, you can try their early dining menu which comes with a glass of wine. We really hope to see these guys in the centre of Naples next time, alongside all the other great restaurants, because they truly should be there!
Day 4 in Naples – Paradise Coast
Luxury Artisanal Massage with the Naples Grande Spa
The Naples Grande Spa is the most relaxing corner of the resort, designed with a minimalist Japanese theme and surrounded by gardens, where we relaxed in the stone, outdoor hot spa pool to relax and unwind our muscles before our massage. After changing into bath robes, we waited in the meditation lounge with a hot, herbal infusion tea, relaxing in the zen chairs, surrounded by the warmth of the natural wooden walls.
We indulged ourselves with a relaxing artisanal massage, incorporating a variety of different styles and techniques specifically suited to our needs. Soothing strokes, well-placed compression and deep tissue pressure, all expertly combined through the all-natural and organic therapeutic massage oil.
After the massage, we soaked in the outdoor hot spa pool again to relax and let our muscles soak up the goodness of the massage.
Stand Up Paddle Boarding
The massage could have easily been the perfect end to our stay in Naples, but we still hadn’t been Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP Boarding)! It may seem contradictory to take part in physical exercise after a relaxing massage, but actually it was perfect. Standing relaxed but firm on the giant board, all muscles back where they should be and working with ease, we glided along the water to the entrance to Outer Clam Bay, the point where freshwater mixes with salt and the dense mangrove create a labyrinth of peaceful waterways, full of fish, birds, humans fishing and alligators. For several amazing minutes, I had a 4 or 5 foot alligator swimming calmly alongside me, until it decided I was too close, so ducked under the water for cover. It’s an incredible peaceful, relaxing, almost meditative way, to explore this fascinating habitat.
We had an amazing few days in Naples and we didn’t even scratch the surface of all there is to see and do here. We’ll be back Naples!
Note: This trip wouldn’t have been possible without the help and support of Paradise Coast for our itinerary in Naples and Everglades and to Visit Florida, the official tourism office of Florida in Tallahassee, and especially Ms. Summer Gilhousen, who arranged the whole trip and coordinated with all the local tourism boards, private companies for our sponsored hotel stays, tours and car rental. Thank you!