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The Paradise CoastThe Paradise Coast

Vanderbilt Beach at Naples, FloridaVanderbilt Beach at Naples, Florida

The Gulf Coast of Florida is a surprise. After traveling across the state’s interior of flat, brown landscape, crossing the canals into areas such as Vanderbilt Beach on the north side of Naples it’s as if the painter remembered his colors: vivid red bougainvillea and startlingly orange birds of paradise bloom along the winding roadway and the water is cerulean blue. Even the houses and hotels are rich in color: The elegant LaPlaya is yellow, the Turtle Club is a rich deep green, the trim on Buzz’s Lighthouse is bright pink.

Umbrella canopies nestled together on the Naples coastline are reminiscent of The Turtle Club’s namesake and allow diners unobstructed views of the beachfront. Photo courtesy of the Turtle Club.

Naples Municipal Airport is just several miles from this beachfront paradise as is Bartow Municipal Airport, and Southwest Florida International Airport at Fort Myers is just 40 miles away. At Naples Municipal Airport there are two great long runways, 6,600 feet and 5,000 feet. Bartow has three active runways, unusual for a general aviation airport, as well as a great little restaurant and a museum on the field; astronaut Buzz Aldrin trained here.

Naples—so named because early settlers believed the bay to be more beautiful than the waters in Naples, Italy—is one of the wealthiest cities in the United States. In 1920s, the Tamiami Trail, which links Naples and Miami on the east coast, was opened and the Collier family established lush residences and a healthy tourism economy here as early as the 1930s.

The downtown Naples shopping district at Third Street and Fifth Avenue South has bustling, eclectic, tantalizing stores and restaurants—find anything here from the most expensive to the ridiculous, from beachy kitsch to urbane artwork, and food from gelato to oysters. It’s all very chic and beautiful; the streets are lined with palm trees and park benches beckon off charming side streets. Bring your wallet, even if the only place you shop is the kitschy Best of Everything store where cosmetic jewelry, fancy hats, pashminas, tableware, and beachy resort wear are amazingly inexpensive.

Naples has 80 golf courses, so those not inclined to relax on the beach or shop are easily occupied. But resisting the sugary white sand and calm clear water of the Gulf of Mexico is impossible. If you choose to simply sit on the beach, you’ll be entertained by nature at its best: Dolphins cavort in the gentle waves, turtles meander across the sand, and pelicans swoop into the water for breakfast. Man will entertain too: skimming jet skis, reckless stand-up paddleboarders, courageous parasailers. And shells! From conch to periwinkle, sand dollars to starfish, the abundance of collectibles and remarkable sea life will fascinate even the most jaded.

Everywhere are walkers—morning strolls along the beach, evening exercisers along Vanderbilt Beach Road. All working up an appetite for restaurants along the beach such as Buzz’s Lighthouse, The Turtle Club, or LaPlaya. Or maybe drinks at the Ritz-Carlton? Chain restaurants line Route 41 into Naples and downtown is a cornucopia of food—pizza, seafood, steaks, ice cream, you name it, you’ll find it. Down on the Naples dock and pier are more restaurants and not to be missed is Tin City, another eclectic shopping area.

But the most impressive thing about Vanderbilt Beach at Naples is truly sublime: the sunset. Bring your beverage of choice out on the sand and watch for the green flash, that elusive, seldom-seen brilliance that occurs as the sun kisses the sea goodnight.

The guests of LaPlaya's BALEEN restaurant have the opportunity to dine inside or in the open air. Photo courtesy of LaPlaya.
Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
Topics: Travel, US Travel

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