The state of Florida is divided into 67 counties. Collier County, which includes the cities of Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City and the villages of Goodland and Ave Maria, is the largest County in the State with a total area of 2,305 square miles, and a land area of 2,025 square miles. Almost 80% of that is set aside as preserve lands, including Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, two national wildlife refuges, one national research reserve, three state parks, one state forest and many County, City and private parks and nature preserves, including Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Naples has two beaches on the Dr. Beach Top Ten USA Beaches list for 2014. Barefoot Beach Preserve Park is listed at #2 and the beach at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park is listed at #10.
The Travel Channel designated Naples as America’s Best All-Around Beachin 2005, due to the diversity of great things to see and do in the destination, all surrounded by beautiful white sand beaches. U.S. News & World Reportranked Naples as the #2 beach in Florida in 2011, and as the #5 Most Relaxing Beach in the USA and Caribben. TripAdvisor ranked Naples in the Top 25 USA Beaches Poll in 2011 at #13. Condé Nast Traveler magazine named Naples on of the 20 Best Beaches in America in January 2006.
Marco Island is ranked as the #1 USA Island and the #4 Island in the World for 2014 by TripAdvisor’s Travelers Choice awards.
The Paradise Coast is ranked as 2014’s Golf Destination of the Year – North America by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators. Known as the Golf Capital of the World, Naples has the most golf holes per capita in the United States.
Naples has been named “The #1 Small Art Town in America”by author John Villani in his book The 100 Best Art Towns in America.In choosing Naples as # 1, Villani notes the area’s amazing range of natural splendor along with its sophisticated and serious art galleries, its art fairs, community art centers and the Philharmonic Center for the Arts complex.
There are approximately 100 art galleries in the greater Naples area, extending from Gallery Row in downtown Naples all the way out to the Big Cypress Gallery in the Everglades – the studio of famed black and white nature photographer Clyde Butcher, known as the “Ansel Adams of the Everglades” for his stunning, large format black & white Everglades landscapes. Both the Marco Island Center for the Arts and The von Liebig Art Center in Naples offer free galleries, excellent gift shops featuring work by local artists and a full lineup of classes and workshops.
The world class Artis-Naples, home to the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra and concert hall and the Baker Museum of Art, has helped put Naples on the map as a premiere cultural destination, as have the area’s many nationally recognized art festivals.
Naples is said to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in Florida.
Downtown Naples’ Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South shopping districts are renowned for their unique boutiques offering fashion, gifts and fine art – situated along pedestrian friendly, tropically landscaped avenues. Third Street South even has a live Street Concierge offering helpful advice on area shopping and dining.
Waterside Shops in Naples is home to some of the world’s top luxury retail brands, including Saks 5th Avenue, Nordstrom’s, Tiffany & Co., Hermes, Gucci, Cartier, and more.
The peak season for visitors in the area is January through April. From May through December, visitors can find exceptional deals on hotel accommodations. Rates drop by one third to one half of what they are in the peak winter season. Savvy travelers know to take advantage of the great savings on hotel rates, golf course greens fees and less crowded attractions and beaches.
Summer is the rainy season in Florida, but that doesn’t put an end to outdoor activities. Typically as the heat of the day increases and mixes with the moist air from over the Gulf of Mexico, thunderstorms develop in the afternoons. Typically you might see thundershowers between two and seven p.m. in the summer months. The clouds are usually cleared by evening, making way for beautiful sunsets.
There are numerous free public access points to the beach throughout the city of Naples, including in the elegant Port Royal and Gulfshore Boulevard neighborhoods, where visitors stroll the beach in front of elegant mansions. Bicycles are a good way to get around downtown Naples and for trips to the beach. There are several bicycle rental shops in the downtown and north Naples areas.
Annual beach parking stickers are available for non-residents to purchase for $50 and may be obtained at most Collier County public park locations. Without the annual beach parking sticker, parking at Collier County beach parks is $8 per car. In the City of Naples, there are coin operated meters at most beach access locations, and there is a metered parking lot one block east of the Naples Pier.
The annual Naples Winter Wine Festivalhas been ranked by Wine Spectator as the most successful charity wine festival in the nation since 2004. Since the festival began in 2001, over $107 million has been raised toward making a profound and sustainable difference for underprivileged and at-risk children in Collier County, Florida. The festival takes place each year during the last weekend in January. Tickets to the exclusive three-day festival are $8,500 per couple, and many attendees also bid generously on high ticket auction items.
Naples Zoois the only zoo in the southeastern United States featuring the rare Madagascar predator, the fosa. Two are in residence in Naples. The zoo is one of only four in the U.S. to exhibit the African honey badger, also known as the ratel. A YouTube video of honey badgers narrated by “Randall” has surpassed 55 million views, making the honey badger much more well known to many. Randall has also recorded a Naples Zoo Honey Badger video, available on YouTube. The zoo’s primate population, including lemurs, monkeys, apes and gibbons, all live cage-free on islands in a large lake. A pontoon boat ride takes guests for up-close viewing of the primates on their islands. The zoo’s Black Bear Hammock is the largest black bear exhibit at any AZA-accredited zoo east of the Mississippi. The zoo’s new herd of giraffe are now on display and visitors may engage in feeding activities.
Naples Botanical Gardenhas the most extensive show garden of plumeria in the country and perhaps the world, and is the official repository of every known cultivar of plumeria, over 300.
Naples is home to the Swamp Buggy Races. If you like exciting displays of speed, unusual vehicles and mud, these unique events are for you. Held three times annually in November, January and March the races feature everything from down home functional swamp buggies to high tech racing machines. The racetrack is a muddy mess that includes a huge puddle called the Sippy Hole – often the downfall of lesser buggies.
Collier County is the Purple Martin Capital of Florida, as designated by the Florida Legislature. Numerous purple martin houses have been erected on the ground of the Collier County University Extension office on Immokalee Road in Naples, where a research project is underway.
Marco Island is the largest of the so-called Ten Thousand Islands, a string of mostly uninhabited mangrove islands that stretch from Naples down to the southern tip of the Florida mainland. The islands provide an unspoiled natural habitat that is a haven for saltwater fishermen, nature lovers, kayak and canoe paddlers, photographers and more.
Immediately south of Marco Island the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge begins. Several eco-friendly guided Waverunner tours are available from Marco Island, taking visitors into the nation’s only subtropical mangrove forest. The Waverunners stop frequently to view wading birds including roseate spoonbill, egrets and herons, as wells as marine mammals including dolphin and manatee. The new Marsh Trail refuge access off of the Tamiami Trail provides easy access to the Ten Thousand Islands Wildlife Refuge for kayaking and paddling, and is an excellent location for hiking, birding and nature photography.
Shelling on Marco Island’s beach rivals that of Sanibel and other better-known shelling destinations. Shelling gets even better when shell seekers hop on a boat to comb the beaches of nearby deserted outer islands and sand bars, filled with treasures from the sea.
The 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project is perhaps the only scientific research study funded by tourism. Paying guests board the Dolphin Explorer cruise vessel for twice-daily cruises, and participate with naturalists and researchers collecting data on the resident bottlenose dolphin population centered around Naples and Marco Island.
The tiny village of Goodland on Marco Island is home to the annual Mullet Festival in January. Fresh fried mullet and other fresh fish rounds out the menu along with wacky entertainment, including the Buzzard Lope dance contest culminating in the crowning of the Buzzard Lope Queen.
The rare and elusive ghost orchid is the main attraction at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, the native orchid capital of the United States. The endangered flower is the subject of the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and the movie Adaptation. Ranger-led swamp walks through the tropical strand swamp have increased in popularity since the release of the book and movie. Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary has seen an increase in summer visitation for the past seven summers, with a large multi-bud blooming ghost orchid visible through a spotting scope from the public boardwalk.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, located on the outskirts of the Everglades just 25 minutes from downtown Naples, is regarded as one of the top bird watching spots in the United States. It is the favored nesting ground in the world for the endangered wood stork and supports many year round and migratory bird and animal species. Corkscrew is also the Gateway Site for the South Florida section of the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail.There are currently 12 Collier County sites included on the trail.
Hikers taking ranger-guided swamp walks in Big Cypress National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park are often surprised by the relatively pleasant conditions in the area’s cypress swamps. Clear, flowing water cools the air, and two natural predators, the mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis) and the carnivorous bladderwort (Utricularia species) plant, feast on mosquito larva, keeping the cypress swamps remarkably bug-free.
The Big Cypress National Preserve was the first National Preserve established by the National Park Service, on October 11, 1974. The 729,000 acre preserve allows more recreational activities than a National Park, such as hunting and off road vehicle use.
Everglades National Park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center is located in Everglades City, about 30-minutes from Marco Island and 45-minutes from Naples. Many people don’t realize that Everglades National Park has many islands with white sand beaches, including Indian Key, Pavilion Key, Turkey Key and Mormon Key. Camping is allowed on some of the beach islands with a park permit. They are popular stops for boaters and paddlers exploring the Gulf Coast portion of the Everglades. The Gulf Coast portion of the Everglades is home to hundreds of species of rare birds, plants and animals. It is the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles cohabitate and is home to North America’s largest continuous mangrove forest. It is also a great area to view bottlenose dolphin in the wild. Everglades National Park is one of 21 World Heritage Sites in the USA.
The Ten Thousand Islands section of Everglades National Park is the only place to regularly see both alligators and crocodiles cohabiting.
The Wilderness Waterway that stretches for 99 miles from Everglades City to Flamingo is considered by canoe and kayak paddlers to be a paddling experience of a lifetime. Completely removed from civilization, the paddling adventure takes between seven to nine days and requires camping and transport of all food and supplies. Backcountry camping permits are required and can be obtained at the Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
The Paradise Coast Blueway, a system of GPS-plotted paddling trails, begins in Everglades City and goes to Goodland on Marco Island. There is one multi-day wilderness trail route and six day trip routes.
The Ochopee Post Office, located along the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades, is the smallest post office in the United States.
Everglades City is known as the Stone Crab Capital of the World. Stone crab claws are harvested during the annual season from October 15 to May 15. Only claws are harvested from the stone crab – fishermen are required to return the live crab back to the ocean, where it regenerates new claws.
Seafood lovers come from all over the world for the annual Everglades Seafood Festivalheld every year in Everglades City the first full weekend in February. Stone crab claws, fresh Gulf shrimp, grouper and much more are served up picnic style along with music, arts, crafts and rides. In late October, just after the start of the annual stone crab season, the Old Naples Waterfront hosts the Stone Crab Festival. Seafood vendors and restaurants feature fresh stone crab claws and other seafood and culinary treats, along with live music, kids activities, vendors and more.
Because of its vast areas of undeveloped preserve lands, Collier County is the primary habitat for the severely endangered Florida panther(Florida’s state animal), which roams through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Collier-Seminole State Park. Sightings by the public are rare but occur occasionally along public roads and trails within the various parks. There are between 100-160 of the cats remaining in the wild. The annual Florida Panther Festival takes place in November in Naples. Since panthers are so very rare and endangered, there are no live panthers on display, but there are interactive hikes with rangers showing how they track the cats with radio collars, how they capture and release cats for health checks, video of actual ranger visits for health checks on panther kittens, along with games, live music and information from area conservation associations.
The town of Immokalee, which means “my home” in the Seminole language, started out as a ranching town in the 1800’s, but has blossomed into the center of the region’s agricultural industry. The farms of Immokalee produce a significant portion of the nation’s fresh produce, including tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, potatoes, citrus and more. Immokalee is also home to the Seminole Casino Immokalee, which recently underwent extensive renovation, providing Las Vegas style gaming 24/7.
The Ugly Ripe Tomato, a popular sweet hybrid tomato variety, was developed by BHN Seed Company in Immokalee – home to many farms and agricultural companies.
The unincorporated town of Ave Maria, just west of Immokalee, has grown up around the site of Catholic-centric Ave Maria University. It is believed to be the first modern town to be developed in conjunction with a university. The town includes homes, a central piazza with shops and restaurants and a central oratory that is over 100 feet tall alongside the University.
About Florida’s Paradise Coast
Whether travelers are looking for a romantic escape or family getaway, Florida’s Paradise Coast — Naples, Marco Island and the western portion of the Everglades — has an array of vacation options year-round. With more than 30 miles of soft, white sand beaches, a thriving arts and culture scene, distinctive dining, world class golf and the best of outdoor adventure, the Paradise Coast is truly a destination with it all. The 2014 Fall For Fun season kicks off with the Stone Crab Festival October 24-26, the Naples International Film Festival November 6-9 and the Florida Panther Festival November 15-16. Located just two hours from Miami, four hours from Orlando and three hours from Tampa, the Paradise Coast is easily accessible via air or auto. Travelers outside of the Sunshine State can fly into Southwest Florida International Airport, which provides nonstop service to 45 destinations (41 domestic and 4 international) on 17 different air carriers. For more information about the Paradise Coast visit www.ParadiseCoast.com. Follow the destination on Twitter, www.twitter.com/ParadiseCoast, Facebook at www.Facebook.com/TheParadiseCoast; or YouTube, www.youtube.com/TheParadiseCoast.