Top Things Not-To-Be-Missed on the Paradise Coast in Naples
The Top Not-To-Be-Missed Activities & Attractions in
Naples, Marco Island & the Gulf Coast Everglades
Florida’s Paradise Coast – sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? It is! This Southwest Gulf Coast area of Florida includes the resort cities of Naples and Marco Island, the quaint “Old Florida” communities of Everglades City and Goodland, the agricultural area around Immokalee, over 30 miles of beautiful, white sand beaches, the Gulf Coast side of Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and lots of Florida State Parks, community parks and nature preserves, including Audubon’s famous Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and the expansive and pristine coastal estuary system known as the Ten Thousand Islands.
So with everything from white sand beaches to the Everglades, what are some of the “not-to-be-missed” activities that locals recommend for those with only a limited amount of time to experience the area? Here’s a list from the local experts at the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau, which maintains the official visitor information Web site www.paradisecoast.com.
Naples Beach & Pier
The white sands of Naples Beach hold obvious appeal, and the historic Naples Pier, open 24/7 for fishing as well as people, bird and dolphin watching, is the locally popular gathering spot to watch the colorful nightly ritual of the sun setting into the Gulf of Mexico. The pier is the most-visited attraction in Naples. The historic Naples Pier had a complete renovation during Summer 2015, including new restrooms, new soft lighting during nighttime hours and all new, durable wooden planks and guardrails. The beach near the pier is in a high-end residential area with lush tropical landscaping and private homes, with no high rise buildings to block the view. There is no charge to visit the pier. A public paid parking lot is located one block from the pier entrance on 12th Avenue South.
While stepping into the sand right in front of your room at a beach resort holds tremendous appeal, there are some other area beaches that are definitely worth a trip, and convenient for those staying at off-beach hotels, vacation rentals or the home of friends and family. One is Barefoot Beach Preserve, a Collier County park located just south of Bonita Springs and north of Naples. This natural beach features a back bay estuary for paddling canoes or kayaks and nature trails for walking through scrubland, as well as a long stretch of natural beach stretching south to Wiggins Pass. Coastal expert “Dr. Beach” selected Barefoot Beach as the #2 USA Beach on his 2015 Top Ten Beaches List. There are many beautiful beaches accessible to the public in Naples and Marco Island. Then, there are some nearby barrier island beaches accessible only by boat. Hire a private boat captain or hop on one of the many public boat cruises to visit Keewaydin Island, Kice Island or Cape Romano for fantastic shelling and beach walking. You can also take the public Keewaydin Express boat shuttle that runs daily trips to and from Keewaydin Island. For a really remote beach experience, take a boat or kayak to Pavilion Key or Indian Key in Everglades National Park, with beautiful white sand beaches approved for camping.
See it From the Water
Take a sightseeing cruise from Naples Bay out to the Gulf of Mexico to get a wonderful view of the coastal estuaries and wildlife as well as the many majestic homes lining the shores of Naples Bay. In Naples check out the Naples Princess and the Double Sunshine sightseeing cruises. On Marco Island, cruise out to the Gulf on board the Marco Island Princess or act like a pirate on board the Black Pearl that offers both public and private pirate-themed charters.
Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
The last old growth virgin bald cypress forest remaining in the United States is like a magnet for many species of birds and wildlife. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary features a 2.25 mile boardwalk through a variety of habitats, with countless opportunities to experience the serene beauty of the Southwest Florida environment. The sanctuary is home to an extremely rare ghost orchid that blooms sometimes several times per year within view of the boardwalk. Audubon volunteers can be found to assist with wildlife identification along the boardwalk. The sanctuary also has an extensive nature center with a gift shop and café.
Baker Museum of Art
The Baker Museum at Artisâ€•Naples is a world class facility with 15 galleries. It is the only art museum in the country to be operated in conjunction with a concert hall and symphonic orchestra. The Artisâ€•Naples arts complex provides an important anchor for the very vibrant arts community in Naples.
Everglades National Park Gulf Coast
Many people don’t realize the Gulf Coast entrance to Everglades National Park, located in Everglades City, is the gateway to the saltwater portion of this expansive national park. Many say this is the most beautiful section of the park, and it is a favorite with sport fishermen and paddlers for its natural wilderness and quiet beauty. Guided kayak eco trips are available from several area guide services, including Everglades Area Tours, Naples Kayak and Everglades Adventures.
Big Cypress National Preserve
The expansive Big Cypress National Preserve , the first national preserve to be established as part of the U.S. National Park Service, offers a wide variety of recreational opportunities, from wildlife drives to the Florida Scenic Trail for experienced hikers, along with a public boardwalk leading into a pristine cypress dome, paddling on the Turner River, as well as hunting and off road vehicle use by special permit. Check out the Big Cypress Welcome Center just outside Everglades City to learn more about the Big Cypress Swamp and the Western Everglades.
Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge’s purpose is primarily to preserve habitat for the severely endangered Florida panther but there are now two publicly-accessible hiking trails. Take a hike and tread on the same turf as Florida’s state animal. You can also learn a lot about Florida panthers at the Naples Zoo, where Uno, a young panther that was injured and can no longer live in the wild has a habitat on public display. You can also attend the annual Florida Panther Festival, happening next on November 5, 2016 at Naples Zoo.
Naples Zoo is located in a 52-acre old growth historic botanical garden and is a great spot for families. The zoo, accredited by the Association for Zoos & Aquariums, continues to add new exhibits that entertain as well as educate. Visit Uno, the rare, endangered Florida panther, fosas and lemurs from Madigascar, rare Malaysian tigers and more. The zoo’s primates live cage-free in a large lake. A boat cruise takes guests up close to each island for excellent viewing of the primate islands, home to species including lemurs, gibbons, colobus monkeys, spider monkeys and more. Hand-feed the herd of giraffe, watch the fascinating multimedia shows in Safari Canyon Theater with live animals and much more during your day at the zoo.
The crew of the Dolphin Explorer boat works daily on the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project, a multi-year population and behavior survey of the area’s resident bottlenose dolphin population, puts kids to work on board as citizen scientists to assist researchers with their work to document the area’s resident dolphin population. You can hop on board with the researchers for two public cruises per day departing out of the Rose Marco Island Marina.
Florida stone crab claws are available each year in season from October 15 to May 15. Everglades City, which calls itself the Stone Crab Capital of the World, has several stone crab processing facilities with restaurants alongside, so you can enjoy fresh crab claws that are just hours old. The annual Stone Crab Festival takes place in late October each year along the Old Naples Waterfront at Tin City and Bayfront.
Beautiful keepsake shells can be found on all of the Naples, Marco Island and Everglades area beaches. Some of the best shelling in Southwest Florida may be found on Keewaydin, the 8-mile long barrier island located between Naples and Marco Island. Accessible only by boat, there are several area sightseeing boat tours that stop there for some peaceful beach walking and excellent shelling. The Keewaydin Express shuttle boat is a great way to hitch a ride to and from Keewaydin, which is the only dog-friendly beach in the region. Dogs can ride the Keewaydin Express boat, too! There are several other barrier islands nearby that are great for shelling, including Kice island and Cape Romano.
Known as the #1 Small Art Town in America, Naples is also home to approximately 100 area art galleries featuring local artists as well as museum quality collections available at the retail level. One street downtown, Broad Street at Third Street South, is nicknamed Gallery Row. There is even a famous gallery in the Everglades – photographer Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery located just past the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve displays his signature large format black and white nature photography. There are numerous excellent art festivals throughout the year in downtown Naples as well as excellent live theater and musical performances.
Downtown Naples features two pedestrian-friendly shopping districts, Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South. Both streets are lined with boutiques, art galleries and restaurants with sidewalk seating. Find everything from high fashion to one-of-a-kind gifts and enjoy great dining and lots of live entertainment. Waterside Shops, near the Naples Grande Beach Resort, is the spot for the world’s top high end retailers, from Saks Fifth Avenue to Nordstrom’s to Tiffany & Co., Gucci, Hermes, Cartier and more. The Village on Venetian Bay is another high-end shopping and dining area in the Park Shore area north of downtown. The Mercato, also north of downtown Naples, is a growing shopping, dining and entertainment center that includes the world’s first Rocky Patel signature cigar bar called Burn. Bayfront features a collection of exquisite art galleries, restaurants, gift stores and a hotel, just steps from the center of downtown. Tin City offers souvenirs and resort wear along with several good riverfront seafood restaurants. Naples Outlet Center features designer shops with great savings, located halfway between Naples and Marco Island. Marco Island has several top shopping spots, including Marco Walk and Esplanade, as well as the Marco Island Center for the Arts. All of the area’s resorts have excellent gift shops with unique items not found elsewhere. And, since there are so many affluent residents in Naples, the local thrift and consignment shops are often filled with designer clothing, shoes, purses and high-end interior design pieces.
With around 90 golf courses in the greater Naples area, it’s obvious that golf is a major focus for residents and visitors. A lot of the courses are private, however, but many turn “semi-private” meaning they’ll accept non-members between May and December, since there are so many winter “snowbird” residents that are only here in the peak months of January through April. All of the resorts in the area have courses or can recommend area courses, so a good bet for visitors is to pick a resort with a course that appeals to their level of play.
Southwest Florida is a paddler’s paradise. There are a few great paddling routes right in Naples, like the Cocohatchee and Gordon Rivers. Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve holds many thousands of acres of pristine mangrove estuary halfway between Naples and Marco Island. Rent your own or take a guided paddling tour from several outfitters on and around Marco Island and from Everglades City into the Gulf Coast Everglades.
Naples has a strong local independent dining scene, with a variety of excellent restaurants unique to the area. There is even a group called Naples Originals, which promotes the concept of high quality dining at independent restaurants. Many area restaurants feature the bounty of fresh Gulf seafood and fresh Southwest Florida produce. There are several excellent restaurants located right on the beach in Naples and on Marco Island for romantic sunset dining. The dining scene is especially hot in downtown Naples, with chefs and restaurants creating their own unique menus and dining experiences to great local and national acclaim. Search through the restaurant listings at ParadiseCoast.com to search by location, cuisine type and more.