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The Wilder Side of Florida’s Paradise Coast

By Eric Snider

Florida’s Paradise Coast is known worldwide for its upscale resorts, fine restaurants and luxury experiences, but what occasionally gets overlooked is our wealth of eco-tourism. The destination definitely has its wild side — in fact, 80 percent of the land area in Collier County is designated as parkland or nature preserves.

 

The most convenient way for vacationers to take in the wide array of natural wonders on Florida’s Paradise Coast is to call upon one of the many eco-tourism operators who offer guided experiences. There are hiking tours, boating tours, jet ski tours, kayaking and other paddling tours. For those who favor more submersive experiences, you can take scuba and snorkel tours, and even get waist deep in water on a swamp walk in the Everglades.

Of course, guides aren’t mandatory. Many visitors hike or take leisurely strolls along one of our many trails or boardwalks.

Here are a handful of favorite eco-tourism activities on the Paradise Coast:

World-renowned Wetlands

Any discussion of the Paradise Coast’s eco-tourism begins with The Everglades. These world-renowned tropical wetlands are surprisingly accessible to visitors staying in Naples or Marco Island. In fact, if you drive southeast from downtown Naples on U.S. 41, in just 25 miles you’ll begin to see the swamplands; another 15 miles and you’ll be in the thick of it. The largest chunks of The Everglades in Collier County are the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.

Glide through the Everglades on a Pole Boat

As you progress along U.S. 41, you’ll encounter numerous turnoffs to a variety of places to experience the full, natural beauty and ultimate serenity of The Everglades. It might be as peaceful as a picnic or as hair-raising as an airboat ride. You can also kayak, canoe and hire a guide to take you on a primitive poleboat excursion.

“The best way I can describe it is, it’s primeval out here in the Everglades,” says Trish Elzer, who guides swamp walk tours behind the gallery of renowned nature photographer Clyde Butcher. “Some people may think of palm trees and the beach as their paradise, but I think about cypress trees and fresh water — as well as alligators and snakes.”

Too Many Islands to Count

Paddle the Ten Thousand Islands

Just a brief boat ride from Marco Island puts you in another Paradise Coast marvel: The Ten Thousand Islands, a chain of small mangrove islets that are both gorgeous and calming — and where the fishing is out of this world. The islands actually number in the hundreds, but local lore says that decades ago people just got tired of counting them and settled on 10,000.

 A boat captain can take you through this vast system (fishing optional). After a short ride from the dock you’ll be immersed in a picturesque wilderness, where only wildlife sounds hold court. There are many access points to the Ten Thousand Islands, ranging from Marco Island to Goodland to Chokoloskee in The Everglades.

A Trail Runs Through It

The Gordon River Greenway is an ideal way to get a taste of natural Naples inside the city limits. A series of short boardwalks and paved pathways take you through rich greenery. It’s a great place for birding, not to mention hiking, jogging, biking and rollerblading. The Greenway has playgrounds, restrooms, viewing areas and a kayak launch. There’s easy access from major roadways — one is next to the Naples Zoo. And in certain parts of the Greenway, you’re just a short hop to a terrific restaurant, gallery or store.

Gordon River Greenway

“The Gordon River Greenway is a slice of natural paradise in the heart of Naples, and a lot of people don’t know it exists,” says Melissa Hennick, a senior environmental specialist with Conservation Collier. “It’s a great way to see the southwest Florida environment without necessarily getting your feet dirty.”

Environmentalism, Education, Fun

Centrally located just south of the Naples Zoo, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center offers a stimulating day trip that mixes fun, education and environmental consciousness. The large green space is fronted by the Dalton Discovery Center, which offers an array of animal and plant exhibits and hands-on interactive experiences. You can also get an underground look at the area’s unique water flow ways.

The Nature Center is listed as Site #69 on the Great Florida Birding Trail.

You can take kayak tours and, probably most popular, a guided electric boat tour through a winding waterway.

Visitors to the Nature Center are apt to see manatees, turtles, snakes, innumerable bird species, and maybe even spot a gator or two.

The Total Paradise Package

Enjoy the day at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park

Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, about 12 miles north of downtown Naples, features one of the most pristine stretches of beach you’ll find anywhere. While there, you can mingle with wildlife, bird-watch, stroll the shore, fish, picnic, swim, or simply lounge in a beach chair and take in the gorgeous blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico. The park is maybe the best spot on Florida’s Paradise Coast for shelling. There are even spots to launch boats. Guided tours and interpretive programs, led by experienced rangers and volunteers, occur on a regular basis.

Delnor-Wiggins has trails, an observation tower and a pavilion you can rent out. A concessionaire sells food and beverages, and rents paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, umbrellas and beach chairs.

It is, indeed, the total paradise package.

“My favorite thing about Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park is it lets me get away from the hustle-bustle urban part of Naples,” says park manager Zack Lazano. “Naples has a beautiful downtown, with lots of restaurants and stores, but here you can step away from that, hit pause for a little bit.”