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.
Naples Beach & Pier
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.