Naples the 'Crown Jewel' of southwest Florida

The Naples Pier that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico is the perfect place to watch the sunset.

The Naples Pier that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico is the perfect place to watch the sunset.

GEORGE BAILEY, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:45 AM ET

Naples, known as the "Crown Jewel" of southwest Florida, is located on the sun-soaked, white-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Greater Naples has a population of 315,000. Old Naples, which is the original historical city, has a population of 21,000.

This is where my wife and I decided to retreat to for the month of January when Mother Nature started to make life miserable in the cold north. With the temperature consistently around 27°C, it was a delicious thought knowing that back home in Canada it was freezing.

WHERE TO STAY

We lucked out when we found The Lemon Tree Inn in the heart of Old Naples. This well-maintained inn with cheerful staff has generous-sized, immaculately clean rooms. Each of the 34 rooms has a microwave, coffeemaker, a small fridge and a TV that was easy to operate (don't you just hate those remote controls that require you to have an engineering degree to use?)

Outside the room are two Adirondack-style chairs overlooking a sparkling pool and beautiful garden. Tommy Borodemos, the gardener and all-round nice guy, can tell you all about the different flowers in the garden and the magnificent king palms.

There are even on-site laundry facilities. But best of all, we could walk or ride our bikes (available at the inn to rent for $10 a day) to the downtown area and the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Within a few minutes' walk is a grocery store where we stocked up on supplies for the month. Rates for the inn start at $130 per night for two people (plus 6% state tax and 4% bed tax). This includes a free continental breakfast (nothing fancy) each day.

WHAT TO DO

All of these suggestions are within a 40-minute walk or 20-minute bicycle ride of the inn.

First on your list should be a stroll to trendy Fifth Ave. South. This place oozes decadence. You'll find upscale boutiques, jewelry shops, antique stores and one-of-a-kind art galleries. Fifth Avenue South also features 33 restaurants, just about every one of them with patios that flow onto the sidewalk, and the luxurious Inn on the Fifth where nightly rates start at $380.

Every second Thursday of the month there's free music and entertainment on the avenue.

At the end of the avenue are splendid million-dollar homes and condos. Go beyond these homes and you'll walk right into the Gulf of Mexico.

There is free access to all the beaches.

One evening we rode our bikes to Naples Municipal Beach and Fishing Pier. We first went for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico, then stayed later to walk the historic pier to catch a magnificent sunset. Hundreds of others did the same thing as locals fished from the pier.

On other days we grabbed a morning coffee or tea at the Fifth Avenue Coffee Shop and sat on their patio while reading the Naples Daily News. When we were there, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his wife Ann (they live in Naples) and two bodyguards stopped by the table beside us to talk to friends. They were out for a morning jog. We offered them greetings from Canada.

One day we visited the Naples Depot Museum located across the road from our Florida "home." This museum tells about the railroading boom days of the Roaring Twenties. There are restored rail cars and plenty of interactive exhibits to keep you interested. We learned waterfront property in 1887 sold for $3 an acre. Today's price is around $1million an acre! Admission to the museum is free, funded by the state's 4% bed tax.

Across the road from the museum is the historic waterfront district and Tin City.

This is a collection of eclectic shops and popular casual restaurants housed in onetime tin buildings where fishermen processed their day's catch. These buildings were renovated in the 1970s with the collapse of the fishing industry. Here we caught the Naples Princess Cruise ship for a two-hour narrated cruise of the Naples Bay and Gulf. On the cruise we spotted dolphins trailing alongside our ship. It's a memory that will last a lifetime.

Behind 5th Ave. South you'll discover a pretty municipal park. Cambier Park was a great place to read and people-watch. Check the schedule to learn when the Naples Concert Band and Family Movie Nights are held.


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