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Published: December 2nd 2013
Florida’s Gulf Coast – Naples, Fort Myers and Sarasota
We have spent the last two days watching the rain from our room in a small hotel in Fort Lauderdale – very Irish weather here in Florida! We were saddened to return Rudy V to its owners. We had grown very comfortable to our nomadic mobile home life on the road.
We had driven slowly across Florida from Naples on the Gulf Coast, through the Big Cypress National Park and Everglades to Fort Lauderdale on the Atlantic Coast along Highway 41, also known as the Tamiami trail, the previous day. That’s where we stopped to take the photos of the basking alligators and get a genuine fright when two of them crashed into the water toward us a moment after taking the photo previously posted. They moved with a startling speed that encouraged us to scamper back to the safety of the RV.
The Gulf Coast of Florida is very nice – and very wealthy. The towns of Naples, Fort St Myers and Sarasota are all very pretty, pristine! Their down-towns are filled with fashion boutiques, art galleries and restaurants and bars, banks and insurance firms. The libraries are extremely comfortable and spacious places to go online and catch up with emails. And the houses start just at the edge of the downtown with little separation from the downtown. They are nearly all large houses with manicured lawns. The houses overlooking the sea are even larger again with yachts and sailing boats moored outside. The routes into the towns are crowded with gated communities and golf resorts in addition to the usual shopping malls, gas stations and chain restaurants. We have gotten so we can predict the next shop we will see, ie there is a Walgreens, next will be a CVS and then a WalMart!
Naples, Florida bills itself as ‘Florida’s Best Place to Live and Visit’ and it is certainly very nice if you have a lot of money. Naples is the largest town in Collier County and Collier County has the highest per capita income of the Florida counties. All the major investment firms have main street offices here to assist in ‘wealth management’. And there seem to be no end to doctors offering corrective surgery. Naples, like its Italian namesake has a lot of restaurants and pizzerias. We ate at one called Roma where the manager was a little Mussolini who had his staff running scared; and the pizza was disappointing too! It was recommended by the two volunteers at the visitor centre, who also suggested we visit the ‘oldest house in Naples’ which was built in the 1890s and still standing. (Our own house in Clontarf was built in the 1890s and we trust it too is still standing; perhaps when we return to Dublin we will turn it into a tourist attraction!) Anything over 100 years old in America seems to be labelled ‘historic’. It was a very breezy day so out stroll on the long and fine sand beach was short, although we did walk the length of the pier and back and watched a few people struggling to ride the waves. We walked the width of Naples, from the sea to the harbour where a few of the former docks had been transformed into a tourist trap called ‘Tin City’ selling t-shirts and other tat. There were a couple restaurants there overlooking the much calmer water.
Previous to Naples, we were in Fort Myers. It is a very cute little town centre with the usual range of clothes shops and cafes and restaurants, a couple small hotels and a theatre. The most interesting shop was in an old Woolworth-type building and consisted of more than 20 satellite shops of larger local stores in nearby places like Sanibel Island (which unfortunately we did not get out to). On approaching the town, and again on departing, on the Tamiami Trail of Highway 41, we numerous entrances to gated communities and resorts. Fort Myers is most famous as the winter retreat of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
Our stop previous to Fort Myers was Sarasota. Sarasota is the town where we spent Joan’s birthday. It is also the first Gulf Coast small Florida town ( small meaning a population of under 100,000) where we noticed a preponderance of upmarket shopping centres featuring the likes of Macys and Saks as anchor tenants; large hospitals and health centres surrounded by doctors private clinics, and large banks advertising their ‘wealth management services’. And there were numerous new car dealerships featuring the luxury models of BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Audi. Very few people here drive American cars; only the poor, mad or destitute take public transport or, god forbid, walk!
Sarasota’s claim to fame is that it was ‘discovered’ by John Ringling of circus fame who built a lifetime fortune of 200 million dollars (in the 1880s!) and also built a causeway to the barrier islands and made it the winter base for his circus. He gave his massive Venetian Gothic mansion and collection of European Baroque paintings to this city and it is now a museum.
Re-reading the above, it seems overly negative so let me say straight out that we thoroughly enjoyed our few days travelling slowly down the Tamiami Trail and visiting these cities and wish that we had longer time to spend in each of them. They all feature very active live performances of music and theatre throughout the year. They are the winter haunts of the ‘snowbirds’ – people from the winter-blasted, mostly north-eastern states of America and Canada who migrate down here for the winter months. These snowbirds are usually pretty well-off financially, or great budgeters, and they demand quality entertainment and service for their grey dollars. One of the singers who was touring the area while we were there was Bonnie Raitt, and her opening act was Irish singer-songwriter Paul Brady. We didn’t find any jazz but did note that the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis was making a visit in the new year.
And then there is the golf! It probably will not surprise you to learn that there are more than 1,250 golf courses in Florida, more than in any other state, and there are at least 100 major hotels and resorts to serve them. Many of Florida's Golf Courses are ranked among the best in the world, most maintained to championship standards. In the Greater Naples area alone there are more than 20 grand resorts featuring more than 40 courses, and more are being constructed each year.
This area is simply and stunningly beautiful. The vegetation is lush and the gardens of the houses were beautifully colourful (and we can only imagine how spectacular the grounds and gardens of the resorts in the area are). It was not at all as I had expected or pre-conceived it. I expected it to be very tacky but it was not at all. It was very appealing: charming, tasteful and lovely. I would quite happily return here ... and perhaps even play a round of golf or two, if invited!
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