The Marco Island/Naples/Everglades area refers to them selves as “The Paradise Coast.” I hope they don’t mind if I add nearby Fort Myers/Sanibel/Captiva to that moniker. An opportunity to do a good deed and conduct a wine tasting for The Temple at Marco Island brought me back for a return visit to the west coast of Florida. I had last visited the region in 2002 and I was looking forward to a few repeat visits and some new adventures. My college ex-roommate lives 2/3 of the year on Marco Island and suggested a wine tasting for his temple. The accommodating folks at Shaw Ross Imports supplied all the wines, and I was off to Florida. I was told that my tasting was a big hit, so I kept talking, drinking and telling stories.
This is an unsolicited plug for Jet Blue. I had never flown with them, and while searching for non-stop flights from NYC to Fort Myers, I booked their first flight of the day. Because of the snow and ice storm the day before the flight was half empty. I had lots of legroom with two empty seats next to me and stretched out while watching the free Direct TV Sunday morning news shows. There was no charge for checking my bag and free snacks and non-alcoholic beverages.
If you are looking for excitement then skip Marco Island, which is an hour from Fort Myers. The 4-mile by 6-mile island is very laid back with 17,000 year-round residents and 45,000 seasonal visitors. Speaking about casual, I was one of the few people at the tasting not wearing shorts as people are more interested in the 3 1/2 miles of beaches, the canals and the Gulf of Mexico. While touring on Marvin’s boat he pointed out a 50 foot sailboat that had broken its mooring during Hurricane Wilma and beached itself on a sandbar. It now sits on its side, half-submerged, waiting for someone with $50,000 to rescue it as its owner has abandoned his boat.
My first stop in Fort Myers (530,000 residents in the metro area and two million visitors) was the 20 acres Edison & Ford Winter Estates complex. Thomas Edison befriended Henry Ford and convinced him to winter next to him in Fort Myers, There is a museum with hundreds of Edison & Ford inventions, Edison’s lab, both homes, and a pool,. The garden has the largest banyan tree (400 feet in circumference) in the continental U.S. A National Register Historic Site, it is owned by the City of Fort Myers.
Over the causeway onto Sanibel Island I visited the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The nice folks at Tarpon Bay Explorers offered me a 1 1/2-hour trolley tour on this 6,400-acre (half of Sanibel Island) refuge named the top bird watching destination in North America. You may also choose to walk or drive along the 4-mile road.
My two nights on Sanibel Island were spent at the Sanibel Inn, located directly over the bridge from the mainland. Ellington’s Jazz Bar & Restaurant is located right on the property, and the Lee County Tourism folks hosted a relaxing jazz dinner. Each morning I took a two minute walk to their sister property next door at the Song of the Sea where I had a continental breakfast outdoors overlooking the pool. I drove north to Captiva Island, which is attached to Sanibel and boarded Captiva Cruises for a one-hour trip to the private Useppa Island. I walked along pink pathways, lush vegetation, old Florida architecture and lunch at the 100- year old Collier Inn. The US government used the island as a staging area for the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1960. The cruise leaves from the yacht basin of the South Sea Island Resort, which I had visited on my 2002 trip. The 330-acre gated resort occupies 1/3 of Captiva Island and has 600 rooms and villas.
It was less than an hour from Sanibel to Naples, and my day with the Paradise Coast tourism folks. We walked the 2 1/4 mile boardwalk at the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. This is the only remaining virgin, old growth bald cypress forest in the US and serves as a magnet for native and migratory birds and animals. It is also the primary nesting site for the endangered wood stork. Naples is the antithesis of Marco Island with more formal dining apparel. There are 90 plus public golf courses in the metro area and downtown has the nation’s only free concierge booth. Although Floridians were in coats, I found the high 60’s/low 70’s a delightful temperature considering it was 10 degrees in NYC. The Naples Pier extends 1,000 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. There were a few people fishing but no brave souls in the water. On the way to the pier stop at Palm Cottage & the Norris Gardens for a house tour. Lunch was at Ridgeway Bar & Grill downtown and I spent some time in their very well stocked wine store next door called Tony’s Off Third. The restaurant has more than 600 wine selections by the bottle and 20 by the glass.
My resting place in Naples was the Inn at Pelican Bay built at the water’s edge of a private lake. I had been looking forward to my dinner at the Naples Tomato with the executive director and wine coordinator for the Naples Winter Wine Festival, the richest charity wine auction in the world. They raised $14 million in 2008 and over $70 million since they started 8 years ago. The 2009 festival took place in early February and this is being written before the event. Charging $7,500 a couple with a maximum of 580 accepted. The Luxury Institute rates it among the top 10 arts & entertainment events for wealthy Americans. I was salivating over the 2009 lots with dinners and visits from top vintners and chefs. The Naples Tomato has the Enomatic self-serve wine tasting system with 48 wines available in 1, 3 & 6oz pours, plus 6 spirits in 1/2, 1 & 1 1/2oz pours. The restaurant has 10 varieties of tomatoes and 6,500 bottles of wine, with a Best of Award of Excellence from the Wine Spectator.
ADDENDUM- I have recently stayed at The Westin Savannah & The Westin Hilton Head so I was thrilled that The Westin Diplomat in Hollywood invited me to visit the east coast of Florida for 3 days. It was an easy two-hour drive from Naples to Hollywood, and I was offered the use of the Westin Executive Club Lounge for breakfast, snacks and a large outdoor terrace on the 33rd floor (the hotel has 39 stories). They also offered me dinner at Aizia, their Asian fusion restaurant where Chef Mauricio Gutierrez prepared a sampling of most of their signature dishes, adding fusion Sakes to the mix. Luckily, I only had a hundred feet to walk to the elevator to my room. The next day I visited the nearby (5 minutes by free shuttle) Diplomat Golf Resort & Spa where I used the facilities and had a Swedish massage. I have many friends along the east coast and the Diplomat’s courtesy allowed me to visit many of them before I flew back to NYC.
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