Sunday, March 17, 2013

Along Florida's Shell Coast

The southwest coast of Florida from Fort Myers to Marco Island has long been a favorite destination of ours.  A warm winter climate, good restaurants and spectacular white sand beaches bordering the Gulf of Mexico make it a wonderful place to go, especially when the icy winds of a Chicago winter howl.  So far this year, however, we'd enjoyed another mild winter in Chicago with one of the longest stretches of a lack of measurable snowfall in recorded history - right up until I dropped Pam at the airport for her trip to Fort Myers on Sunday, January 20th.  The day before we had a high of 47 degrees.  On Sunday the high was 28 and on the following day, with Pam safely down in the Florida sunshine, we had a high of 15 in Chicago with snow forecast for later in the week.  I was stuck at home while Pam was applying copious amounts of sunscreen and enjoying a week of perfect weather while she and her pal Jan (from Toronto) were having a great time in the Sunshine State.

I headed to the airport a week after Pam left for my flight down to Fort Myers (set your airfare search destination to airport code RSW).  The security lines were already getting long but I stepped up to the TSA's Pre-Check line and breezed through security.  Travel Tip:ð I can't say enough about how easy this program has made this aspect of travel for me and I urge you to check it out.  That said, Pam reported seeing long security lines in Fort Myers for those boarding flights and there is no Pre-Check program in Fort Myers yet.

Pam's sister and brother-in-law have owned vacation property in this area for over 20 years and were kind enough to lend us their current place in Estero for our time down there.  I arrived in Fort Myers in time to enjoy a couple of hours with Jan before she headed back up to Toronto.  The weather was superb with sunny skies and temperatures near 80.  By the time we got home a couple of weeks after my arrival, we agreed that our time down there this year featured the best weather of any of our trips.  In three weeks there this year, Pam experienced one morning of light rain showers and temperatures that never felt cold.

This 3-foot alligator could be found just outside our back door on most afternoons
The Philharmonic Center for the Arts ("the Phil") in Naples is much more than just a concert hall.  We keep an eye on their website to see what is on their calendar when we plan to be down there.  This year we stepped over to the Daniels Pavilion, a smaller theater across a courtyard from their main venue to attend a performance by Lonesome River Band.  It was a great evening of bluegrass music by this award winning group.  The Philharmonic Orchestra was performing in the main auditorium so we knew things would be crowded at the Phil.  Travel Tip:ð We made dinner reservations at Brio in a neighboring mall so it was easy for us to get a primo parking spot at the Phil, stroll over to Brio for dinner and know that when we came out of the concert, it would be easy to hop in our car and head back to Estero.

The beautiful Gulf coastline offers miles and miles of white sand beaches and lots to see and do.  It is common to find your gaze drawn to the sand as you look for shells that are frequently found on the beach.  As a matter of fact, don't forget to pack the Tivas, Keens or other firm-soled sandals since much of the beach is covered in shells.  Both resident and migratory birds can be found in great numbers along these shores.  During "high season" the population of this area swells greatly.  Driving and locating parking can tax your patience.  Pam purchased a beach pass for the rental car which made it a lot easier and somewhat less expensive to park as we explored the beach walking opportunities.
The Gulf shoreline of southwest Florida offers a mix of developed beachfront as well as some undeveloped stretches

Even during the busy season it is not difficult to find a quiet stretch of beach
An infinite number of greens and blues

One of our favorite things to do is to park at a public garage near the Ritz-Carlton and walk a couple of miles in each direction up and down the beach.  We cap off the experience with lunch at the wonderful Gumbo Limbo restaurant at the beach in the Ritz-Carlton Naples.  It's a great spot for a sunset cocktail as well as lunch.
The Gumbo Limbo at the Ritz-Carlton is easily accessed from the beach and is a great lunch or sunset cocktail spot

We visited with former work colleagues who have relocated to Osprey as well as Cape Coral.  Of course, all of this driving up and down the coast meant that a rental car was necessary.  In trying to keep the expense from getting out of hand we decided to rent from an office located off of the airport property since the rates they quoted were substantially below those offered for rental from companies located at the airport.  Travel Tip:ð Plan your travel carefully and be prepared with contingencies since many offices away from airports do not have the same hours as those offices at airports.  Enterprise had an office not too far from Pam's sister's place.  As their commercials say, they will pick you up and take you to their rental office so, after taking a taxi the short distance from the airport to the condo and spending the night, Pam had Enterprise pick her up at the condo complex entrance (they won't pick you up at the airport) and take her to their offices where she picked up the car.  Travel Tip:ð If you read the fine print in benefit brochures offered by the credit card companies, you will note that while many cards offer automatic insurance coverage if you use the card to pay for the full rental, many cards limit that coverage to two weeks or less.  Apparently Pam's American Express covered her for the entire period of her three week rental.

The Cocohatchee River is one of the major waterways in the area and offers many recreational opportunities.  We elected to take a brief cruise on the river with Naples Marina and Excursions (12345 Tamiami Trail North, Naples).  Our captain Denis came to the Naples area many years ago from his native Belgium.  There was just one other couple on the boat with us so it felt like a private tour.  For a little over two hours we cruised down the Cocohatchee to its mouth on the Gulf and saw lots of wildlife, including a few dolphin and many, many birds.

Red tide is an algae that can be present at high concentrations in these waters from time to time as it was during a part of our time there.  In the event of an onshore breeze and especially when breaking waves cause the toxins released by the algae to become airborne, people can experience symptoms.  Humans can experience breathing discomfort when exposed to the toxins and those with asthma, emphysema and other breathing disorders should watch the newspapers carefully for news of an algae bloom.  Sea creatures can suffer greatly from red tide which can kill fish.  We experienced one day of exposure to red tide which caused a slight cough but no other reactions.

Collier County's Clam Pass Park is one of the most pleasant beach parks anywhere.  We drove there one day and walked down the .6 mile long boardwalk that meanders from the parking lot to the beach.  Those who might prefer not to walk can take advantage of the free tram service that drives you down the same boardwalk in a golf cart.  At the end of the boardwalk is a beach side grill and a concession stand that rents beach umbrellas, chairs and other items for those who do not bring their own. 
Walking the boardwalk out to Clam Pass
Kids' toys artfully arranged by the concessionaires at Clam Pass
An osprey looking for its next meal
Some guests pay to use an umbrella at the Waldorf while some just fly in and sit atop one for free
Everyone loves to stroll along the shore

"The Phil" is more than a concert hall.  The complex includes the Naples Museum of Art.   Their current primary exhibition (open through April 13, 2013), "Painting Women", explores the role of women in art and features works by Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lilla Cabot Perry, Helen Torr, Edgar Degas, Gretchen Woodman Rogers and others.  This is a very good museum and visitors to the area would be wise to check their website to see what is showing whenever they are in town.  The last Wednesday of each month features free admission during what they call "art after hours" from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park is another favorite of ours.  It is located on one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on the southwest coast of Florida.  We enjoy a long walk along the beach along with a stop at Doc's Beach House for a bite or a drink.  In addition to superb beach walking, the park is home to a population of gopher tortoises.

A gopher tortoise at Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park
Beach side tables at Doc's Beach House

Our visit was timed to coincide with our 20th wedding anniversary so as a treat to ourselves, we redeemed a few hotel frequent guest points to enjoy a few nights at the Waldorf Astoria in Naples.  Visitors to the area in the past will recognize this as the old Registry Resort.  A number of years ago it was transformed to the Naples Grande but is now a Waldorf under the Hilton set of brands.  The location right next to Clam Pass is wonderful.
Naples Pier

On our actual anniversary we had dinner at Baleen located in the LaPlaya Beach and Golf Resort.  We dined outdoors on the porch and watched the sun set over the Gulf.  It was a perfect way to cap our visit to southwest Florida and to toast our 20 happy years together.  Here's to many, many more!
A Gulf sunset from our table at Baleen on our 20th anniversary

P.S.: Fore more than 20 years we have enjoyed all that the wonderful Shell Coast of Florida has to offer and we expect to return here again and again.  So much so, in fact, that we spent a good deal of our time there this year tooling around the area with a realtor.  We located a property we like and are under contract to make it our own so count on more than a few blog posts from this beautiful spot in the future.
Miles and miles of beaches to be walked