By Marcia Levin
When our sons were very young, my husband and I often packed them into the car and headed to Naples in Collier County along Florida’s Gulf Coast. It was a trip that took under two hours from our home in South Florida.
Our goal was to spend time on the beach and just relax. But in the 1960s and 70s, the only road to Naples from the East Coast was a narrow two-lane highway through the Everglades.
It was a bit daunting but once we turned the kids loose on those amazing white sand beaches with clear turquoise waters, the trip was worth it.
Today, getting to Naples from out of town is easy via I-75, a superhighway that cuts across the state from east to west, and then extends north to Tampa and points beyond.
Fortunately, the southwestern Florida area that encompasses Naples, adjacent Marco Island and the Everglades still has those great beaches.
Just recently I spent a weekend in Naples with some of my kids – now grown men with children who are mostly grown themselves – and all 13 of us had a wonderful time.
A Touch of the Mediterranean
Lots were first sold in southwestern Florida as early as 1887.
Not surprisingly, Naples was named after the famous city of the same name in southern Italy.
And it shares many of the same lovely fair-weather attributes - palm trees, gentle sea breezes and a sub-tropical aura, not to mention great food and interesting diversions for visitors!
One early Naples settlement area -- a fishing village and the site of clam shelling and oyster processing businesses -- has morphed into a hot tourism attraction.
Today it's affectionately known as Tin City, 1200 5th Ave. South.
Seven of the original buildings have been renovated.
The quirky architecture features unique signs and decor(as shown at left.*)
Here, families might hop aboard a boat, go fishing (as at right*) or enjoy a water sightseeing tour.
They might also chow down with a fish dinner, shop or just mellow out and listen to music.
Collier to the Rescue
But the fishing settlement around Tin City didn't have smooth sailing.
Bad economic times brought those early 19th century dreams at the Tin city site to a temporary halt.
It took the arrival of Memphis-born Barron Gift Collier to jump start the development of southwestern Florida.
Collier purchased more than a million acres of swamp land that included Naples. He brought the region electricity and the telegraph.
He had the roads paved. And, by the late 1920s, he built the Tamiami Trail, a two-lane highway connecting Miami and Dade County to Tampa in west central Florida.
Along the way, tourism arrived in southwestern Florida, which was incorporated as Collier County in 1923.
Today, the Naples area is booming with numerous hotels, restaurants and shopping centers that span all price points.
Attractions range from some of the most outstanding beaches in the world to nature activities, museums and shopping. Here's a look at some of my favorite family-friendly spots to visit in Naples.
Water, Water - Almost Everywhere
When it comes to top rated beaches, Naples delivers. Dr. Stephen Leatherman (also known as "Dr. Beach") of Florida International University’s Coastal Research Center has praised the area’s beaches.
Leatherman is particularly fond of Barefoot Beach and Delnor-Wiggins State Park. He reports the sea oats lined white beach at Delnor-Wiggins, just north of Naples, is comprised of sea shells.
A great spot for family fun, Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park also has picnic facilities, an observation tower and summer educational sea turtle programs.
Water is also a major factor at the man-made Sun N Fun Lagoon, 15000 Livingston Road, Naples.
Opened in 2010, this water park is home to pools and interactive water fountains. The water fun will delight toddlers and adults alike.
At the north end of the Ten Thousand Islands, the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, 300 Tower Road, Naples, is where rivers and streams meet the sea.
Rookery Bay is one of few undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America. More than 150 species of birds (one is shown at right*) and many threatened and endangered animals exist peacefully here.
Another option for families in search of birds and animals is the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, 1590 Goodlette Frank Road, Naples.
My grandkids love getting up close and personal with exotic animals (see the tiger at left*)
This 51-acre zoo provides that opportunity in a lovely, tropical setting.
The nationally accredited zoo and sprawling historic botanical gardens offers wildlife shows and hundreds of animals.
Head out on zoo trails to view tigers, African wild dogs, antelope and two rare fosas, predators from Madagascar. In addition, the zoo boasts the southeast’s largest black bear zoo exhibit.
Families might also enjoy a small boat cruise on a lake; the islands within that lake are home to such primates as lemurs, apes and monkeys
Not far from the zoo is the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, 1450 Merrihue Drive., Naples.
Fresh from a refurbishment in 2010, the 14-acre Conservancy is a "must" attraction for families who want their adventuresome kids or grandkids to understand the world of nature.
For example, educational exhibits give kids the opportunity to touch a snake or count an alligator’s teeth.
The Conservancy also offers boat rides, trails and canoe and kayak rentals.
Art and Artistry
Years ago I purchased a small piece of hand-sculpted glass at an art show along Fifth Avenue South, Naples' attractive shopping and historic downtown area.
I wear the glass on a chain and always receive compliments about it. My daughter-in-law bought a hat at that same show that she still wears at the beach.
If you love art, crafts and watching local artists and craftspeople at work, head to Fifth Avenue South. There are boutiques, galleries and many art shows throughout the year.
Gallery Row (shown above*) is another area in downtown Naples with diverse galleries that offer artistic creations to please any taste.
Year-round, art lovers may peruse 15 galleries and a showcase of global artist’s offerings at the Naples Museum of Art, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples. The gallery is located in the Philharmonic Center.
Another impressive option for art lovers is an excursion to the Von Liebig Art Center (shown at left*), 585 Park St., in Naples' Cambier Park.
The center specializes in local art and traveling exhibits. The surrounding park has a large play area.
Stop to Shop
Shopping at Miromar Outlets, 10801 Corkscrew Rd., Estero is home to many designer outlets and names with worldwide recognition.
One of the most charming shopping areas is Fifth Avenue South, 800 Fifth Ave., Naples.
Fifth Avenue South (shown at right*) considers itself Florida’s version of Rodeo Drive.
Look for jewelry, gifts, beachwear and specialty shops.
Several shopping centers with mainstream department stores also are located throughout the region.
On the Links
Naples is home to more millionnaires than anywhere else in the United States. So, not surprisingly, the area has dozens of golf courses. It's often called the “golf capital of the world.”
But for families who want to knock around the ball but don't want to play 18 holes on a professional course, Coral Cay Adventure Golf, 2205 Tamiami Trail East, is a fun family park.
Essentially, the little ones enjoy the game of golf, but mom, dad and the grandparents don’t get too teed off!
King Richard’s Family Fun Park, 6780 Airport Road North, Naples, is another family activity spot. Here you'll find laser tag, go-carts, rides and a batting cage.
Food and Lodging
While Naples has many upscale homes and exudes a decidedly upscale aura at times, it also has many affordable family-friendly restaurants and hotels.
For a plethora of chain restaurants and hotels, head for the Tamiami Trail. For pizza, consider the Chicago-based Aurelio’s, 590 N. Tamiami Trail, Naples; it was a hit with our family.
I've stayed at a number of properties in the Naples area over the past few years.
These include: Hilton Naples Grande, 475 Seagate Drive, Naples; the charming Inn on Fifth (shown at right*) 699 Fifth Ave. South, Naples, and the Naples Beach Club, 851 Gulf Shore Blvd., Naples.
With gorgeous beaches, fine restaurants, diverse hotel accommodations and family-friendly attractions to fit all budgets, Naples excels as a multi-generational family travel destination.
And the weather? It's often exceptional.
Collier County has a nifty Weather Conditions page you can access to view current and projected weather.
For More Information
For more information about attractions, lodging, dining and special events, visit the Naples, Marco Island and Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau site at www.paradisecoast.com.
Based on my family forays to Naples over the years, if your goal is a family-friendly time in the sun, you'll likely say “mission accomplished."
Marcia Levin, senior contributing editor - senior travel for SouthernTravelNews.com, is a travel writer based in South Florida. She specializes in writing about Florida, the Caribbean, multigenerational travel and cruising. She is a past president of the Society of American Travel Writers.
*All photos utilized above are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of the Naples, Marco Island and Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau or the Inn on Fifth. Do not copy nor utilize in any way without permission from those organizations.
This first-hand professional writer review was written following a recent trip to the Naples area in which the writer may have received complimentary accommodations and certain other features in order to effectively view and explore the area's attractions. That said, neither SouthernCruising.com nor the writer were paid in any way by the destination or any attraction in the area for content, nor did any outside organization have input into this story in any way prior to publication. The views and travel perspective represented here are those of the writer alone. All rights are reserved by SouthernCruising.com. (TM) for this copyrighted content and its usage.