I’M paddling along in a kayak on smooth, calm waters past islands being formed by mangrove trees at the edge of Everglades National Park, just a few paddle strokes away from white sand beaches the consistency of icing sugar. I’m thinking this must be paradise.
And actually, it is.
This area -- in the extreme southwest of mainland Florida -- is known as the Paradise Coast. It's an area made up of Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades. There are no large theme parks in this area, but it features what everyone looked for in Florida before the mouse ears set up shop here: beaches and surf.
Because it's so far south in the state, and on the Gulf of Mexico side, it's one of the warmest places in Florida when the mercury back home is trying its best to break out of the bottom of the thermometer.
We travelled here during the Christmas season and even for south Florida it was unseasonably warm. Expecting temperatures in the mid-seventies, we instead saw the mercury soar to the mid-eighties, or about 29° C.
The warm weather made it perfect to go on a kayak/motorboat tour of the western part of the Everglades National Park. We met up with Capt. Jason Sine, of EvergladesAreaTours.com at JT's Island Cafe and Gallery on Chokoloskee Island, about a half-hour drive away from Naples. Capt. Jason was our guide for the guided ECO Adentures tour into the Everglades. He loaded several kayaks onto the front of a large, flat boat and then we zipped out onto the waterways, skimming between the mangrove islands. The motors on the back of the boat brought us in minutes through what would have been about a day's paddling in the kayaks.
This isn't the Everglades you normally think of, with grassland swamps and alligators lurking in waters in between. This area is known as the 10,000 Islands area. Mangrove islands pop up from the Gulf waters, building up sand over time until true islands are formed. Salt-water creatures come into the waterways to feed -- we saw a large spotted eagle ray stingray lunge out of the water a couple of times looking for prey.
Midway to the island we were going to use as a base, we stopped and drifted after being greeted by about a dozen dolphins, both adults and youngsters. For 45 minutes these large mammals circled around our boat and under, coming almost close enough to touch. The green water was so clear you could see them underwater a metre or so.
As for that other resident of the Everglades -- the alligator -- Capt. Jason said they were "uncommon" in the waters we travelled in at that time of year. He said although warm to us Canucks, down there it is still winter, so the gators go further inland.
We skidded onto the white sand beach on Pavillion Key and soon Capt. Jason was showing us different shells which have washed up on shore.
These weren't the small ones the tourists find on the beaches in the populated areas, but the larger ones you usually only find in the shell shops.
The Calusa indigenous people originally lived in this area of Florida and everywhere there are still signs of them, from the pieces of 4,000-year-old black pottery still easily found on the beach to the mounds made of shells which they used to create islands, Chokoloskee being just one example.
We also learned about horseshoe crabs, when Capt. Jason showed us a shell. He also showed us a gelatinous mass of material which sea turtles eat.
Soon everyone is my family was in kayaks, my wife and I in a tandem with Mary, our child with special needs, sitting facing me, while our 13-year-old daughter Sarah paddled her own craft. Mary had never been in a kayak before and she looked wide-eyed with wonder, as she held my paddle with one hand, her other hand trailing in the smooth-as-glass water.
We paddled close to a mangrove island, with Capt. Jason explaining how these trees grow. In the water and in the branches, we see numerous types of birds including eagles and osprey.
We paddled near one sand spit where numerous white pelicans congregated, keeping a cautious eye on us as we glided near.
Much too soon, as the sun was setting, the motorboat brought us back to Chokoloskee Island from which we drove back to Naples.
The city of Naples has numerous beaches dotted with resorts and hotels on the coast, an art district and trendy shops around Fifth Avenue South and Third Street and a marina area filled with restaurants known as Tin City. It's large enough to have plenty of services, yet compact enough to allow you to easily drive to all areas.
Inn on Fifth, a boutique hotel right on Fifth Avenue South, was our base here. It has just completed a $500,00 guest room refurbishment so it was ready to meet the needs of weary sunsearching travellers. 'Twas the season, so a large Christmas tree greeted us in the lobby. This hotel is in the centre of the action in the downtown, but feels a world away inside.
With all of the activities we crammed in, we didn't have time to try out their award-winning feng shui spa or state-of-the-art fitness centre, but we did look in on their authentic Irish pub on site. And it is authentic -- the hotel bought the pub in Dublin, Ireland and shipped it over to Florida. I also had time to go in the large pool, located on the roof over the parkade, and into the hot tub, complete with a waterfall pouring hot water into it.
One day, on the street itself, an outdoor art show was held with about 300 artists lined up in kiosks for several blocks. The range of art went from inexpensive works to some worth as much as our van. We purchased three works of stained glass from one of the artists -- and were somehow able to get them home in one piece.
The hotel is also a short walk away from the beach.
On the face of it, the economic meltdown didn't seem to have reached this area. There were several large auto dealerships selling Jaguars, BMWs, and Mercedez-Benz and every second vehicle on the road seemed to be a luxury model. A local headline noted Naples was the second-highest in the nation for per capita personal income and was home to several Forbes 500 CEOs. Heck, one of the local residents is director Steven Spielberg.
You see this wealth when you take a cruise on the brand-new Naples Princess through Naples Bay and into the Gulf of Mexico.
You can either take a sightseeing cruise on this three-storey sightseeing yacht or you can have a buffet dinner. Following a short cruise into the Gulf to see the sun disappear into the waves, the ship turned around and then spent an hour cruising up and down waterways with multimillion-dollar homes on either side. At one point, Capt. Frank Manion pointed out over the PA system a 6,000-square-foot residence, but then noted that was actually the guest "cottage" -- the real 20,000-square-foot residence was next to it.
The cruise went out briefly into the Gulf of Mexico where we applauded as the sun disappeared into the waters before our yacht turned back and spent the next hour prowling up channels where swimming pools and large boats were standard issue in backyards. I wondered at times whether this was the nautical version of driving a tour bus down the back alleys in River Heights.
There are almost 90 golf courses in the area to tune your game up for the summer season here. I played a round courtesy of the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club, a picturesque golf course a short tee shot away from the downtown area. It's the oldest course in the city and a nice one to play that's not too strenuous. Many of the holes follow large lakes with some waterfowl in them. One eager duck hopped into and through my golf cart at one point looking for food.
While there are no theme parks in this area of Florida, that doesn't mean there aren't any attractions. The Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens features numerous animals in a botanical garden setting which was first created in 1919. A large portion of the zoo features a Primate Expedition Cruise, included in your admission, where you see the apes, monkeys and lemurs living on their own islands.
The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, operated by the National Audubon Society, features a four-kilometre boardwalk which winds through trees and open prairie until you get to the largest forest of ancient bald cypress trees in North America. Looking up, these massive trees, 130 feet high, are cousins of the redwood. Looking down into the water you see along the boardwalk, you can see the alligators that also make this their home.
Naples is also a short drive away from Marco Island, the largest of the 10,000 islands and the only one that is inhabited.
We stayed at the Marriott, the largest resort on the island, and it turns out size and age do matter for the number of amenities here.
The resort is perfect if, like us, you have a family member in a wheelchair. The resort comes equipped with two free beach wheelchairs -- provided on a first-come, first-served basis, which lets you go up and down the six-kilometre long beach.
The pool, which was part of the hotel's year-long, almost $200-million-dollar renovation -- the largest in Marriott history -- is even with the deck surface. And, because the hotel was built almost 30 years ago, it is the only one on the island that has been grandfathered to have been permitted to clear the underbrush blocking the complex from the sand beach itself. You literally walk from the sidewalk beside the pool directly onto the wide beach.
If you want a secluded place away from the sun, there are six cabanas beside the pool, where you can close the flaps, turn on a television and relax with a drink.
Beachside activities include everything from jet-ski tours, sandcastle construction training and even a Guitar Hero competition.
There's even another pool, elsewhere on the sprawling complex, geared towards young children, with a water slide coming down from a rock outcrop which has a waterfall on the other side.
Many of the rooms have whirlpool tubs, others have balconies with views of the gulf, and many have work stations -- if you can work -- facing large windows looking out onto the view.
Our room was perfect for us. Large windows faced the garden area where the pool was and the exterior door opened onto a zero clearance sidewalk.
Whether you're in Naples, Marco Island or the Everglades, you're always just a stone's throw away from the number one tourist attraction in the area: the beaches.
There are several beaches in the area and they all feature parking nearby, amenities, and sand and water. Several of the local beaches have been been ranked as some of the best in the nation on various travel websites and publications.
This area is known as the Paradise Coast and this is one paradise we dream of returning to someday soon.
If you go
Flights: The closest place to fly into is Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, about a 40-minute rental car ride away from Naples.
Attractions: Naples, Marco Island and Everglades: Everglades Area Tours.com is the name of the kayak paddling attraction there and, not surprisingly, also the website address. The phone number is (239) 695-3633. More information on the Naples Princess can be found at www.naplesprincesscruises.com
Where to stay: Inn on Fifth in Naples is running a special for Canadians throughout 2009 where we get rooms at par, but not to exceed 30 per cent. For reservations call 1-888-403-8778 or go to www.innonfifth.com To reserve one of the 727 rooms at the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort call 1-800-438-4373 or go to www.marcoislandmarriott.com
Tourist information: To get information on Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades information can be received by calling 1-239-225-1013 or go to www.paradisecoast.com From May 1 to Dec. 15, the Paradise Coast tourist bureau is also offering a VIP (Values in Paradise) listing all of the discounts and deals in the area. The state of Florida also produces a myriad of information on both places and other areas at www.visitflorida.com
Wheelchair information: With a family member who uses a wheelchair, we find the best way to enjoy the sand and surf is to rent a beach wheelchair. In this area, Better Life appears to be the only company that rents them (and judging by the number of people who came up to us during the week to ask where we got it, they're a well kept secret). It cost us $125 for the week, with a $25 delivery charge and a $25 pickup fee. Call (239) 430-2220 to reserve one.
Shopping: There are numerous factory outlets, malls and shops for you to help stimulate the American economy. The largest factory outlet mall in the area is Miromar Outlets between Fort Myers and Naples.
There's also a Prime Outlets factory outlet on the road into Marco Island. Coastland Centre, an indoor mall, has Macy's, JC Penney and Hot Topic. And because of the area's high end clientele, there are also consignment and resale shops in Naples featuring bargains on designer clothing.