AOL PICK from our Editors
Restful, yes, but not necessarily boring; as tranquil as Naples may be, you can easily fill your itinerary. Naples isn’t packed with the high-voltage, pre-packaged entertainment palaces you’ll find in Orlando, but if you want to relax and go low key, Naples will be a good fit for you. A peaceful day of gallery hopping or boning up on the local flora and fauna can be followed by a sea kayak expedition or a day spent hiking the miles and miles of unspoiled beach. Naples may be small, but it punches well above its weight when it comes to shopping. Big wallets attract big-name boutiques and Naples has those in spades.
Neighborhood: Old Naples
The eastern edge of Naples butts up against the Everglades. Everything you think you know about the Everglades—that it's hot, swampy, buggy and snaky—is true. But it’s also one of the most amazing natural areas on the planet. Environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who successfully galvanized politicians to protect the Glades almost single-handedly, called it the River of Grass. It’s not all swamp; there are also dry areas (hammocks) that are home to dozens of plants and animals found nowhere else. The Spike Jonze movie "Adaptation" featured the real-life adventures of “orchid thief” John Laroche, who was arrested for removing painfully rare ghost orchids from the nearby Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. You can tour Big Cypress National Preserve in a (gator-proof and nicely air conditioned) bus or get a little closer on a high-speed airboat ride or try one of the slower and more intimate jungle cruises through Everglades National Park. Tours also include stops at a museum before returning to Naples. If your entire knowledge of the Everglades is limited to what you’ve seen on the new A&E show "The Glades," this is a good way to find out why Florida conservationists are so passionate about preserving it from the encroachment of subdivisions and foreign invaders like melaleuca and giant anacondas.
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Neighborhood: Royal Harbor
If you like beautiful plants—or just like being around them—this is worth a visit. The 17-year-old garden has 170 acres of lakes and land, represents seven different natural habitats and ecosystems and has more than 600 species of subtropical and tropical plants. If you have kids along, they’ll probably remember jumping through the puddles in the water-spouting boulders that front the Children’s Garden and being an impromptu rest for monarchs in the Butterfly House. There’s also a Key West-y looking Brazilian Garden, which is a tribute to the late, great landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx; and The Preserve, home to ancient cypress, mangroves and marshes. Open 9AM - 5PM daily; admission is $12.95 for adults, $7.95 for children ages 4-14; kids 3 and under get in free.
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Neighborhood: Vanderbilt Beach
As with King Richard’s, this is not Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, but it’s a good way to spend the day if you have small children with you. The Lagoon is part of a county park and has water dumping buckets, water pistols, four pools (including a family pool and a tadpole pool for tots age 6 and under), Turtle Cove for kids 5-12, a lap/diving pool, plus a lazy river and five water slides. Hours change with the seasons so check ahead of time; the park is closed November through January. Admission is $12 for those 4 feet and taller; $5.50 for those under 4 feet; and kids age 0-3 get in free.
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Neighborhood: Pine Ridge
An old-school amusement park may seem out of place in a town known for understated five-star hotels and designer boutiques, but King Richard’s—so named because it’s housed in a faux medieval castle—is just that. It’s not Disney; not even close. It’s more of a way station for birthday parties and kiddie rides, so don’t expect a Tower of Terror-sized adrenaline rush. Putt-putt golf, batting cages, a water park, go-karts, laser tag, a video game room and amusement rides, like the 30-foot Dungeon Drop, all add up to a fun day for kids who’ve had to suffer through long shopping excursions and educational tours. It’s also easy on your purse: An all-day pass is $25; individual ride tickets are $5 apiece. You can sip on something frosty while you watch the go-kart racing or laser tag from the sidelines or you can mix it up yourself.
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Neighborhood: Old Naples
Built in 1888 so steamers could land potential real estate customers, the Pier’s original T-shape structure was destroyed by hurricanes and damaged by fire before being rebuilt. The west-facing pier is now a prime place to stroll while attempting not to stare longingly into those spectacular trademark Naples sunsets. It’s a good place, too, for visitors to test their skills against the local fish population; no license is required and you can buy your bait—and a little snack for yourself—at the shop midway down. At the Gulf end of 12th Avenue South, Naples.
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Neighborhood: Sun Terrace
The Naples Zoo isn’t big, but it does have some specialized exhibits you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. It’s also an economic reprieve from the pricey boutiques and restaurants downtown. There are 10 exhibits and shows, including a guided botanical tour and the Primate Expedition Cruise, a boat that passes by islands crowded with apes, monkeys and lemurs. Native animals including black bears and alligators share billing with less common sights such as kangaroos and wallabies and the fosa — a cat-like predator from Madagascar that’s not in any other zoo in the southeast. Hours are 9 am-5 pm (last ticket is sold at 4 pm), 363 days a year (it’s closed Thanksgiving and Christmas). Admission is $19.95 for adults 13-24; $18.95 for seniors 65 and older; $11.95 for children aged 3-12; and kids 2 and under get in free.
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Neighborhood: Marco Island
Sea cows, as they’re commonly known, don’t have the sleek lines or big brains of sexier cetaceans like dolphins and whales, but they’re fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their enormous size, which belies their gentle nature. Walrus-like, with a heavy body, stiff paddles up front and big fluke in the back, these air-breathers have to surface frequently and so are often hit and injured by boats. They live in the coastal waters where they graze on aquatic plants—they’re really good at cleaning up the invasive water hyacinths that clog many small waterways—and an enormous circular “footprint” on the surface of the water is an indicator that one is in the vicinity. They don’t avoid people, but they’re often in areas that are hard to get to. If you take this trip—hosted by Captains Barry and Carol Berger, who take out parties of six at a time for a one-and-a-half hour excursion—and you don’t see a manatee, you don’t pay. Tip: Check the website for a $20-off coupon.
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Neighborhood: Park Shore
Now in its 10th year, this three-story, 30,000-square-foot museum is far from stuffy. Don’t miss the glass-domed conservatory and the magnificent glass installation, Persian Ceiling, by Dale Chihuly. The Museum has been growing slowly over the years, adding to and diversifying its collections of paintings, sculpture and drawings; today it includes everything from American Modernist pieces to 20th-century Mexican art and even 3D. The exhibits are good for a few hours of browsing but won’t fill up a whole day. Closed from July-September and on major holidays. Regular hours are Tuesday - Saturday 10AM - 4PM.; Sunday noon to 4PM. Admission is $8-12 for adults (depending on the time of year); $4-6 for students.
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Neighborhood: Naples Manor
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You really shouldn’t visit Naples without finding out what the rich and famous—who could vacation anywhere—see in the area. Rookery Bay, south of town and north of Marco Island, is an easy way to do that. The bay is fringed with mangroves, which are nurseries to the fish and crustaceans that find their way into the Gulf (and eventually onto your dinner plate) as they grow bigger. A day out on the bay is both relaxing and educational. You can take a self-guided tour of the Environmental Learning Center for the cost of entry ($5, and audio wands will run you $2 each) or a 45- to 60-minute group tour of the facility ($50). Make the time to spring for a guided kayak tour—it’s the real thing. Instead of being separated from the environment by a building, bus or window, you’ll be in the middle of it. Bobbing along in a kayak with a cooling breeze in your face as you glide past the mangroves is almost magical. As its name implies, it’s also a place to see many varieties of coastal birds, such as least terns and, naturally, brown pelicans. Tour times, distances and skill levels vary; $40 for non-members. Register online or by calling 239-417-6310, ext 401.
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