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ECO ADVENTURES AND DINING DELIGHTS - FLORIDA\'S PARADISE COAST
 
(2012 - Fall Issue)

Writer: JULIE KALAN



This must be heaven.

A quiet splash accompanies each paddle stroke as my kayak glides through the warm, blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Nearby pelicans, terns and plovers line the beach of a pristine barrier island.

Later Gator

Mention the Everglades and undoubtedly one conjures up images of airboats and alligators—but the Everglades are so much more than that. Weaving past countless mangrove islands in an Everglades Area Tours motorboat, Florida master naturalist guide Captain Jason Sine explains the five different but interdependent habitats that comprise the Everglades’ ecosystem: Mangrove Estuary and Coastal Marine, Sawgrass Prairie, Cypress Domes and Sloughs, Hardwood Hammocks and Pineland Uplands.

On this morning’s boat-assisted kayak ecotour, I am exploring the marine estuaries. Twenty-one kilometres out into the Gulf, Jason anchors the boat and I climb into an ocean kayak and begin to paddle around one of the uninhabited keys of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands. Like a built-in cooling system, the water running down my paddle and dripping onto my legs is a welcome relief under the hot sun.

Exhilarated, I step out of my bright yellow kayak and set foot on the narrow strip of beach running along the edge of Pavilion Key. A survey of my surroundings reveals soft ivory sand adorned with a high-water-line necklace of shells. Beachcombing with Jason can only be described as the ideal outdoor classroom. All too soon I must paddle back to the boat, with my handful of shells, and reluctantly make my way back to civilization.

A Stay by the Bay

The luxurious Naples Bay Resort is a Tuscan-styled waterfront community, with large accommodation quarters, restaurants, shops and five refreshing pools. From my private balcony overlooking the sleek white boats in the marina, the view is a dreamy impressionist reflection of the hotel’s cream, amber and red-brick coloured façade in the water. At the spa, a symphony of strawberry, rhubarb, vanilla and cinnamon aromas accompany my custom organic fruits and vegetable facial.

The Naples Bay Water Shuttle is a convenient and economical way to reach popular bayfront areas like Tin City, where many sightseeing and fishing boats dock. Formerly a 1920s clam shelling and oyster processing plant, Tin City is now home to shops, restaurants and the eccentric Alligator World. With a wry smile Gatorman Mike will happily place one of his alligators in your arms and say, “You can kiss him if you want to. But you can’t kiss him on the lips. Know why? He doesn’t have any.”

Manatees, Ospreys and Dolphins

For a boat tour with a twist, or more accurately a few 360-degree spins, I board the Pure Naples ODIN. This water-propelled jet boat travels to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, passing clumps of tightly tangled mangrove trees, a huge osprey nest and multi-million-dollar mansions. While dizzying spins and soaking water spray are hallmarks of the ride, nothing compares to the excitement of seeing an elusive manatee. At first, only the nostrils of this docile creature are visible above the water. Then for just a moment it floats slightly higher in the water, revealing its massive size. And for the finale, a flip of its large flat paddle-like tail. The display is fleeting but the impact is lasting.

Located near 3rd Street South, far away from the large hotels, the Naples Pier is a favourite fishing spot for locals, visitors, dolphins and brown pelicans alike. This tranquil spot is heaven to a lifelong beach lover like me, with its beautiful soft sand and gentle inviting waves.

Foodie Paradise

Naples Food Tours is a fantastic way to explore the city’s burgeoning epicurean delights. Foodie and U.K. native, Elaine Osbond arranges five or six stops on each three-hour air-conditioned minibus tour. Today’s tour commences with a wine and cheese tasting at the Old World Market. This European food shop stocks everything from British biscuits to Hungarian salami and every Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. there is a free wine tasting. Next is a visit to the Naples Olive Oil Company where I sample some wonderful flavour-infused balsamic vinegars and receive an olive oil lesson from owner Marie Heiland.

In Naples, the dangers of overeating are prevalent and so very enjoyable. If you are hungry for wood-fired oven pizza and delicious gelatos, go straight to Barbatella’s on 3rd Street South; for late-night dining and libations, head to 5th Avenue South, the heart of downtown Naples, where the Osetra Champagne and Caviar Bar draws a young crowd with its cool setting and live music; Asian-inspired cuisine and exotic Chinese zodiac-based cocktails are what you find at the Naples Bay Resort’s new restaurant, L’Orient.

At Pinchers Crab Shack, a casual waterfront restaurant, I devour the addictive hot crab cheese dip and tortilla chips and, surprisingly, the fried gator bites actually do taste like chicken. If you are visiting from mid-October to mid-May, make a point of trying the succulent stone crab claws.

The Turtle Club at Vanderbilt Beach Resort is perhaps my favourite Naples dining experience. A tiki torch-lined path leads to the beachfront dining area, where I watch the sunset and sip tropical cocktails while savouring each bite of huge, delicate and flavourful pan-seared scallops.

 
 
 
 
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