The Gulf Coast of Florida, mainly the Naples area, has my heart.
My husband and I honeymooned in Naples and have been back to the Gulf Coast area many times to eat, lay on the beach, and explore the tropical Southwest Florida region. We usually plan a trip down in February or March when the weather is not too humid but you still get plenty of Florida sun. The Naples vibe is so calm and relaxing with an abundance of great adventure spots and excellent restaurants.
A place you must visit on your trip to Naples, and one of our favorite places to explore, is the Naples Botanical Garden. My mother, who was a florist in her younger years and has always kept beautiful gardens, says this is one of her favorite spots. We like to arrive early when it is still cool outside and the garden is the mostly empty. That way we can take our time exploring and working up an appetite for lunch after. The serene garden is separated into five sections and is laid out very well. All plants and trees are well marked, so you understand what you’re looking at, and all of them are well manicured. The vibrant colors you find in each section are breathtaking, something has always just bloomed.
Let’s just say you had me at “sunset cruise”. I love being on a boat at the end of the day and listening to some Jimmy Buffet while cruising the inlet on our way into the Naples harbor.
When you leave Tin City, the Sunset Dolphin Cruise boat captain and crew show you all the different canals and provide really interesting historical background to the beautiful sights you are witnessing. There are some incredible homes along the coast belonging to well-known athletes, actors, and entrepreneurs. To be honest though, the child in me enjoys watching the dolphins the most. They play in the wake of the boat and take every opportunity to show off, jumping in and out of the water, capturing all the “oohs” and “ahhs” of everyone on board. We’ve always found our tickets on Groupon but you can also buy them directly from the Pure Florida website.
Naples has a lot of beaches to choose from but my three favorites are Clam Pass Beach Park, Vanderbilt Beach Park, and Naples Pier Beach.
Located behind the Naples Grand Beach Hotel, exploring this beach is a truly fun adventure. You can walk down or take a big golf cart to the beach on this really cool wooden trail that cuts through the winding mangroves and drops you off on the gorgeous sand. You do not have to stay at the hotel to take advantage of the ride through the mangroves.
Vanderbilt is located at the end of Vanderbilt Beach Road, and a sunset visit to this beach is a really relaxing experience. You can walk over to the Ritz Carlton and grab a delicious cocktail and take in the gorgeous sunset view with your feet in the sand.
Naples Pier is an iconic and classic beach destination. Located in old Naples, you can walk out on the pier onto the Gulf of Mexico and there is a public beach right downtown.
If you want to adventure north a little bit, you could visit Sanibel Island, near Fort Myers. Sanibel and Captiva Islands have very cool beaches and are known for their sea shells. Also, if you’re a baseball fan and happen to be visiting the Florida Gulf Coast during spring time, I highly suggest seeing your favorite team play some spring ball. I am both a Red Socks and a Twins fan and luckily both teams do their spring training in Fort Myers. I’ve caught a few Red Sox games in Fort Myers at JetBlue Park and have loved every experience. More Sanibel and Captiva Island details are continued further down.
There is tons of opportunity for really good shopping in Naples.
The Waterside Shops at Pelican Bay have a wide variety of luxury shops including but not limited to Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Tory Burch, Lilly Pulitzer, Anthropologie, etc. There’s also a lot of nice restaurants located at the Waterside Shops.
The Village Shops on Venetian Bay offer a variety of retailers, art, galleries, and restaurants.
The Mercato is located in the northern part of Naples with many restaurants, a beautiful cinema, and shops that you could spend an entire day at.
If you are not looking for a mall shopping experience, both Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South are incredible palm-lined streets in the heart of downtown that will fill your shopping needs and then some. Cruising these gorgeous streets you will find a wide variety of boutique stores with one-of-a-kind gifts, fashion boutiques and restaurants that are to die for.
There’s a wide assortment of food available, from small shops where you can get a sandwich to even more casual like those found at the Tin City Waterfront Shops. Tin City is a charming collection of tin-roofed buildings that was once a hub for local fishing businesses and now houses tons of restaurants and shops.
For a really fun time, stop in at Pinchers. Pinchers is the type of place where you can get a bucket of shrimp and eat it off of paper lining your table. They have a large and reasonably priced menu and a family friendly atmosphere complete with table Crayola drawings for the kiddos.
If you want something a little more upscale, Osteria Tulia is one of the first places that we went on our honeymoon and my husband loved it. The menu is eclectic Italian and the chef is very creative with his twists on Italian classic dishes mixed in with some original recipes. The caramelized Brussels sprout appetizer with Italian sausage is something that I have replicated in my own kitchen many times because I had to have it again. They make really good pizzas with a wide variety of toppings that you wouldn’t necessarily think complement each other but do. One of our favorites was the jabroni. Their cacio e pepe is my favorite version of that dish that I’ve ever had at a restaurant. It’s not too heavy, has the perfect amount of pepper, and the pasta is excellent.
If you want a French bistro experience, look no further than Blue Provence. The atmosphere is straight out of downtown Paris. Their menu is eclectic and has a wide variety of tastes. I, of course, had to have the steak tartar served with capers, cornichons, shallots, chives, and Dijon mustard, served next to French fries. Scott enjoyed the Wagyu short ribs bourguignon braised in red wine reduction, served with mashed potatoes, baby carrots and sautéed mushrooms. Both entrees were incredible.
The Bay House is a bit off the beaten path in the northern part of Naples and has a really beautiful dining room with all the seafood you could want, at reasonable prices. When I see this much seafood on the menu and there is a seafood tower dish, that is what we go for. We got a high rise seafood tower that consisted of shrimp, crab, raw oysters, lobster, seafood salad, tuna poke, smoked fish dip with homemade pickles, pimento cheese, and a trail of sauces. It’s a true southern sea food delight. Their menu has a wide variety of seafood and includes staples like steak and chicken dishes.
The very stylish Claw Bar is located at the Bellasera Resort. Their interior is gorgeous but we sat on their patio and enjoyed a light breeze with our cocktails. They offer a happy hour and have some mixed drinks for $7, a $10 house martini, and a few bites for under $15 including shrimp cocktail and fried oysters. Their lump crab cake with corn succotash in a remoulade was sweet and salty and did not have a lot of filling, which is how I like it. They offer a large assortment of sea food but that night I was in the mood for Paris bistro style frites. I had the petite filet served with French fries and a béarnaise sauce which was delicious.
I tend to stay away from chain restaurants as a rule but there are a couple that I will make an exception for, including The Hampton Social at the Mercato in Naples. The ambiance is an Instagram dream that comes with a neon sign delightfully informing you that it is “Rosé all day”. They offer a happy hour, a lunch, and a light dinner. Scot and I started by sharing the Coopers Beach calamari with a lemon garlic aioli that was perfectly crispy and set a wonderful tone for the rest of the evening. We we shared a South Hampton pizza, which is just red sauce, pepperoni, sausage, basil and cheese, and also split a Hampton Caesar salad.
Time slows down when you enter the laid-back, quiet, Sanibel Island. With plenty to do and see like the Tahitian gardens, the Village Shops, the old Sanibel shops and town center; there is no shortage of restaurants and boutiques with the perfect souvenirs. The dining matches the vibe of the island and is very relaxed and casual so high-end dining should not be expected.
Doc Ford’s is our favorite spot in Sanibel and has a lot of delicious dishes on their menu.
Their spinach and artichoke flatbread is a great way to start your meal and their seared tuna appetizer was the perfect portion for a meal for one. It is served atop chilled rice noodles with crispy Asian veggies, fresh herbs and a Thai peanut vinaigrette. If there is a Grouper sandwich on the menu, then it has Scot’s name on it. This is served blackened with tartar sauce and French fries on a lovely fresh baked roll. Because we were on an island we opted to have some cocktails. I had a margarita and Scot opted for a dark and stormy made with Goslings Black Seal Rum and ginger beer with a squeeze of lime.
If you’re lucky enough to be on Captiva Island when the sun goes down make sure you’re at the Mucky Duck. With a very relaxed atmosphere, lots of outdoor seating, and outdoor games, their menu is straightforward pub food. We had their calamari, which is just served with marinara sauce, onion rings, and a crab cake.
I hope you find time in the near future to venture to Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast and check out Naples, Sanibel, and Captiva. We are for sure looking forward to going back soon!