Steve Wright and Heidi Johnson-Wright
Special to the Sentinel
9:33 AM EDT, May 6, 2013
Even simple sea birds can sense tranquillity. That must be why these large-billed creatures like to float on gentle waters that lap softly along Vanderbilt Beach.
Serenity also attracts two-legged creatures of the human variety to this special place on Florida's Gulf Coast. Gentle waves, sugary white-sand beaches and stunning wildlife in lush habitats -- along with divine dining and accommodations -- keep them coming back.
LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort is a good choice if you crave self-contained, upscale digs. Located on a lovely strip of Vanderbilt Beach, the resort has large guest rooms with luxe linens and generous private balconies, several swimming pools, a spa and dining options both indoor and out.
The atmosphere at Baleen, LaPlaya's signature restaurant, draws on tropical whimsy and colonial elegance. At dinnertime, its seafood-heavy menu offers dishes prepared both simply and on the fussy side.
Baleen's breakfast allows travelers a soothing start to the day. A table on an outside terrace affords a pleasant view of the water (and the pelicans). Strawberry and cream cheese- stuffed French toast, expertly done breakfast meats, buttery croissants and excellent egg dishes taste all the better when complemented with a morning sea breeze. Linger over a second (or third) cup of coffee and forget about the Wi-Fi, workaday world.
A little more wild
The draw of the sea is undeniable, but just a half-hour's drive east, a very different experience in tranquillity awaits.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in nearby Immokalee is a special place. Threading through this nature preserve is a 2.25-mile raised wooden boardwalk that takes visitors on an exquisite sojourn through pine upland, wet prairie, cypress forest and marsh. Each ecosystem has its own delightfully distinctive blend of trees, flowers and critters that populate the preserve.
The journey begins in the Blair Audubon Center, with the boardwalk commencing just outside. Linger a moment or two at an outdoor bulletin board that displays drawings of birds and animals sighted. Don't be surprised if painted buntings, water snakes and black bears have made recent appearances.
While the prairies and marshes are decidedly pleasant, the sanctuary's bald cypress forest steals the show. The trees -- some approaching 600 years in age -- soar overhead, ornamented with Spanish moss and air plants. Those who are quiet and observant might be treated to sightings of a cautious mama owl and plump, fuzzy babies. The croaks of pig frogs and staccato percussion of woodpeckers make for a fine symphony, punctuated with the occasional splash of a restless gator.
Islands of the apes
To experience a quiet oasis amid the area's burgeoning development, spend a couple of hours at the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens. It's a modest but charming attraction on the grounds of a lush botanical garden whose origins date to the 1920s.
Stroll the grounds and take in a show about serpents, kangaroos or African wild dogs. If you've come to see quintessential zoo creatures such as lions and tigers, you won't be disappointed.
Don't let your visit end without taking the primate expedition cruise. For about 20 minutes, a catamaran glides through a small lake past islands populated with chattering apes and monkeys. Amid leafy surroundings, you almost feel as if you're sailing the coast of Sumatra or Madagascar, gazing upon the canopy's simian inhabitants.
The expedition guides share not mere dry textbook facts, but engaging tales about individual white-fronted lemurs and colobus monkeys, mentioning them by name and giving details of their lives. The luckiest visitors will be serenaded with whooping, the poignant singing of white-handed gibbons.
A touch of Ireland
For a more refined outdoor setting, head to Fifth Avenue South. There are too many alfresco dining places to count in this old-fashioned main-street setting reborn as a shopping, dining and people-watching mecca.
Florida's sun-splashed Gulf Coast and a dark-wooded old Irish tavern might seem to be a strange blend, but they work just fine at McCabe's Irish Pub & Grill.
It seems that Philip McCabe, proprietor of the boutique Inn on Fifth hotel in Naples, wanted a pub on the premises true to his Emerald Isle roots.
The mahogany was milled in Ireland and installed by artisans. If the indoor digs, replete with tin whiskey signs and other heirlooms, don't do the trick, the large number of shaded outdoor tables will.
Classic shepherd's pie, leek soup, Irish stew and corned beef and cabbage are joined on the menu by American bar-food favorites such as burgers, chicken tenders and pizza.
For more of Old Naples, head west to Third Street South, where you'll find additional shops and restaurants just a few blocks from the Gulf breezes. Third Street South eventually crosses Broad Avenue, Naples' gallery row.
Better still, Broad Avenue ends at historic Naples Fishing Pier, which stretches 1,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico. Built in 1888 to serve passengers and freight arriving by sea, this landmark pier was rebuilt after hurricanes in 1910, 1926 and 1960 -- it survived the horrendous 'canes of last two years.
Sugar-sand beaches below the pier are some of the most popular among Naples' nearly 20 miles of groomed coastline. Fishermen sometimes outnumber sightseers -- except at sunset.
Locals and visitors alike gather a good hour before dusk to watch as a brilliant orange sun dips into the soothing waters of the sea to mark the end of another balmy Naples day.
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