Naples – Florida that is!

Generally speaking if you live in the northern states and west of the Mississippi you head to the southwest for a winter getaway – if you live east of the Mississippi you head to the southeast for a winter getaway. Growing up in Minnesota I was geographically on the fence. Being from a big golfing family, we were drawn to the golf mecca of the Phoenix valley. We were drawn to multiple sunny days and dry warm heat. When I was 13 years old, we began making this trek to the southwest on a fairly regular basis, and continued that trend for the next 30 years until my husband and I bought our first place in Arizona.

Minnesota’s geographic location in comparison to Florida in the southeast and Arizona in the southwest.

Florida had never been a strong pull for my family and I, but it does have Disney World and lots of great beaches and ocean views. Most of my trips to Florida have been either around the Orlando area or along the warm waters of the Gulf side: Long Boat Key, Sanibel and Captiva Islands, Tampa, and Naples.

The bridge and groom saying enough of this sunset watching - let's party!

Captiva Island – a beautiful setting for a beautiful couple. Congrats Audra and Shawn on the birth of your new son!

I’ve never felt especially drawn back to really any area of Florida, but from the places I have visited, Naples holds the most appeal. Beautiful white sandy beaches overflowing with seashells; lush well maintained grounds in every direction; a quaint downtown area split into its own version of 5th Avenue with great shops and restaurants and an area about 7 blocks south of there with more great shops and restaurants. Even though there are plenty of places for the ‘beautiful people’ to be seen and want to be seen, there are plenty of places to settle into for a romantic quiet dinner, a stroll along the beaches that are so long there is plenty of room for everyone, or relaxing moonlit walk. (Restaurant reviews coming end of May post.)

Naples is an idyllic picturesque town. Mega mansions line a portion of the beaches, but at the end of each street splitting these ongoing blocks of mansions are public access points to the beaches. So unlike other high-end beach front properties the beaches of Naples are not broken up by private beaches. Live Oak trees create an over hanging canopy so thick on the inland streets they create a natural tunnel. Roads going north and south have gulf views on the west and inland marina on the east. There are very few lodging choices along the beach, instead being lined with high-rise condos which must afford amazing views, or low-rise complexes giving you more direct access to the beach.

One of the many mega mansions that line the beaches of Naples.

One of the many mega mansions that line the beaches of Naples.

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The heavily treed inland streets of naples create a canopy so thick is produces natures version of a tunnel.

Being a golfer, Florida obviously holds great appeal and interest in the many courses that dot the plush landscape. I have not had an opportunity to play many Florida courses, but from what I have played they certainly stand in stark contrast to the desert courses of Arizona. Thick green juicy rough vs gnarly fluffy rough quickly giving way to desert. Towering palm trees vs towering saguaros. Alligators vs rattlesnakes. The ball doesn’t fly as far in this heavy air and the softer lush fairways, but the heat and humidity keep my body warm and loose so I can grip it and rip it and get us much out of my shots as possible.

While in Naples, my husband and I played a private course called Calusa Pines. They play golf there the way golf should be played, with caddies. The luxury of having your clubs carried frees you up to enjoy the leisurely walk of the beauty every golf course holds vs zipping through each hole in a cart. It helps me to stay focused on my game by keeping the round flowing at a steady pace and giving me time to assess my next shot as I walk up to my ball. With a cart I race to the ball, hit and race to the next shot. Plus it’s a nice benefit to have someone along who knows the greens and aiming points off the tee.

Calusa Pines Golf Club - showcasing a typical Florida golf course look.

Calusa Pines Golf Club – showcasing a typical Florida golf course look.

The few days we spent in Naples were extremely windy, but that didn’t stop us from getting set-up ocean side on double wide lounger outside out hotel, the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Umbrellas were anchored deeply in the sand by big muscled beach attendants to keep the beating sun off us. The wind made for big curling crashing waves and helped to keep us cool in the high humidity and temps in the mid-80’s in mid-April. We could walk 75 feet out into the salty warm waters of the Gulf before the water began to go up over our chest. One day we saw a couple of porpoises swim by about 50 feet offshore, just cruising and playing along that line all the way down the shoreline.

Large beach umbrellas give shade to double wide loungers to give shade along the beaches of Naples

Large beach umbrellas give shade to double wide loungers to give shade along the beaches of Naples

A couple of porpoises graced us with their lively and playful natures 50 feet offshore of our beach lounger.

A couple of porpoises graced us with their lively and playful natures 50 feet offshore of our beach lounger.

Even though we experience some amazing sunsets in Arizona, I have to give a nod to the amazing sunsets in Naples. We had a top floor room that allowed us a vantage point to see up and over the buildings. There is nothing more picturesque and photographed more often than the sun setting over the ocean, or in this case the Gulf. The colors are vibrant, and the reflection glistening on the waters is hard to replicate in any other setting.

The sun setting over the Gulf, with a little fishing boat out enjoying the beautiful setting catching more fish while catching the last rays of sun.

The sun setting over the Gulf, with a little fishing boat out enjoying the beautiful setting catching more fish while catching the last rays of sun.

Naples residents are proud of their area and it shows. A lot of Florida looks old, run down, tired. Naples looks fresh, cared-for, vibrant and has earned the tag line ‘destination spot.’

For more pictures of Naples, check out the Global Gallery.

Italy: architecture, food and history

For years the Tuscany region in Italy sat at the top of my bucket travel list. Photos, articles, books, movies continued to feed this desire. And when “Under the Tuscan Sun” was released in book form, and then in an incredibly enticing video depiction in movie form, I was hooked. To date, I have only had the pleasure of visiting Italy once, and sadly never made it to the Tuscany region – but I will get there one day!

Happily, my years have been filled with travel that has fulfilled my travel interests and desires, if not always my exact bucket list. This world we live in is full of hidden gems that deserve equal narration in comparison to the major highlight destinations like Paris, Rome, London, Montreal, Dubai and so many more. But there is a reason, many reasons, these major destinations have earned the reputation of becoming must see places.

Several years ago my mother, daughter and I took off on a 14-day European excursion with Trafalgar Tours via train and bus, that took us through many of Europe’s iconic locations. We started in London, and made our way through Brussels, Cologne, Zurich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa, Monaco, Nice, Lyon and finished up in Paris. A great experience and way to see lots of places in a short amount of time, to help you decide where you might want to go back for longer visits.

Six of those days were spent in Italy. The diversity from northern Italy to southern Italy is as diverse as northern California to southern California. The diversity begins with food: creamier/buttery pasta sauces with some tomatoes in the north, to spicier red pasta sauces in the south. The myriad of the Venice canals sit in stark contrast to the Umbria countryside rolling with ancient grape vines and groves of olive trees, to the free-flowing Mediterranean along the rocky coast of Naples. The inland cities of Milan and Florence exude a higher fashion sense to go with their more formal attitudes, stand in contrast to the more laid back attitudes and lax fashion sense along the Mediterranean cities. The architecturally used colorful natural stones stand strong along with the robust fashion of the north country, in contrast to the earthy subdued limestone and travertine architecture of the south where so many more buildings stand in ruin.

A spicy red sauce pasta served up in a southern Italian town.

A spicy red sauce pasta served up in a southern Italian town.

But even these ruins stand as examples of historical architecture that is seen very little anywhere else in the world. Architecture that has stood the test of wars, environmental decay, man’s negligence, lack of funding – but yet they still stand strong and continue to be a major tourism pull. And a highly coveted design style. The rustic elegance that is achieved by not forcing perfection into what nature made, and honed only slightly by man’s manual tools, are looks that are heavily sought after, and hard to replicate.

Our first induction into Italy was Venice. Not a bad way to start! We began encamped at St. Marks Square where we took in the views of the expansive canals jutting out in every direction, with gondolas lined up to take you to one of the 117 islands. Or down one of the narrow inland canals bringing you nose to nose with amazing architecture like the Bridge of Sighs. Creativity reigns in Venice with visionary mask makers and master glass blowers. I display examples of both in my home today.

The Bridge of Sighs, in the background, spans one of the inland canals in Venice.

The Bridge of Sighs, in the background, spans one of the inland canals in Venice.

Our introduction into Italian cooking was a full-on experience. We took a large gondola over to Burano Island, which is lined with brightly colored pastel houses, to enjoy a seven-course lunch of fresh seafoods, homemade pastas and breads, olives and everything else you think of when craving Italian food. Upon our return to St. Mark’s Square we saw all the outdoor tables in the square had been removed and walking risers installed. Feeling perplexed, we stood with other tourists waiting for the show – the show was high tide that comes in and covers St. Mark’s Square for minimal time and then recedes and life resumes like nothing had ever happened.

Next it was on to Florence. Ah, Florence – land of exquisite leather goods at amazing prices – I think I bought 8 pairs of gloves – red, blue, black, brown, lined, unlined, zippered, unzippered. I stood with mouth agape for eons looking at the colorful architecture of the Duomo (Florence Cathedral) – stones of lush forest greens, soft mint greens, with deep blood reds infused into graying whites make up the structure. Michelangelo’s David, one of the world’s most reproduced and famous statues, stands in all its nude glory in the Accadamia Gallery. And what a treat to watch most every Italian dressed to the nines, going to work, going shopping, stopping for an espresso, heading to lunch or dinner. No occasion was too small or too big to “be seen.”

The Duomo in Florence, showcasing the locally mined stone used to build this beautiful cathedral.

The Duomo in Florence, showcasing the locally mined stone used to build this beautiful cathedral.

No trip to Italy would be complete without a visit to the iconic city of Rome. We needed two full days to tour structures that make Rome exactly that – iconic:

Colosseum – replete with costumed gladiators standing guard at the gates and more than ready to take a picture with you for a few euros; a structure so massive you stand in awe to think of how it was built, so many centuries ago. Close your eyes and imagine the stands filled with patrons watching gladiators fight or the chariot races – kings and queens on one side, peasants on the other.

Trevi Fountain – It was here I finally understood the energy level of our tour guide, Eliana, who speaks 5 languages and herded her 32 charges from multiple countries through 9 countries in 14 days with such fortitude. She grabbed my arm and we ran across the street from the highly ornate marble Trevi fountain to her favorite Italian espresso caffe’. As I began to sip my espresso Eliana giggled and said,”No, slam it like a shot of whisky!” After that boost we took our coin change and she showed me how you stand with your back to the fountain, throw a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand and make a wish.

Tucked in the middle of residential and retail buildings, the Trevi Fountain has not lost its lustre as a tourist draw.

Tucked in the middle of residential and retail buildings, the Trevi Fountain has not lost its lustre as a tourist draw.

Catacombs – definitely not for the faint of heart (or tall people), but an amazing site to see the size of these ancient people and intellectual engineering of these unending funeral tunnels. We visited the Catacombs of Domatilla, built beyond the only subterranean basilica, are the oldest (2nd century), largest (9 miles of tunnels) and the only catacombs to still hold bones.

The Vatican – this independent state within Rome encapsulates everything that is Italian culture – architecture, art and Catholicism. We spent a full day on the grounds: standing in a 3-hour line to bare witness to Michelangelo’s iconic ceiling murals in the Sistine Chapel; tried to absorb the immensity of St. Peter’s Basilica – the anchor of Vatican City; and finish up with an Italian gelato on the Spanish Steps.

St. Peter's Basilica bathed in the light from the setting sun.

St. Peter’s Basilica bathed in the light from the setting sun.

Our final stop in Italy landed us in Pisa. There are no words or pictures that can truly convey this anomaly of architecture finished in 1372. It defies all logic how this tower not only was built with this much tilt (where were the inspectors?) – because of being built on ground that was softer on one side; but that it never fell over prior to being stabilized in the 20th century. The 4 degrees of lean may not sound like much, but I didn’t step up to the front of the line to check out the view from the top.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa. What else is there to say.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa. What else is there to say.

Betwixt and between these amazing cities lay the Tuscan hillsides, with their long cypress lined driveways leading up to magnificent villas just waiting for visitors to come sit on their verandas to relax with a glass of Barolo, nibble on estate grown olives and almonds, while reading a favorite book. Hopefully my next trip to Italy those visions will come to fruition.

(A special thank you for the use of pictures from “A Portrait of Italy” by Dwight V. Gast)