By Patty Ryan
Its largest estuary, Rookery Bay, was preserved in part with the collected pennies of schoolchildren more than a half century ago. Within an hour of Naples are entrances to millions of acres of federal and state parks, preserves and wildlife refuges. At one, a special orchid’s every bloom is recorded by caretakers. At another, endangered Florida panthers wear tracking devices.
Naples is both a destination for ecotourism and a base for exploration of the vast Florida Everglades.
A Famous Orchid
One prized resident of the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary lives 50 feet up in a cypress tree but isn’t a bird. Meet the “super” ghost orchid, one of the state’s most-watched plants since its discovery in 2007. Its blooms, visible in the summer, sometimes make surprise winter appearances. The 13,000-acre Corkscrew sanctuary 30 miles northeast of Naples lays claim to the world’s largest virgin bald cypress forest and the nation’s largest nesting colony of endangered wood storks. A two-mile boardwalk leads visitors through pine flatwoods, wet prairie, marsh land and the cypress forest, with opportunities to spot alligators, otters, white-tailed deer and red-bellied turtles. As for the orchid, bring binoculars for the best view. Check the website to see if it’s in bloom.
The Corkscrew region also includes the CREW Land and Water Trust’s Bird Rookery Swamp Trail, south of the Audubon sanctuary. It has 12 miles of biking and hiking trails, along with a 1,500-foot boardwalk that is wheelchair accessible.
A Maze of Islands
View an aerial image of Ten Thousand Islands and you’ll quickly understand why a boat, whether motor or paddle, is the preferred means of exploration. It’s a maze of largely uninhabited islands and islets, many covered in mangroves, some with sandy beaches where camping is allowed. You’ll need a checklist to keep track of the birds.
Less than an hour from Downtown Naples is the Gulf Coast Visitor Center for Everglades National Park. At least a million people a year explore the 1.5-million-acre preserve. A good time to visit is dry season, December to April, when water levels are low and the temperature is mild. Ranger-led tours are listed here, or you can hire a private guide and take a tour that fits your own schedule and interests, including photography, bird watching, kayaking, fishing or wildlife observation. The park includes a 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, a marked inland water route that meanders south from Everglades City to Flamingo, the site of another visitor center. It can take a week or more to complete in a kayak or canoe, or less than a day in a shallow-draft motor boat.
The Museum of the Everglades in Everglades City traces 2,000 years of history in the area.
Southwest Florida is rich with other preserves that provide habitat for rare or endangered plants and animals, including Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and Big Cypress National Preserve. Most of the panther refuge is closed to public access, but the open portion includes two hiking trails.
Treating Injured Wildlife
You don’t have to leave Naples to learn more about native Florida plants and animals. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, about a 10-minute drive north from downtown Naples, houses both the von Arx Wildlife Hospital and The Nature Center. The hospital treats injured or orphaned native wildlife, including deer, bobcats, pelicans, herons, gopher tortoises, bats and rabbits, brought in by the public or volunteers. The Nature Center has programs for people of all ages. Admission covers a 45-minute guided cruise along the Gordon River in an electric boat, and guided kayak tours are available for an additional fee.
Nearby, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens displays animals from around the world but also has a facility specifically to care for Florida panthers found injured or orphaned. One, now a permanent zoo resident, was abandoned by her mother as a cub.The Naples Botanical Garden in East Naples is a collection of gardens, some devoted to regions, such as Florida, Brazil or the Caribbean. There’s a water garden, an orchid garden, a children’s garden and one set aside for plants with “charisma.”
Tours of Rookery Bay
The Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center has a marine touch tank for hands-on learning, and outside are nature trails, a scenic overlook bridge, a picnic area and, from November to May, access to guided boat and kayak tours of the mangrove estuary. The Learning Center is part of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Reserve. (You can read here about the role 4,000 schoolchildren once played in Rookery Bay’s history.)
Some say any walking tour of Naples should begin in Old Naples, with its charming cottages, luxury homes and Third Street South shopping.
The Naples Historical Society offers a 1-mile foot tour of the area. But your feet have plenty of other options. In the middle of the city, you can take a 2-mile walk along the Gordon River Greenway and possibly get a glimpse of an otter, raccoon, bobcat, fox or opossum.
Or, your toes could try out the pure white sand on the beach at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, legendary for its softness. Many parks offer pedestrian tours, including the 7,271-acre Collier-Seminole State Park with its Sunday morning nature walks. For pure walking inspiration, pay a visit to the Collier-Seminole park’s landmark exhibit of the last existing Bay City Walking Dredge, a mechanical marvel. The machine once walked hard enough to help construct the Tamiami Trail through the Florida Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp.
Touring by Bike
Naples has multiple bicycle rental companies, including Big Momma’s Bicycles and Beach Bum Bike Rentals. And, it has plenty of tour operators. Naples Bicycle Tours combines the two services, providing both the bikes and the tour guide. (Binoculars, too, if you choose the Everglades bicycle tour.)
Guides on the Water
Everglades Area Tours, located on Marco Island and in Everglades City, offers a wide array of eco-educational tours throughout southwest Florida. It’s certified by the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism, which promotes environmentally responsible travel. Everglades Area Tours has naturalist-led walking, kayak and power boat eco-tours; sea kayak and overnight camping trips; guided fishing tours; and birding or photography outings.
Here are more water adventure ideas to get you started.
Manatee Eco Tours specializes in leading people to manatees and other favorite sea creatures. Dolphin Explorer enlists passengers to help in a long-term study by locating and identifying dolphins using photos of dorsal fins. And Eco Endeavors offers a three-hour excursion to the Ten Thousand Islands.
A Paddling Trail
Paddlers have teamed up to map out part of the Paradise Coast Blueway, a network of paddling routes along the Collier County coast. Most are one-day trips in the Ten Thousand Islands, but the longest takes two to three days. Phase 1 goes from Everglades to Marco Island. Kayaks, canoes or standup paddle boards can be rented privately or through concessionaires in some parks. Trail maps are expected to extend north to Lee County, where the Fort Myers area has its own Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail.
Any Kind of Fishing
Name your fishing flavor. Fresh or salt water? River, lake, bay, reef or gulf? Want to stand on a beach with a pole or go 50 miles out to sea? In the Naples area, the possibilities are endless. Inland waterways and the Ten Thousand Islands are perfect for kayak fishing. The artificial reefs off the coast of Naples and Marco Island are close enough for a half-day trip with kids.
FOOD AND DINING
Food from Local Waters and Farms
With all the fishing going on in the region, it’s no wonder The Local bills itself as Naples first farm-and-sea-to-table restaurant, celebrating “the intersection of local farmers, ranchers, sea mongers, artisans and brewers.” The menu changes daily.Everglades City is known for seafood, sometimes served up in unassuming restaurants, where authenticity is demonstrated by mounds of crab traps along the waterfront. In February, part way through stone crab season (Oct. 15 to May 15), thousands descend on the tiny city for its Everglades Seafood Festival, which combines the fruits of fish mongers with country music, fair rides and crafts. Other times, visitors come in a more orderly fashion to get their stone crabs at Triad Seafood Market, City Seafood or Camellia Street Grill, among other venues.
Catching a Ride
The public bus system, CAT (short for Collier Area Transit), offers free rides to the beach along two routes in the late fall and spring, when parking can be difficult. There’s also a real time route and trip planner.
If you’re driving an electric or hybrid vehicle, you can plot your course for charging stations on Plugshare.
A Tent Is Green, But So Is the Ritz
You can snooze in a tent or stay at a five-star hotel and still feel good about your low impact on the environment. The Florida Green Lodging program keeps a registry with hundreds of eco-conscious innkeepers committed to recycling, energy efficiency or water conservation. The Ritz-Carlton Naples Beach Resort, received one of the program’s higher honors: three palms, on a scale of one to four. Equally green in Naples? La Playa Beach & Golf Resort and DoubleTree Suites by Hilton.
For camping, Everglades National Park has backcountry ground sites, beach sites and elevated camping platforms, called “chickees.” Permits are required. Details here. The park has two drive-in campgrounds, which are accessible from the Homestead entrance on the east coast. Closer to Naples, Collier-Seminole State Park allows tent and RV camping.
Paying It Forward
Feeling like weeding and sweating, or hammering and painting, or counting birds and butterflies for a cause? If so, you might find an opportunity to leave Florida a little better than you found it, while meeting like-minded people.
The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples can sometimes use a hand removing exotic and invasive plants from trails. Check the website’s volunteer page for opportunities. Tourists with even a day to spare can sign up in advance to pitch in at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary or just “drop in” at Big Cypress National Preserve. You’ll likely be put to work clearing underbrush or removing invasive plants.
The Audubon sanctuary also enlists volunteers for its December bird count and for the North American Butterfly Association’s annual butterfly count. No special knowledge is required. Details are posted on the Audubon sanctuary’s Community Science page.
After admiring the habitats of creatures in the southwest Florida wild, you might leave your mark on a human habitat. Busy Habitat for Humanity in Naples and surrounding Collier County completes about 100 homes a year and can always use helpers, especially in rural Immokalee and over the summer when seasonal volunteers head north. Sign up through the online portal, where you can choose a time and place. “No experience is necessary,” says spokeswoman Jessica Grybek, “just willing hands and hearts.”
For more information about planning your Naples area vacation, visit Florida’s Paradise Coast at ParadiseCoast.com.
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