The southwest region of Florida is the safe, warm Florida people dream of. KENNETH WESTCOTT JONES gives a taste of an earthly Heaven
than 1950 is real history to the resort of Naples in Southwest Florida, while its neighbour, Marco Island, 20 miles to the South, regards 1965 as Year One. Both are now firmly on the map of the Sunshine State, fully developed in an up-market style, and with permanent population of 40,000 and 20,000 respectively.
Burgeoning tourism now brings in at least three times as many as those who live there, with Britain and Germany strongly represented. Americans tend to choose the peak winter months, which is high season in this part of Florida. They are the traditional "snowbirds" coming down from the often frigid North, paying high rates for accommodation or staying in villas and condominiums. But in the .value season from May to mid-November it is the Europeans who swell the numbers, so much so that the elegant new Hilton on Marco Island alone recorded 8,000 British bed-nights in 1995, with an expected increase for 1996.
Newest addition to the Naples sea front hotels, La Playa owned by Noble House with a German partner even publishes a daily newspaper in German.
This Southwest region facing the Gulf of Mexico is the safe, warm Florida of dreams. It is English-speaking, whereas the great sprawling mass of Miami, 110 miles away on the Atlantic shore, is now largely Spanish-speaking due to the huge intake of Cubans and others from Central America. On the very edge of the Everglades, it is far enough south to escape harsh winter weather, although during the record Americawide freeze of late January and early February 1996, outblowing northerly winds from regions below minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit dropped the Naples temperature to a low of 47 degrees (after many days in the mid-80s).
AET THE TURN OF the century the coastline close to the verglades was virtually uninhabitable due to mosquitoes, with malaria and yellow fever rampant among the few traders and fisherfolk. Today, the pests are completely gone. Once into the Everglades, however, it is very different with no environmental changes and plenty of wildlife in the swamps as well as clouding insects. In the tiniest post office in the US, Ochopee, the mail-handler needs to wear a headnet to work in it while harmless but alarming racer snakes not infrequently slither in through the door.
Naples began as part of the "Italy America" concept, with the founding of a company in Florida's capital, Tallahassee. In 1887 the remote place had its first inhabitants, notable among them General John Williams, a Kentucky Civil War hero. A long pier was constructed and steamer called "Fearless" came once a week from Fort Myers. Another Civil War veteran named Walter Haldeman bought land in the Naples area. Soon there were cottages, a wooden hotel and a general store. But it was 1927 before the railways reached this far south, with the coming of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and its competitor, Atlantic Coast Line (off course, one would think) 11 days later.
• Jon Jamro. official Collier County historian, writes in his book The Founding of Naples, that "for three decades Naples orbited sedately about its pier and hotel, an obscure mellow place tucked away on the edge of Florida's advancing frontier."
The first Catholic Church was built in the area known as "Old Naples" in 1939. There are now ten Catholic churches in the city, each with striking modern features and richly supported. St Matthew's Church, not far from the spectacular Philharmonic Centre, let it be known that its 1996 Christmas offering amounts to $83,000, which prompted a local press comment that two of the 54 banks now in Naples were built close to the church so that big collections could be safely deposited!
Marco Island must now be regarded as fully developed, its space taken up by high rise apartments, hotels, and shopping centres, all mostly built since 1985. The resort has only one Catholic church.
There are five golf courses in the Naples area, the first one dating from 1946 when a Henry Watkins purchased and upgraded the Naples Beach Hotel together with its adjacent 18-hole golf course. His son, Michael Watkins, has expanded the property and still owns the course. He is President of the Naples Visitors Bureau (which consists of the five major beachfront hotels, La Playa, Ritz-Carlton, Registry, Edge Pier anrid pabns: where Nap&.; bean. water Beach, and his own Naples Beach). He was in the forefront of bringing European visitors to Naples and his expanding hotel offers value season rates better than in the Canaries or Majorca.
A mile away, the Edgewater Beach is the only all-suite hotel on the Gulf Coast. Run by hotel and railroad entrepreneur John Ayres, it offers remarkable value for families who can self-cater with their own kitchen (with microwave) and dining room plus a big lounge, verandah and bedroom. Reaching this "Palm Beach of the West" not as easy as it should be. There is a small airport at Naples, used by Short 306 planes built in Belfast quite a long time ago, and these "paddle" above the Everglades to Miami International. American Eagle, a division of American Airlines runs the service five times a day. There is loose connection into the two British Airways services to and from London (one to Gatwick one to Heathrow) or the single American Airlines flight.
There is also access via Tampa and Orlando, but in all cases a car is needed, since neither Naples nor Marco has any form of public transport beyond a $10 Trolley running hourly, which allows passengers to get of and on at will.
Unijet, the British tour company, does exceptionally good business with Marco Island, sending a far higher number of British holidaymakers than British Airways Holidays, for instance. The firm is now well known in Marco and among the car rental people, where Budget handles most business for Britons.
We may never see development southwards form Marco for the Everglades start almost immediately, first in the form of Ten Thousand Islands, all mangrove clusters, and then as swamps and hummocks. There is one small town, Everglades City, with air boat rides, a serious wild life launch trip runs under the auspices of Everglades National Park Rangers, many fishing outfits, a top rate fish restaurant and hotel called Captain's Table, and tome wooden homes. There is a traffic circle, a local authority building, and three churches, one of them an ultramodern Catholic edifice. It is the last church of the denomination for 138 miles, when Cuba is reached (but not by Americans . . .)