August 8, 2008

Your Little Slice of Paradise Coast

By Larry Olmsted

Named for the Italian bay it evokes, Naples has long been a top second-home choice on Florida's west coast. Gated golf communities are seemingly everywhere -- and with nearly 90 courses, the region claims to have more holes per capita than any place in the nation.

The area also claims many other distinctions: the sugary white beaches of the Paradise Coast (Naples, nearby Marco Island and Everglades City) are frequently ranked among the nation's top 10. Moreover, the AARP named Naples one of the 10 healthiest U.S. cities, and residents enjoy the nation's second-highest longevity (80.97 years, behind Ames, Iowa, the AARP says).

Unlike many Florida cities, Naples has a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly downtown, centered on Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South, both lined with shops, cafes and more than 130 art galleries. This commercial core is linked by boardwalk to beaches and parks.

Fishing and sailing are popular, but so are inland activities. More than 80% of surrounding Collier County is protected open space, including Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park.

Though the city's denizens are generally wealthy (Collier County has Florida's highest per-capita income, $57,446), they pride themselves on hiding it better than their well-heeled counterparts on Florida's east coast -- not to mention that the Naples area is also considerably less flashy.

"It was a sleepy little seaside resort 20 years ago, and it has become very urbane while keeping its small-town character, so you really have the best of both worlds," says Aubrey Ferrao, founder of Gulf Bay Group, one of the area's largest residential developers. "I bought my first home here in 1978, and now we have a philharmonic, Broadway shows. We've had Bill Cosby, the Bolshoi, everyone, but it's still a small town where everybody knows each other."

It's also still a place where most home buyers can find something affordable. Although mega-mansions inside double-gated enclaves command eight figures (one recently sold for $40 million), houses and condos in some of Naples' most popular communities can be had for $300,000 to $400,000 and in outlying enclaves for less than $200,000. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>