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Now, that's lifestyle

No matter how fantastic, if you can dream it, you can build it in Southwest Florida these days. How do I know that? I just got back from visiting some of the homes featured on our inaugural Greater Naples Luxury Home Tour this month. The self-guided tour features 15 spectacular new model homes, and anyone who takes it will realize there's never been a better time to be designing and building homes than right now in Southwest Florida.

Forget designing the gardens at Versailles or decorating Nero's gold-plated palace. Our architects and designers are almost as free to lavish their genius on the mini-palaces taking shape along the Gulfshore, and they have many more resources at their disposal. What's more, their clients live as luxuriously-and much more comfortably-than any royalty in the past.

To someone like me, who lives in an old cottage big on charm but skimpy on modern amenities, these places are like fantasy stage sets. Spacious rooms open up to stunning views of outdoor living areas, where turquoise water splashes in fountains, gurgles through lagoons and seems to cascade from swimming pools into natural waterways. Beyond all the splashing, sparkling water, more glorious views present themselves-of vast marshlands filled with feeding birds or emerald-green golf courses. Inside, if you look down, you'll see floors of Travertine stone and rich, inlaid woods; look up and every ceiling is a 3-D work of art. The kitchens make you feel like June Cleaver on steroids, with miles of granite counters, gleaming Viking appliances and amazingly efficient storage spaces. The media room in one house didn't seem much smaller than the theater at Naples' Hollywood 20 where I'd watched a movie the night before. And the bathrooms! With marble everywhere, giant Jacuzzi tubs and a frenzy of sinks in all sorts of shapes and materials, they're outrageous shrines to indulgence.

Yet despite all the grandeur, designers have figured out how to make these places inviting; you can actually imagine curling up in front of the plasma TV or padding around in your pajamas to rummage for a midnight snack in the refrigerated drawers.

Nothing epitomizes what's happening here better than WCI's new Tuscany Reserve, and I can only imagine how much fun the brainstorming sessions that gave birth to this community must have been. An army of workers has reshaped 500 acres of flat old Florida farmland just west of I-75 in north Naples into a fantasy version of Tuscany, where cobblestone roads wind by Italianate estates and thousands of plantings, including full-grown cypress trees shipped from California, re-create the look and even the scents of the Italian countryside. (Although I'm not sure you'd find a Pete Dye- and Greg Norman-designed golf course and residents-only golf academy in most Tuscan neighborhoods.) My favorite part: a 13-acre island, complete with arched stone bridge, where the clubhouse and homes, with their towers, archways and stone work, look like something out of a Merchant-Ivory film. And all this is for only 300 families, who will spend from $1.5 million to well over $7 million to live here-part-time, in many cases.

Everywhere I went, people were buzzing over how hot the market is for such over-the-top properties. Sales for condominiums in WCI's towers-which average about $1 million each-soared 257 percent from the third quarter of 2003 to the third quarter of 2004. At the company's Colony Golf and Bay Club, the 76 residences in the new Navona sold out in six hours-"as fast as we could process the paperwork," says Pam Cox, director of public relations. Well-heeled retirees, baby boomers and even some couples with school-age children are streaming into Southwest Florida to snap up these homes as fast as developers can build them. They want what WCI calls "country clubs in the sky"-condos in towers with a wealth of amenities and activities and a maintenance-free lifestyle-or sprawling homes of 4,000 square feet or more along the water or golf courses. (Penthouses, priced around $10 million, can run to 12,000 square feet.) About half pay cash for what is often their second, third or even fourth home (though many soon make it their primary residence); and they often want places that are already decorated and furnished, right down to the 300-thread-count Frette bed linens.

You'll find more information about the tour beginning on page 142. Please join us and see for yourself how our region has become the epicenter of lavish modern living.

-Pam Daniel, Editorial Director 

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