October 25, 2014

Here & Now

It’s those unpredictable moments that make life so, ah, unique here on the Gulfshore.Your Wish Is Their Command 

"Come quick, george, there’s a camel on the lawn."

"That’s nice, dear."

"Really, George, and I’m pretty sure that’s a python down there, too."

"This is The Ritz-Carlton, Mildred. Now step away from the balcony—and no more champagne for you."

Poor Mildred. This kind of thing must be expected when people are on vacation, but it seems to happen more regularly in an idyllic tropical destination like ours. People relax. Stresses dissolve. They let go of reality. But wait. What, exactly is reality?

The thing is, if you had peered over your own balcony railing at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples, on a certain evening recently, you would have seen for yourself: Sultan the camel and Nigel the python, strolling around (or slithering, as it were) on the manicured lawn. Why? Because some of the guests requested them. And the rule of hospitality here in paradise is "what the guest wants, the guest can have."

And guests do want some of the most astonishing things.

Like the couple who couldn’t decide which of two Old Naples mansions to buy. To break the tie, they had their hotel concierge book a fly-over to see which one looked better from the air.

Like the mermaids. Forget swimming with dolphins; a university group meeting at South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island wanted to swim with mermaids. So, mermaids they got, cavorting in the resort pool overlooking Redfish Pass—luminescent, scaly tails and all.

Then there was the showerhead. I’m not kidding: This really happened at the Naples Grande Beach Resort. A guest—not the First Lady of the United States, or an heiress or anything, just a regular guest—was gushing to hotel manager Theo Gornell about the marvelous showerhead in her bath and wondered where she might buy one. So, he went to the supply room, gift-wrapped one up and when he next saw her in the lobby, he presented it to her. Of course he did. This is how it’s done in paradise.

(Note to self: Stop prattling on about the Bvlgari shampoo at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, and start gushing about those Egyptian cotton linens and heavenly down comforters.)

But where was I? Oh yes. Perhaps you saw the handsome Indian prince arriving at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa recently, astride a white horse. No? He was dressed in the finest linens and a princely turban. His steed was draped in tapestries shot with gold. A procession accompanied him, including women in stunning silk sarees, and there was music and dancing. Actually, the "prince" was a young bridegroom on the way to his wedding inside a hotel ballroom, which had been transformed into a Hindu temple. Afterwards there was a feast of saag paneer, aloo gobi, naan and other traditional Indian wedding fare.

It’s not all that uncommon these days to see Indian wedding processions here along the Gulfshore. Charlene Casey, owner of Charlene’s Classic Carriages, has had so many orders the last couple of years that Dixie Darling (that’s her white horse) is getting her own custom red-and-gold wedding wardrobe.

But Indian princes aren’t the only ones in need of a white steed, says Charlene. There’s the guy who plans to gallop into his beloved’s yard, dressed as a medieval knight—suit of mail, sword and all—with a proposal of marriage. If that’s what he wants, that’s what he’ll have, Charlene says.

People ask for the strangest things, and if it’s moral and legal, Charlene is happy to oblige. There was the couple that didn’t wish to actually ride in the ornate French carriage; they wanted to pay the hourly rate just to walk beside Dixie Darling as she clopped along from Naples’ Third Street South to Tin City. Another man just wanted to feed the horse. Well, not feed it, exactly. "How much does a week’s worth of food cost?" he asked. Then he went straight to the ATM and brought back the cash.

And here’s my favorite: A woman, not sure her son was up to the challenge of a really romantic proposal, hired the horse and carriage to take the couple on a sunset ride to the beach, where a torch-lit, champagne picnic—and a ring—were waiting. Mother-in-law-to-be set it all up, and then hid among the sea grapes to enjoy the moment.

The nice thing about proposing in paradise is, if your mother’s not available, there’s always the hotel concierge or an event planner nearby. While a couple was out recently on a romantic private sail, artists at the Marco Island Marriott were busy painting a proposal in the sand (biodegradable, milk-based paint of course).

How devastating must it be to arrive at your wedding reception and see your cake iced with fondant but otherwise naked as a newborn babe? Not at all, says Jorian Weiner, public relations manager of The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples. It was exactly what one bride wanted. Just like a real, live Ace of Cakes, guests could watch and chat with Executive Pastry Chef Sebastien Thieffine as he enhanced the vanilla raspberry cake with lace piping, white ribbons and real white orchids.

Some things, like mermaids, cakes and white horses can be planned, but it’s those unpredictable moments that make life so, ah, unique here on the Gulfshore.

That camel sighting, for example. It was supposed to be part of an exotic indoor experience through the Ngala Wildlife Preserve in Naples, which specializes in African safari-style events and meetings. But the mood-setting smoke machine kept setting off the fire alarm, so Sultan and friends got to go outside and play.

Perched as we are on the edge of the Everglades, even locals should take nothing for granted. Just ask Debi DeBenedetto at the Paradise Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. Debi was hosting a group of meeting planners on an eco-tour aboard the Marco Island research boat Dolphin Explorer. Everyone naturally expected to see a dolphin or two with their cute, smiley faces cavorting in the wake. What they didn’t expect was practically an entire pod of dolphins storming the boat, slapping their flukes and splashing like crazed sci-fi creatures. The captain stopped the boat, and in a few minutes the frenzy was over. Then, rising through the silent water, appeared a mama dolphin with her newborn baby calf. The males had been protecting the birth.

A white steed for your knight in shining armor: $500. A three-hour tour aboard the Dolphin Explorer: $54. Seeing a newborn wild dolphin take its first breath: priceless.

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