Best of the Gulfshore 2013

Our annual look at the best things about living in Southwest Florida. Plus, our readers offer their take on the best things in the region.

BY May 8, 2013

May is our favorite time here at Gulfshore Life. And it’s not just because season has slowed down and we get to see our families again. No, we get the opportunity to share with you the best things we’ve discovered over the previous year in our annual guide to the things that make life in Southwest Florida great. This year we’ve covered all the basics—food, drink, experiences— plus enlisted some of our friends and contributors to share highlights from their journeys in the past 12 months. As always, we hope you use this as a guide to the joys available here along the Gulfshore.

—Gulfshore Life staff


Best surprising kick: The habenero-infused margarita at Masa adds a little jolt of heat you never knew was missing from your margarita, but now will crave on a regular basis.

Best reason to fight traffic on Bonita Beach Road: A heavenly blend of apples and cinnamon, fried and glazed to deep golden perfection, beckons even the slightest sweet tooth to Trackside Donuts and Café in Bonita. The hand-cut, melt-in-your-mouth apple fritters leave not one of your senses disappointed, more than erasing the frustrations of a congested drive over.

Best happy hour(s): Two very different Naples bars offer up our favorite places for discount tipples. Avenue Wine Café serves its highly curated selection of wine and beer at half off until 7 p.m. And at Blue Martini, they discount everything from the cheapest beer to the most expensive bottle of wine by 50 percent from 2-8 p.m. daily.

Best limited menu: Pastrami Dan’s, Naples. Don’t go if you want something other than pastrami, tacos or hot dogs—but those items are the best in town.

Best concept we hope succeeds: Taking over the space formerly occupied by La Bamba on Pine Ridge Road, The Local aims to source as many of its ingredients as possible from Southwest Florida. Expect local produce, local seafood, local beef and a rotating menu featuring what’s available and in season.

Best beachfront beer spot: The Mucky Duck, Captiva Island. The mood at this repurposed beach house is as fun as its English pub-inspired name. Take a load off at the laid-back bar, which offers a highly sought-after front-row seat to the island’s spectacular sunsets.

Best place to find an organic raw meal: Food and Thought, Naples. You won’t find anything that’s not 100 percent certified organic on the shelves of this market or in its always-hopping café. Whether taking out or dining in, there’s always a host of tasty options for breakfast, lunch and dinner—like the artfully layered raw basil cream lasagna.


 Best new impresarios: Talk about making an all-in bet. It’s a bold move to open one new restaurant—try three in the past 18 months. That’s just what the team that brought us Ford’s Garage has done by adding The Firestone and Los Cabos Cantina to the River District. Now Zak Kearns and Co. is opening a second Ford’s in Cape Coral.

Best place to have a drink while your spouse shops for groceries: What a pleasant surprise to walk into Whole Foods Market and discover the addition of a fully operational bar. Don’t mind if we do! Plop down for a beer while the Mr. or Mrs. peruses the produce, or grab a glass of wine to accompany the fancy (and conveniently close) cheeses or desserts you just purchased.

Best kids food all-grown-up: When you hear the words “fruit cup,” you think of little plastic cups filled with cut up pineapple, grapes and peaches. But at Bleu Provence, a fruit cup is a delicate pastry shell filled with raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and cream. Doubt you’ll find that on the playground.

Best vegetarian dish for non-vegetarians: The spicy panang curry with tofu at Pad Thai is so tasty, you won’t miss the meat.

Best reason to skip camping: Let’s face it, half the fun of camping is making s’mores anyway. So when we found out that Naples Flatbread offers a s’mores dessert where you can toast your own marshmallows, we decided to pitch the tent—in the closet—and go there instead.


Best addition: The outside garden and cool new dining room added to Sushi Thai in Naples Park have made one of our favorite restaurants even more inviting.

Best “staycation” steal, Collier: The Cove Inn, Naples. This funky gem offers guests affordable rates in an unbeatable location overlooking Naples Bay. Nestled in historic Crayton Cove, the inn is steps away from charming galleries and waterfront restaurants and minutes from the world-class Third Street South and Fifth Avenue South.

Best “staycation” steal, Lee: Song of the Sea, Sanibel Island. Beyond an inviting ambiance and some first-rate R & R at this intimate beachside inn, you’ll get complimentary bike access, beach chairs and umbrellas, plus privileges at the Dunes Championship Golf Course. Oh, and a bottle of wine upon arrival doesn’t hurt.

Best advancement in outdoor dining: Heat lamps at Masa that look like lamps rather than the standard stainless steel models that are prominent throughout the region.


 Best stretch of sand for a beach walk: Seagate Drive/North Gulf Shore Boulevard beach access to Clam Pass. Forego the pricier parking at Clam Pass Park and head north from the beautiful Seagate Beach. Break up the round trip with a treat from the boardwalk snack stand, or with a kayak or canoe rental to explore the pass and beyond.

Best weeknight dinner and a movie combo: Get creative with your meal at The Counter in Mercato, where you can build your own burger or salad from choice meats and myriad fresh toppings. Top it off with a custom milkshake that’s so worth the splurge, like the caramel apple crumble, and then walk up the block to catch a flick at the cozy Silverspot Cinema while you lounge (and digest) in luxury.

Best beach for water sports: With rentals from various companies, including The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, plus close parking so you don’t have to drag your gear too far, Vanderbilt Beach is the perfect spot to enjoy a little time on the water. From kite boarding to paddleboard yoga (a class meets there most weekends during season), there’s always some sort of adventure taking place just off shore.

Best place to overnight (legally) in the Everglades: Jewell Key. After an exhausting day of adventure, you can retire to the secluded sands bordering the mangroves that dominate this tiny, picture-perfect island. Bonus: There’s a bathroom that doesn’t consist of bushes.

Best National Geographic-worthy adventure: In a new book, the publication’s travel editor named Marco Island one of the “Top 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life”—the only Florida destination to get a mention. His book features the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project and its eco-tour excursion as a fun and enriching experience the kids will never forget.

Best place to pick your own oranges: December through April, you can pluck fruit straight from the tree at U-Pick Citrus, Fort Myers. Grapefruit, tangerines, lemons and limes are also ripe for the picking. The mom-and-pop grove uses no chemicals or pesticides and gives a third of its product to charity.

Best water-soaked adventure tour: The jet boat ride at Pure Naples. Up to 23 passengers can join the captain on this rollercoaster of a sightseeing tour. The ride puts a unique spin on the views—you’ll reach 35 mph and spiral into 360-degree turns as you travel down the Gordon River and among the 10,000 Islands.

 Best place to people-watch, Fort Myers: SIDNEY & BERNE DAVIS ART CENTER Best place to meet a retired CEO: THE CAPITAL GRILLE, NAPLES Best place to meet the ex-wife of a retired CEO: HANDSOME HARRY’S, NAPLES Best collaboration: DING DARLING & DOC FORD’S TARPON TOURNAMENT Best movie comeback: REOPENING THEATRE/CAFÉ IN THE PRADO, BONITA, AS FRANK THEATRES CINE GRILLE.

Best spot to kayak with dolphins: If you want a good chance of paddling companions, head to the Isles of Capri, about two miles north of Marco Island. Surrounded by several bays and the Gulf, it’s the perfect launch spot for a memorable day on the water.

Best place to catch a former SNL star: We’d say it’s pretty likely the streak will continue at Off the Hook Comedy Club, Marco Island. With past performances by the likes of Darrell Hammond, Jon Lovitz, Chris Kattan, Jim Breuer and Kevin Nealon, the club seems to have its pick of ex-cast members.

Best place to meet a Baltimore Ravens cheerleader: The Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest brings the lovely ladies of the Charm City down each year to help persuade locals to part with a little extra money during the event.


Best challenge issued: After his big-impact gift boosted the fundraising campaign for the Children’s Museum of Naples, billionaire philanthropist Tom Golisano decided challenge grants work well in Southwest Florida. So he issued another, this time for $20 million to help build the new Golisano Children’s Hospital on the HealthPark campus in South Fort Myers. So far, they are more than half way to the goal.

Best use of time: Nothing worse than turning on NPR to hear another pledge drive and know that’s going to be the soundtrack to your commute for the next week. That’s why we applaud WGCU radio’s decision to condense its pledge drive to a one-day event, which raised the needed funds and got our favorite shows back on the air.

Best surprise announcement: We’re amazed Executive Director Shannon Franklin didn’t pass out when philanthropists Jay and Patty Baker announced a $100,000 gift to the Naples International Film Festival on opening night.

Best use of hops (sports): If people ask you where you are from, just say Dunk City. And that’s thanks to the high-flying heroics of the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball team, which not only made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament, but made waves by becoming the first 15 seed to ever make it to the Sweet 16.

Best use of hops (other): Naples Beach Brewery starts production providing quality local beer for Southwest Florida. It took a bit of time and a lot of permitting hurdles, but Will Lawson and company have come up with a winning plan to slowly turn the oenophiles of Naples into beer fans.

Best new trio: We were excited to hear that the Naples Winter Wine Festival was taking a new approach with its festival planning for 2014 by announcing three super women as the festival co-chairs. Adria Starkey, Linda Malone and Ann McNulty are sure to put on quite an event.

Best new arts movement: As Billy Joel once said, we didn’t start the fire. We did add a little kindling to a group of positively charged artists who now call their movement Open Positive Transference (OPT for short). We asked artist Veron Ennis to write in our December issue about what she saw as a change in the scene. Since then, the group has had a well-received show at Mercato, and its artists are popping up in national media and in exhibitions around the state.


Best use of found objects: Ran Adler’s continually mesmerizing assemblage pieces. Using intense wiring, weaving and stringing techniques, the artist brings life to natural materials like driftwood and horsetail reeds through repetition and painstaking precision.

Best young entrepreneur: Lauren Crawford of Notta Cupcake. She started selling her product (it’s not a cupcake; it’s a cake in a cup!) as a nine-year-old at the North Naples Green Market. Now 12, she sells four flavors in original and gluten-free recipes in Bay 170, online and at 18 Whole Foods locations across Florida.

Best fine art souvenirs: The Clay Place. Visitors can take home the friendly fish pottery they’ve spotted around town in places like the Naples Botanical Garden and Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. Bright mugs, dinner-ware, wall displays and more handmade creations from local artist Jim Rice will continue to remind them of sunny Southwest Florida long after they’ve left.

Best beach to take visitors to feel like a Naples native: The nearly undeveloped Keewaydin Island is a haven for local boaters and fishermen. And because it’s accessible only by watercraft, your guests feel as if they’re in on a Neapolitan secret.

Best patch of paradise: Somebody already thought to string up a hammock in the Naples Botanical Garden, but we also wish there were one at Doctor’s Pass in Naples so we could better watch the regular traffic of boats, dolphins and manatees. For now we’ll join the fishermen and settle for a perch atop the pass’ Northern rock jetty.

Best hope for aquarium algae to power the Porsche: Algenol Biofuels, Fort Myers’ algae-to-ethanol production facility. Its patented technology uses sunlight, carbon dioxide and saltwater to produce more than 9,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year—and it costs only about $1 per gallon. Algenol is also working toward integrating jet and diesel fuels into the process.

Best fountain: Pelican Marsh, Naples, owes its impressive entrance to a mammoth water feature. Tucked away just off of US 41, the fountain boasts countless spouts that dazzle day and night, a perk of the development you don’t have to be a resident to enjoy.

Best arts idea for procrastinators: If you don’t mind standing in line, the Phil’s new rush ticket program might be the best way to see the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra. Not only are the tickets inexpensive, but you never know where you might sit. CEO Kathleen van Bergen has been known to have the box office put the “rushers” up in her private box.

Best place for fresh fish, Collier: CAPT. KIRK’S IN NAPLES Best place for fresh fish, Lee: MERRICK SEAFOOD IN CAPE CORAL Best monogramming: PREPPY IN PARADISE Best-named pet retreat: WIGGLEBUTT INN Best new chef: ANDREW NARDIS, M WATERFRONT GRILLE Best way to sharpen your golf game: LESSONS WITH DR. JIM SUTTIE AT TWIN EAGLES



Osteria Tulia: Any of the fresh pastas. Chef/Owner Vincenzo has an amazing pasta machine, which gives him the ability to mix and extrude some of the best-tasting fresh pasta out there.

Masa: Ensalada con pulpo. Chef Mike has created a unique dish packed full of flavor. The tender octopus pairs well with the acidity of the citrus, spice from the chorizo and habanero, and richness of the avocado. A very well-balanced dish.

Crü: Foie gras with hazelnut pain perdu, rosemary and apple gastrique. It’s hard to find foie gras in Southwest Florida, but I know I can get my fix at Crü, and the pairing of flavors that Chef Harold and Chef Josh put together on this one is sensational.

IM Tapas: Iberico ham. The real-deal delicacy straight from Spain. It takes me back to my tour ofEurope after culinary school.

Blu Sushi: Tuna tower. This is tuna tartare brought to the next level. I love the delicate wontons, and the balance of spicy and sweet. Their happy hour is great and you can sample this along with many other great appetizers at $6 a pop.

—Chef Brian Roland, private chef and former executive chef at M Waterfront Grille, craveculinaire.com


Three60 Market. Arrive by car or boat and savor offerings that include fresh-caught fish, bourbon bread pudding, plentiful pastas and fresh-baked pies. three60market.com

Weekend Willie’s. This standout neighborhood sports bar’s must-haves include the best Reuben sandwich, tenderloin beef tips and grilled marinated Portobello ’shrooms. Evening treats include live entertainment and karaoke. facebook.com/ weekendwillies

Fort Myers’ Farmers Market Restaurant is the oldest restaurant in Southwest Florida. “Put a taste of the South in your mouth” with crisp fried chicken, mullet, pulled pork and sweet potato pie. Sunday afternoon’s my favorite time to visit. farmersmarketrestaurant. com

Joanie’s Blue Crab Café. A world away from Naples, a bygone Everglades era surrounds you while you feast on soft shell crab, alligator tail and catfish alongside farmers, shrimpers and men of mystery. joaniesbluecrabcafe.com

Rosedale Brick Oven. Start with insalate and antipasti, and enjoy the best pasta fagioli and thin crust pizza around at this family-run spot with family-friendly prices. rosedalepizza.com

—Ivan Seligman, food blogger, gulfshorelife.com/Hot-Dish


Long lines on Election Day November 2012. People waited in lines up to eight hours to vote.

Record number of manatee deaths. Red tide killed nearly 200 manatees in Lee and Collier counties in two months.

Residents take a stand for Clam Pass. They got out their shovels and buckets to open the pass, when government failed to do it for them.

Wine Festivals raise more than $15 million for local children. Naples Winter Wine Festival and Southwest Florida Wine Festival made a difference in thousands of lives.

Local economy starts to come back. Unemployment numbers are lower, home sales and prices are higher.

—Kellie Burns, NBC-2 news anchor,nbc-2.com


Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary for wood storks, hawks, anhingas, grebes, herons, eagles, migratory birds, waders and owls

Tiger Tail Beach along the lagoon area for spoonbills, hawks, and wading and shore birds

Marco Island and Cape Coral for burrowing owls

The lagoon along Fort Myers Beach for spoonbills, herons, egrets, shore birds and ospreys

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge for white pelicans, egrets, spoonbills, ibis, herons and ospreys

—RJ Wiley, noted bird photogapher, rjwileyphoto.com


In the past 16 years guiding anglers more than 200 days a year on the water, I’ve discovered hundreds of secret angling locales. At the top of the list is Hell Peckney Bay, located at the extreme northern end of Estero Bay. Anglers can access the dangerously shallow shorelines only with the shallowest draft fishing boats or kayaks.

Rookery Bay, between Naples and Marco Island, provides anglers opportunities to catch the elusive ‘grand slam’ snook, redfish, tarpon and trout.

Cape Romano, a gathering of shallow, shifting sandbars on the southern tip of Marco Island, provides the area’s best year-round smorgasbord of fish species.

Fakahatchee Bay’s dark tannin-stained waters, located approximately eight miles south of Marco Island, have some of the best sight fishing for fl y anglers. For the more adventurous angler, at the southern end of Everglades National Park the ominous and foreboding beauty of the Shark River plays host to the largest snook, redfish and tarpon in the area.

—Capt. Kevin Merritt, charter boat captain, naplesbackcountryfi shing.com


Music for Minors. A nonprofit organization that purchases new and refurbishes used instruments for middle school children who cannot afford to buy them. music4minors.org

Norris Center. This downtown facility offers a wide range of programs, including live theatre, music and comedy on the main stage. The neighboring bandshell at Cambier Park is home to outstanding free outdoor concerts. 213-3058

Seaside Strings. This group has been quietly entertaining at weddings, parties and other events for more than 10 years. They perform classical or popular music as a solo, duo, trio or string quartet. seasidestrings.net

Leigh Herndon. She dyes silk to create wearable art and wall art and designs original garments (sarongs, ruanas, scarves) and other works, mixing her own colors to achieve unusual results. leighherndon.com

Naples Ballet. Preserves the art of dance and provides opportunities, including community outreach, mentoring children in dance education, and a dance movement program for children with special needs. naplesacademyofballet.com

—Elaine Hamilton, executive director United Arts Council, uaccollier.com



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