Every year when we sit down to make the list of our favorite things in Southwest Florida, it seems like an insurmountable task. How can we possibly find enough in our sleepy little region to fill up these pages? But then we start talking about all the great restaurants we ate at, places we visited, parks we explored, beaches we lounged on and people we met. Suddenly, we have enough to fill three magazines worth of pages. And we’re reminded that the small-town perception many people have of our area isn’t the reality.
Eating and Drinking
Best healthy “splurge”: Food & Thought’s Vegan Bliss Shake. This dessert-ina- glass is so thick, creamy and similar to the real deal you’ll think you just had half a gallon of ice cream.
Best way to determine once and for all if it really tastes like chicken: City Seafood’s Gator Nuggets. At this Everglades City joint, chunks of the state’s official reptile start off marinated overnight in spices to tenderize, and then they’re fried with a thick and crunchy batter that’d make any Southern grandma proud.
Best pampering for your palate: Mereday’s Fine Dining. You can’t find fault with anything that comes from Chef Charles Mereday’s ever-changing tasting menus (we don’t want to jinx him, but we think a James Beard semifinal spot is within reach for his first Naples restaurant).
Best dish after the rooster crows: Toast of Naples’ The Good Egg Breakfast Wrap. Start your day off right with this concoction that’s chock full of veggies, loaded with scrambled eggs and cheese, and grilled until the flavors melt perfectly together.
Best meal in a bowl: Saigon Paris’ Pho. As a ramen craze has swept the nation, we’ve rediscovered this authentic, piquant number that hits the spot any time of day, all year long.
Best trend, olé!: South American Eateries Peppering the North. From the Uruguayan beef on offer at the new Martin Fierro to a handful of Peruvian bakeries that have opened up in the past year, we can’t help but notice—and appreciate—the profusion of restaurants dishing up cuisines from across Latin America. Dulce de leche, chimmichurri and ceviche, oh my!
Best novel novelty: Norman Love’s Macaron Ice Cream Sandwich. Just when we thought it was impossible to reinvent the wheel when it came to moon-shaped summer treats, local pastry whiz Norman Love rose to the challenge with this delicate, melt-in-yourmouth slice of heaven.
Best reinvention of a classic: Tierney’s Tavern and Claw Bar’s Crispy Grit Tots. The lunchroom staple is elevated through the use of grade-A stone-ground grits in lieu of shredded potatoes, and old-school ketchup is replaced by tangy pimento cheese sauce. Fried grits + zesty dip = yummo.
Best happy hour: Masa. Get your drink on—and eat well, too—every single day of the year at this upscale nouveau Mexican joint. Margaritas, wines, cocktails and generously sized apps at $5 are sure to put a spring in your step when strolling the Mercato.
Best Sunday gravy: Parmesan Pete’s. Mamma Mia! The only thing missing at this tiny storefront is red-checkered tablecloths to match its perfect red sauce that smothers classics recalling weekends at nonna’s, like chicken Parm, lasagna and the moistest meatballs around.
Best ticket to Maine (lobster, that is): HB’s on the Gulf’s Lobster Roll. Aside from the beautiful ocean view, we’ve been frequenting the patio at this Naples Beach Hotel restaurant for its insanely tasty rendition of the New England classic. The white bread roll is stuffed to the gills with so much tender, sweet meat that we feel it must have taken two to three lobsters to assemble it.
Best odd couple: Inca’s Kitchen’s Conchitas a la Parmesana. Diver scallops, parmesan cheese and lime juice baked together initiated some head scratching on our part—but one bite made us true believers in this unlikely marriage of flavors.
Best song of the South: Fancy’s Southern Café. Walking into this hidden gem off Daniels Parkway, you immediately feel you’ve been teleported to a cute storefront bistro in Birmingham thanks to exposed brick walls, chalkboards and mason-jar chandeliers. And let’s not forget the food—fluffy, thick, fried green tomatoes, shrimp po’boys and everyone’s favorite breakfast-turned-dinner dish, chicken and waffles. It’s the best way to experience the South, south of Tallahassee.
Best deal for tasty takeout: The Family Dinner at Greek Gourmet easily feeds four with one and a half garlic-roasted chickens, rice pilaf, Greek salad, green beans, buttery grilled pita bread and a tub of tzatziki sauce for less than $30.
Best unexpected dessert flavors: We love the sweet surprise of flavors like lavender, rose and basil white chocolate at Le Macaron.
Best unconventional taco: Backyard Taco at Tacos and Tequila. We never thought we’d want pickles on a taco, but when they’re fried and paired with caramelized onions, Maker’s Mark sauce and slow-roasted pork, we can’t get enough. And the a la carte menu is great for trying one of every other flavor that catches your eye.
Best white pizza pie: Rosedale Brick Oven. Fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheeses get topped with a drizzle of olive oil, earthy basil and sweet roasted garlic on a perfectly chewy-yet-crisp crust. Add some salt with a little pancetta and you have an unbeatable pie.
Best bittersweet restaurant closing: We were sad to say goodbye to the iconic McCabe’s Irish Pub, but they threw one heck of a sendoff party—the beer and cheer were flowing, and many patrons left with literal pieces of their favorite hangout.
Best guilt-free culinary indulgence: Well, you might feel a little bit guilty eating something so good with so few repercussions at Seasons52. The restaurant’s mini desserts are big on flavor and small on calories, making them a necessity, not an indulgence.
Best take on clean eating: Kitchen41 eliminates most of the fat in some of your favorite dishes by using an innovative cooking technique—sous vide, which cooks food in sealed pouches in a circulating water bath that keeps it from ever overcooking. The method locks in flavor and avoids the oils used by most restaurants.
Best reason to pray for a Viking invasion: If we’d known the Nordic invaders were bringing pastries from Sweet Odin’s Danish Bakery in Bonita Springs, we probably would have welcomed them with open arms. The apple fritters are a must-have.
Excercise fad we hope doesn't end: Paddleboarding.
Places and Experiences
Best stop for a set of new wheels: Naples Cyclery. Whether you want to ride around town for a day in a four-passenger surrey or buy the latest road bike, this Vanderbilt Beach spot has got you covered. We especially appreciate the excellent customer service, organized group rides and generous rental policy.
Best place to practice your “hoo”dunit: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s Night Walks. This massive Audubon preserve and gateway to our area’s segment of the Great Florida Birding Trail offers twilight walks to spot its 200 resident species of birds, including a large number of adorable nocturnal owls.
Best pain for pleasure: Purely You Spa’s Ashiatsu Massage. Having someone walk on your back for an hour sounds scary on a number of levels, but putting a foot down to help crack out the kinks is worth every second (and penny) of this hour-and-a-half-long treatment.
Best time to get your swing on: The Naples Beach Hotel’s Summer Season Round Robin. It’s a win-win every Friday from 5 to 7, when tennis players of all skill levels (usually a USTA 3.5 rating) can enjoy friendly mixed doubles matches with rotating partners for only $15.
Best beach-chic boîte: Heart & Soul. Stock up on stylish essentials for seaside lounging at this little boutique on Pine Ridge Road. They had us at the ivory crocheted drawstring shorts, but don’t miss the cute sequined totes and killer Letarte cover-ups as well.
Best one-stop body shop: Skin Care of Naples. Whether you are looking simply for a mani-pedi, a facial or something a little more intensive, Skin Care of Naples has you covered. Pretty much, if it can make you look better, they can take care of it.
Best movie-going experience (even better than an Imax): Theater 12 at Silverspot. You can never go wrong with reserved lounge chairs for seats, and a night at the movies takes on another dimension with a private bar that serves only this separate theater with a massive screen.
Best primer for cocktail-party fodder: Artis—Naples’ Art After Hours. Get a huge dose of culture at these free monthly events where The Baker Museum stays open late for you to take in the latest exhibits and enjoy live music in the courtyard.
Best place to send Grandma and Grandpa: Mega Kids. When spoiling little ones is in order, the selection at Mega Kids in Naples can’t be beat. Made-in-the-USA furniture from top brands, custom-painted decorative accents, silk-lined brag books, and the cutest selection of quality toys and clothes make this a surprising find—especially since it’s wedged between a Dollar Store and K-Mart.
Best fitness trend we actually want to stick around: Paddleboarding gives you an awesome vantage point for seeing life in the Gulf. And after an hour or two on the water, you’ll feel the burn in muscles you didn’t even know you had.
Best greeters: While a bushy-enough beard might make some greeters eligible for the term “furry,” the Newfoundland dogs at Hyatt Regency Coconut Point are the only furry greeters that don’t mind having their bellies scratched when you walk in the door.
Best not-so-lazy-Sunday excursion: Everglades Area Tours’ Boat-Assisted Kayak Eco Tours. Rediscover Southwest Florida’s remote beauty, get in a workout and catch some rays through this four-hour excursion to the farthest reaches of the 10,000 Islands. A certified naturalist shuttles you, five other adventurers and kayaks for all past schools of dolphin to dock at an uninhabited mangrove-covered isle where paddling, walking and shelling await.
Best his-and-hers daytime outing: The annual Cars on Fifth Show lets the ladies feel a little less guilty about dragging the guys to shopping on Fifth Avenue South.
Best (really) cheap date: You can’t beat your toes in the sand and a Publix sub in your hand for sunset on one of our bountiful beaches.
Best free stroll not on the shore: The boardwalks and sidewalks through the 50- acre Freedom Park. Chances are you won’t see crowds and will see birds and gators.
Best place to drive back to the future: Delorean Motor Company Florida in Bonita Springs. At any time, they’ll have six to 12 Deloreans available for sale.
Best place to shop for Florida-style art, ice cream and charter boats in one place: Matlacha. Pronounced Matt-LaShay, the artist enclave is off the beaten path, connecting the mainland to Pine Island via Pine Island Road.
Best place to shoot things to smithereens: Gulf Coast Clays at Port of the Islands Gun Club. Rent a gun or bring your own and shoot trap, skeet or sporting clays to your heart’s content.
Best place to find stuff you didn’t know you needed: Ortiz Avenue Flea Market in Fort Myers. Each Saturday and Sunday, find everything from baby ducks to Mexican cowboy boots to fresh tomatoes.
Best place to hang with manatees: Open daily from dawn to dusk, the Manatee Park off State Road 80 (Palm Beach Boulevard) is home to literally dozens (sometimes hundreds) of sea cows.
Best place to learn to sail: If the sea is calling your name and you love the wind in your hair, Offshore Sailing School has locations on Fort Myers Beach and Captiva Island with award-winning Colgate 26 keelboats boats designed specifically for training by the school’s founder, Steve Colgate.
Most beautiful stretch of road: Vineyards Boulevard between Vanderbilt Beach Road and Pine Ridge Road alongside Vineyards Country Club: two miles of heaven.
Best place to learn to fly: Europe-American Aviation, located at Naples Municipal Airport, features the latest Diamond aircraft and can get you certified to be a private pilot, commercial pilot or somewhere in between.
Best place to look for UFOs: The Isle of Capri has seen its share of unidentifiable flying objects that the military chooses not to explain and locals know are definitely from out of town.
Best place to fish from your kayak: Anywhere along the Caloosahatchee River between the Cape Coral Bridge and the Broadway Street Bridge in Alva is a great place to tackle everything from massive tarpon to bull sharks. It’s an adventure in a kayak.
Best home away from home: Just when you start to feel homesick for the North, Salty Sam’s Marina on Fort Myers Beach brings all the things you love (food, music and more) from home without the pesky winter storms with state/city theme days.
Best Place to Practice your 'Hoo' Dunnit: Corkscrew Swamp after hours.
Places and things we have loved for a long time that still rock
The Mucky Duck
Ridgway Bar & Grill
Blue Windows Bistro
Avenue Wine Café
Everglades National Park
The Beach at Eighth Street North in Naples
Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall
Kale Ceasar at The Local: A great-tasting salad that’s also really good for you
Algenol: Making fuel from algae
Baker Park: The new terminus of the Gordon River Greenway and Naples newest greenspace
Grass at JetBlue Park: Few things better than watching the players run around on a sunny March afternoon
Collard Greens at Black Eyed Pig BBQ: Slightly bitter, slightly spicy and a whole lot of smoky. The best side dish in town.
The new Everglades Wonder Gardens: From animal rescue/zoo to botanical garden, the transformation couldn’t have been greater. We’re thankful the property still stands intact.
Green Flash: Sure, some of us have never seen it. And sure, a few of us don’t believe it exists. But just the idea that it could and the rapturous stories of the folks who believe they’ve seen it make it amazing.
The putting surfaces at Old Corkscrew in Estero: It’s a bear to get there (which is fitting since the course was designed by the Golden Bear himself, Jack Nicklaus), but you can’t beat the view of the big pines and the satisfaction of knowing you missed all that sand that surrounds them.
Newspaper: It seems Naples Daily News theater critic Chris Silk has done as much to promote the stage explosion in Southwest Florida as the theater companies themselves. His rabid online following, coupled with a strong print audience, devours every review, preview, blog post and tweet this prolific writer churns out.
Author: Two local authors continued their bestsellers trend this year. Sanibel’s favorite adopted son, Randy Wayne White, penned Bone Deep as the latest installment of his Doc Ford series, which is rumored to be closing in on a small-screen adaptation. Meanwhile, Marco Island’s Sue Monk Kidd released her third novel, The Invention of Wings, in January and saw it picked for Oprah’s book club.
Memoirist: Artis Henderson’s memoir Unremarried Widow (excerpted on p. 98) might have gone unnoticed had it not been for a rave review in The New York Times, which called it “gold star work.” We’re glad they noticed so the rest of the world would, too.
Twitter: @thatssonaples chronicles the peculiarities found only in this land of wealth and aging. From pictures of $150,000 sports cars parked across three spots to accounts of folks ordering a “double Chardonnay,” the account curated by newspaper reporter Jessica Lipscomb gently pokes fun at all the things we mock to ourselves.
BEST OUTDOOR EVENTS
You haven’t lived in Southwest Florida until you’ve been to all of these at least once.
Edison Festival of Light (January and February)
Naples St. Patrick’s Day Parade (March)
Naples Craft Beer Festival (March)
Rockin’ on the Bay (throughout the year)
Ding Darling Days (October)
Swamp Buggy races (January, March, May)
Naples National Art Festival (February)
Fort Myers ArtWalk (monthly)
Great Dock Canoe Races (May)
Everglades Seafood Festival (February)
Some of our best is yet to come.
This fall will unveil a more engaging and even more beautiful Naples Botanical Garden, following the creation of a visitor center with an orchid boardwalk, multipurpose auditorium, shaded seating, a café by the unfailingly delicious D’Amico and Partners, sustainable features like recycled wood and rainwater collection tanks, and more.
The potential in economic boost thanks to the Hertz headquarter relocation to Estero needs little explanation. Construction on the Fortune 500 rental car company has begun, but it likely won’t open its doors until summer 2015.
We know it’s coming, but we’ll have to wait until season for the full-time start of conductor Andrey Boreyko as the permanent music director of Artis—Naples. We are way past mild anticipation of his fresh approach to classical conducting.
Bonita Springs’ 27,000-square-foot SWFL Performing Arts Center is slated to open this year, bringing with its Off The Hook Comedy Club a high-end event space, test kitchen, community education, podcast café and the capacity for first-rate music and theater.
Worst handling of an easy problem: The Clam Pass dredging issue got so bad, locals and tourists alike started digging it out on their own until local officials finally stepped in to make things better.
Worst planning: The traffic pattern caused by the new Starbucks in the shopping plaza at Immokalee Road and U.S. 41 is enough to make us all question the logic of the car to begin with.
Worst animal migration: Black bears finding their way into neighborhoods and public spaces (and being euthanized).
Worst sight to see: The landmark Dairy Queen building still standing but empty. We really just want a Blizzard.
Worst public policy debate: The continued fight over releases from Lake Okeechobee just shows how hard it is for our officials to solve problems everyone can agree on, let alone the ones where we don’t.
Worst shock to the pocketbook: If Congress doesn’t act soon, homeowners along the coast and in flood-prone areas are about to see astronomical increases to their insurance premiums.
Worst philanthropic trend: Awkward live auctions. It’s great when charities can raise huge sums through live auctions. But when the audience and the items up for bid don’t match up, things can get really uncomfortable, as we saw too many times this year.
Worst understanding of demographics: The lack of programming in the summer. Why in the world does everything shut down after season? Less than 20 percent of our population leaves and about 90 percent of the programming goes with it.
Worst trend in customer service: Being a customer younger than 50. At some point it became gospel among local servers that younger diners don’t need attentive service. But we spend a lot of money eating out and we live here year-round. So don’t leave us waiting 20 minutes before taking our drink order so you can pop by the table of AARP members next to us three times. Thanks.
SOUTHWEST FLORIDA SUPERLATIVES
Most likely to succeed: Chef Sarah Grueneberg, Angelina’s Ristorante. A Top Chef finalist and recent alum of Chicago’s Michelin-starred Spiaggia, she was handpicked to take over the kitchen of the fine-dining standout earlier this year. To say we’re excited is an understatement.
Biggest know-it-all: Chad Oliver, Mr. Good Question on NBC2. He’s told us why the sky is blue, why babies’ eye color changes and who should clean up after a traffic accident. His segments offer insight into our region and the world that we otherwise wouldn’t have.
Most controversial: Never one to stay quiet, Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott, who became nationally infamous for his use of President Obama’s full name during a campaign rally for Sarah Palin in 2008, was back in the news after he questioned FGCU’s choice of rap artists for a student concert.
Biggest flirt: Mr. G. Goce Sipinkoski has always been a charmer. But step up to the host station at his Fifth Avenue South restaurant, Aqua, and prepare to have both your ego and stomach engorged.
Highest flyer: FGCU men’s basketball player Chase Fieler didn’t end his senior season with a repeat of last year’s Dunk City madness. But he leaves a legacy of rim rocking that sets a tone for future Eagles.
Most compassionate: Leslie, Nancy and Dr. Bill Lascheid of Neighborhood Health Clinic have made it their mission to provide quality health care to those who otherwise might not have access. For that they deserve a salute.
Most overachieving: Kearns Restaurant Group has launched a lifetime worth of restaurants in just the past two years. With five concepts in eight locations and more on the way, we’re amazed this team has time to sleep. At least we know they’re well fed.
Class treasurer: Miles Collier has amassed a treasure trove of rare automobiles over the years, and now he’s putting them back on display at the Revs Institute off Airport-Pulling Road.
Class clown: He’s been bringing in the best comedians in the world for years, but now Capt. Brien Spina might have the last laugh, all the way to the bank. If his new performing arts and banquet venue in Bonita Springs goes according to plan, we’ll all be laughing with him.
Best dressed: If Sonya Sawyer is at an event, you better believe all eyes will be on her. The HomeTech CFO and area philanthropist always seems to one-up herself with a dazzling sense of style.
Teacher’s pet: Has there been a shinier culinary star in Southwest Florida for the past 18 months than Brian Roland? And all this after he left the restaurant biz. The chef/caterer has become the go-to guy for charity events and private parties.
Most outrageous: He’s huge-ly entertaining, annoying, successful. The word you choose to describe Billy Fucillo might depend on how you feel about his always-overthe- top advertising. But you can’t argue with his results.
Most likely to be famous: Priscila Navarro has already played Carnegie Hall and won international piano competitions, and she’s not even old enough to buy a drink. The Florida Gulf Coast University senior is certain to take the classical world by storm.