Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades
By Rick Ferren
Naples speaks in subdued pastel tones of the good life comfortable wealth makes possible. [Fig. 18, Fig. 19] Whether or not the southwest Gulf Coast city of 25,000 really does have more millionaires per capita than any other Florida city is a matter for the chambers of commerce here and in Palm Beach to decide. Likewise, the claim of "Golf Capitol of the World" might be a point for discussion between Naples and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But petty numbers notwithstanding, Naples carries itself with an unmistakable air of class and style few places can rival.
Many of the most celebrated icons of New York, Beverly Hills, and European haute couture, gifts, and art are represented in the Fifth Avenue-Third Street Corridor. Tiffany, Dior, Chanel, Gucci, etc. are elbow-to-elegant-elbow in a downtown district called Historic Old Naples. "Old" is relatively speaking: The salmon, terra cotta, and lemon-hued buildings look as though Disney put them up last week, but there are some bona fide old-timers, a least by South Florida standards.
The Mercantile Building, the city's oldest surviving landmark, went up in 1919 as the town's first grocery store. The Old Naples Building, circa 1920, was the first drug store, bus depot, town hall, and post office.
Like many Florida coastal towns, Naples came about in the late 1800s as nothing more fashionable than a haphazard fishing hamlet hugging the mangrove swamps and turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Accessible only by boat, the natives drowsed contentedly in their isolated paradise of beaches and sand dunes, palmettos, baldcypress, and mangroves. The few adventurous tourists, mostly big-game fishermen, stepped off their yachts at the municipal pier and rarely ventured much farther inland.
The scene began to change in 1926, when Barron G. Collier extended his railroad south from Fort Myers and Tampa to Naples and the new county that was named in his honor. Another leap forward occurred after World War II, when affluent Northerners discovered Naples and began building lavish estates that fronted palm-lined boulevards and backed onto waterways perfect for parking their yachts.
In the 1950 U.S. census, Naples counted only about 5,000 residents. Since then, the Florida land boom has barreled in like a typhoon and turned the once-quiet haven upside down. Collier County is today one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. More than 200,000 now call it home and more are arriving every day. Millions of tourists swell the population every winter, and like other burgeoning areas of South Florida, new subdivisions, shopping centers, resort hotels, and golf courses are putting intense pressure on swamps and other wilderness areas.
Twenty miles to the south, the well-groomed Marco Island was not overlooked by the influx of monied individuals. Still only 48 percent developed, the island displays a combination of multimillion dollar homes and condominiums, four-star resort hotel complexes, and all the shopping and dining opportunities that attend such places.