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At Play on the Calusa Coast

INSIDE: Where to Play; Where to Stay

The first people to prowl the pine barrens of southwest Florida with sticks in hand were members of a tribe known as the Calusa, whose origins trace back to 500 bc. By the time the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, the Calusa numbered at least ten thousand strong and used flotillas of dugouts to rule a domain extending from Ft. Myers south to the Ten Thousand Islands and east to the town of Immokalee. Their tribal capital was a canal-moated island called Calos, not far from the city of Naples, the twenty-first-century recreational capital where Florida's past and present are now converging to create a luxurious and delightfully laid-back golfing future.

Naples is perched beside the Gulf of Mexico just a few miles northwest of the Everglades. It was until quite recently a sleepy little fishing village that linked the far reaches of civilization with the last great remaining wilderness via a two-lane highway called the Tamiami Trail. In 1930, the first golf course was opened at the Naples Beach Hotel. But even though several private golfing communities sprang up following World War II, Naples and southwest Florida were generally bypassed by the wealthy in favor of more prestigious resort meccas on the state's east coast.

All of that began to change in the early eighties with the opening of Southwest Florida International Airport, outside Fort Myers, and the completion of Interstate 75, which barrels down from the Georgia border. Two world-class resort hotels, the Ritz-Carlton and the Registry, sprang up shortly afterward as well as an upscale shopping-and-restaurant district rivaling that of Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. And though cultural amenities are beginning to flourish, the population density (37,000 in Naples proper, 260,000 in surrounding Collier County) remains relatively low compared to the I-95 corridor along Florida's east coast.

First-class golf is finally blooming as well. Naples boasts close to sixty courses, and half a dozen more are being planned. Although the majority are private clubs or the centerpieces of gated enclaves, there is also a tantalizing new assortment of publicly accessible tracks, most of which are owned by resort hotels with the capital to acquire prime acreage and the talent of big-name architects like Robert Trent Jones Sr., Rees Jones, Ron Garl, Greg Norman and Lee Trevino.

If the soul of real estate consists of three elements--location, location, location--Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, the area's first eighteen-hole course, claims spiritual supremacy. Nestled between the Tamiami Trail and the Gulf, it is the only resort where guests can literally tumble out onto the beach on one side or onto the links on the other.


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