Life in Naples is quiet and gentle. People eat early and drive courteously. Vic Damone and Frank Sinatra can always be found on the radio. There are art galleries on Third Street and coffee bars on Fifth Avenue, but not so many that you can't see them all in an afternoon. Even the Gulf barely makes waves, though what a beautiful beach it is, with sand as fine and white as in the Bahamas. Quiet, definitely, and every day at sunset, when you walk on the beach, you remember why you chose the west coast of Florida.
The Ritz-Carlton put Naples on the resort map when it opened in 1985. The Registry has also had a loyal following. Now there's a second Ritz, as well as the remodeled LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort, open again after a long absence. Here's what the mood was on my last visit.
RITZ-CARLTON, NAPLES The Ritz-Carlton Naples has always been the Ritz that defines the Ritz. This is where Ritz culture was refined into a world in which all men are "Sir" and all drinks are libations. Eighteen years after it opened, there's still no other place quite like it. Where else can you find four live bands playing on a Tuesday night?Where else can a "gentleman" ring the "butler" for a Cigar and Cognac Bath?
The English manor-style rooms are starting to look rather eighties, with their choke-a-horse window treatments, but they are still well thought out and supremely comfortable. One of the nicest touches is the chest of drawers with a grog tray by the door: you drop your key and feel you've come home. Ritz innovations that once seemed sybaritic—the marble shower, the embroidered robe, the water closet—don't have the same impact they once did; we're all so much more spoiled than we were in 1985. But everything you could possibly want is there, and if it's not, you can be certain some "lady of housekeeping" will get it for you.
Expect a lot of pageantry at night. Drinks in the lobby, then dinner, then more drinks and dancing at the Ritz Club—the men all wear ties, and you even spot the occasional long dress. For dinner there are two grand choices. The Grill has a steak-house menu and looks like a Ralph Lauren shop, all wood paneling and roaring fireplace. Feign interest in the fish and then order what you really want: the blue-cheese soufflé, the 20-ounce porterhouse, and the chocolate bread pudding with rum raisin ice cream. The alternative is the Dining Room, a Continental fantasy. After a long consultation with a breathless menu in florid script (will it be the Scottish Hare à la Royale or the Fig-Leaf-and-Bacon-Wrapped Partridge tonight, dear?), you are hovered over for hours by what sometimes feels like the entire staff. Whichever restaurant you choose, the food is excellent and the whole room seems to sigh in unison as the pianist segues from "Days of Wine and Roses" to "Isn't It Romantic?"
In 2001 an immense spa was added. It's what you would hope for from a Ritz: no celestial hooey, but an attractive Anglophile setting, high-quality services, and a well-dressed staff that keeps a respectful distance. I had a Therapeutic Massage from someone who looked like an English teacher, put classical music on the stereo, and did superb work. Arrive at least an hour before your treatment so you can swim, soak, percolate, moisturize, meditate, and generally enjoy this impressive place.
Either you like all the pomp and circumstance, or you don't. If you come here, you have to really throw yourself into it, bringing lots of clothes, ordering that last brandy. On the other hand, if Ritz-Carlton Lite is what you want, consider the company's new Golf Resort.
280 Vanderbilt Beach Rd.; 800/241-3333 or 239/598-3300; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $249.
RITZ-CARLTON GOLF RESORT, NAPLES No longer can you simply say you're headed to the Ritz in Naples. Now you have to specify which one: the original hotel on the Gulf or the new Golf Resort three miles inland, where the piney heart of central Florida begins.
The old Ritz is definitely the alpha dog. It has the spa and the beach—but this Ritz has Tiburón, an esteemed golf course designed by Greg Norman. In a novel arrangement, when you register in one hotel, you're registered in the other, and everybody shuttles between the two. You can eat pasta to classical guitar at Lemonia, the lovely Tuscan restaurant here, then have a nightcap and a fox-trot at the Ritz Club at the old hotel. You can swim in the Golf Resort's wonderfully deep pool, or head off to a blue canvas shelter on the Gulf beach. They know your name wherever you show up.
The Ritz concept has been sharpened considerably here for modern eyes. Overtones of the Raj and Barbados and everything British colonial are strong. It's all very masculine. The valets are dressed in plus fours and newsboy caps, like Leonardo di Caprio in costume for his latest film.
The iron railings in the lobby bar are made of crisscrossed golf clubs. And in lieu of dining and dancing, nightlife revolves around The Bar, with its pair of billiard tables, mahogany and leather, and chessboard ready for play. How manly!
The 295 rooms have less voluminous window treatments and a handsomer tone: an armoire detailed in crotch mahogany, a chest of drawers decorated with cane, a desk chair with a woven-leather back, a golfer as the base of a lamp, pictures of duffers on the walls. The classic
Ritz bathroom, with compartmented everything, has been improved as well, with twin sinks and a longer, deeper tub. You won't want your shave to end.
You may or may not miss the Ritz-Carlton dress code, loosened up here significantly. People appear in running shoes in the lobby, even after 6 p.m., and the occasional conference badge will sit down beside you, which wouldn't happen at the other Ritz. One night, a German soccer team, no slaves to Resort Casual, held court in The Bar wearing tracksuits, but their electrical charge was such, nobody called the manager in protest.
Something tells me that the hard-core resort crowd will still head to the original Ritz for the beach and a place to wear their St. John, while this new hotel will largely be a conference destination, and popular with couples and friends looking for shorter golf getaways. No, you can't watch the sun set over the Gulf here. But you can watch it rise over those towering pines shrouded in mist, and that's almost as beautiful a sight.
2600 Tiburón Dr.; 800/241-3333 or 239/593-2000; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $189.
LAPLAYA BEACH & GOLF RESORT Imagine the best hotel on South Beach, eliminate any pressure to be fabulous, and you'll have a picture of LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort.
The original, Googie-ish building dates from 1968, when it was the grand hotel of a much sleepier Naples. Noble House Hotels & Resorts closed the property for nine months in 2001, and when it reopened the following January, it was an entirely new place. LaPlaya has 189 rooms, 141 of them with their toes practically in the sand. You cannot get closer to the beach: when they say "oceanfront" at this hotel, they mean it. Everything revolves around a meandering pool complex, which makes you long for a Cosmo and a 500-page paperback. SpaTerre is new, too—not huge, but sparkling and thoughtful and just different enough, with blue toile on the tables and a treatment menu inspired by Thailand and Indonesia. As at most resorts, the conference business is courted heavily, but in an arrangement that works nicely: the meeting rooms are across the street from the main buildings, so you won't find yourself swept up in someone else's sales rally.
The phrase Old Florida is overused these days as a promise of charm, but LaPlaya comes close to the romantic ideal. It's pretty (much prettier than Old Florida was, I'm certain), with fresh greens and warm yellows, mahogany furniture, bamboo-patterned bedcovers, and four-poster beds under gauzy hangings tied with ribbons and bows. Each room has a balcony, and even the standard rooms are as large as junior suites. Add the Gulf view, and you have everything you've come to Florida for.
One restaurant does it all here. Baleen begins indoors with mirrored banquettes and monkeys climbing plaster torchères, then spills out through big doors to a terrace with tables overlooking the gorgeous beach, and ends with a few more tables for cocktails where you'd be happy to be barefoot. Local fish with Asian flavors dominate the menu. You'll find seared sea scallops everywhere, but at Baleen, with lo mein-noodle cake and scallion-miso butter, they get it right.
The head chef of Noble House, Jeff Bowles, also understands the appeal of taking something American and familiar and standing it on its head. Even if you don't stay at LaPlaya, come for lunch on a balmy day, ask to be seated outdoors, and order the chopped BLT salad. You'll forget that the rest of the world exists.
9891 Gulf Shore Dr.; 800/237-6883 or 239/597-3123; www.laplayaresort.com; doubles from $229.
THE REGISTRY: REINVENTING AN OLD FAVORITE
They're spending pots of money over at the Registry Resort & Club, on the long road to restoring its glory. The 474 rooms in its 18-story tower are definitely off to a good start, newly redecorated in a honeyed Florida look, with Fortuny-style bedcovers, Moderne silver-leaf mirrors, and sexy Art Nouveau hardware. The new marble-and-Fortuny bathrooms are winners, too, with soaking tubs, stall showers, and twin sinks.
But there are some other things about the Registry you need to know as well: The hotel is separated from the Gulf by a vast mangrove preserve, so the water views are not as immediate as you might hope. "Mangrove preserve" sounds romantic, but you'll think twice before taking that sunset stroll. There's a new swimming-pool complex with a water slide and cabanas, but its scene isn't quite a scene yet; it has neither the worldly airs of the Ritz-Carlton nor the sexy promise of LaPlaya. And where's the spa, you ask?A new one is expected to open in the near future; for now, you probably won't want to use the Registry facilities.
Lafite, a Continental restaurant with a harpist, was perhaps too grand for its own good: I found it closed at 9 p.m. for lack of business. Everybody was over at the Brass Pelican, the fish restaurant, which produced an acceptable meal (rum butter-glazed Chilean sea bass with cinnamon-spiced plantains) in what aspired to be a sophisticated resort atmosphere. My poor waitress lost that battle early on, however, when I asked if there were any specials that night. "No," she responded. "Everything is full price."
Doubles from $139. 475 Seagate Dr.; 800/247-9810 or 239/597-3232; www.registryresort.com