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Ritz-Carlton, Naples: Best Hotel in the U.S.

I am a critic in every way. I hate to travel and I am hard to please, but even I could not resist the Ritz-Carlton, Naples. I was reminded over and over again of the way I felt the first time I stayed at the Hotel Ritz in Paris—as if I had been transported to another, finer world and wanted to apply for citizenship. Here are some notes from a recent visit.

Early one morning, in the hotel's club lounge (I had been out running and had stopped for a cup of coffee), I began to talk to a golf professional who was there with his daughter and his wife. He wanted to know how he could motivate them to run. We moved on to the political problems of eastern Europe. The club concierge, who was from Yugoslavia, joined the conversation. Soon the wife and daughter appeared, both needing exercise about as much as a young Marilyn Monroe did (the wife's legs belonged in a museum). We talked about ways to prevent skin cancer. An English teacher came across the room and pulled up a chair, and we all ran to our rooms to bring back new sunscreens and protective Solumbra clothing to show to one another. We sat around for half an hour, forgetting all the things we had planned to do. The hotel had turned into a cruise ship.

I went to my room to put on the red bathing suit I had bought in the pro shop. Everyone has certain ways of judging a resort, and for me it is always the pool. This one is separated from the beach by a line of tall palm trees and a carefully tended patch of mangrove swamp crossed by wooden bridges. There's an alligator under the bridges, but I did not stop to look for it. The largest lizards I want in my paradise are chameleons.

The pool itself, designed to seem like a small lagoon, rivals any I have ever known. You can swim around or do laps without feeling as if you're exercising. The water is warm, and whatever chemicals they use in it do not affect your eyes. One morning I split a toenail doing back somersaults in shallow water. Five minutes later I was sitting on a chair in the beauty parlor getting a pedicure from a Honduran woman who brewed fresh coffee for me, soothed my toenail fears, and gave me a first-person account of the drug wars in Miami.

Every beach has a personality, and you must walk on one for several days to discover it. Though it took a while for the gentle Gulf of Mexico to make me forget Florida's wild Atlantic side, it finally won me with shells. Every morning the tide comes in and deposits beautiful small shells on the beach. I remembered a friend who had come home from Sanibel Island, which is in this part of Florida, raving about the shells. Now I knew what she was raving about.

The first night I was in the hotel I met some children who were putting messages in bottles to send out to sea. On my last morning, I found one of the bottles washed up on the beach. I thought of opening it and writing to the child, but I decided that would be cheating. I gave it to the young men in the beach cabana, and they promised to take it farther out on their next sailing excursion.

What else needs telling?The pianos are Steinways, and five pianists take turns playing them, including a lovely woman who knows all the songs from all the great Broadway musicals. One night in the lobby she could tell I was singing to myself, and she played to me for an hour. I had forgotten that I know every word to every song from every Broadway musical I ever loved.

The chef in The Grill insisted on making crËme bršlée when I requested it, even though it wasn't on the menu. When I returned the next night, the waiter brought out a small plate of the risotto I had praised the night before.

My first impression had been that this is truly an American hotel. The handsome young people who run the place are so bright-eyed and eager. As the days went by I changed my mind: There is a distinctly European flavor also. César Ritz would be proud of his transplanted legacy. Nothing was overdone. The beauty and charm are subtle, willing, hopeful.

Downside, mosquitos. I managed to avoid them by covering up in the early morning and after dark and wearing a fabulous new fruit-based insect repellent from the hotel gift shop. I came home without a bite but other, less vigilant guests were not so lucky. Naples is, after all, built on a mangrove swamp. The city has a Director of Mosquito Control, so that will tell you the extent of the problem.

The morning I left, I had my first Shiatsu massage. Shiatsu is supposed to balance the energies in the body, and, although I am skeptical about such claims, it did do something for my spirits, and made me very calm as I spent the rest of the day traveling home through three airports and a storm.

The Ritz-Carlton, Naples 280 Vanderbilt Beach Rd., Naples; 800/241-3333 or 941/598-3300, fax 941/598-6690; doubles from $245.

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