Thunderous waves crash against sand as white and as soft as powdered sugar on the beaches of Naples and Marco Island, Florida. Then, within seconds, seashells tinkle like wind chimes as the powerful water pulls them back below the surface.
Brown pelicans alight on the pier while dolphins frolic in the Gulf of Mexico. The water looks impossibly blue (the BP oil spill 800 miles away never reached this area). The scene feels blissfully distant from the slushy parking lots and salt-coated cars that define workaday Midwest winters. And yet, Interstate-75 is all Midwesterners need to find themselves vacationing in this sunny, 80-degree oasis.
Travelers from New England, New York and New Jersey flood Florida’s Atlantic Coast, thanks to Interstate-95. But the Gulf Coast? That belongs to people from Michigan and Ohio, who can hop on a single road and find themselves dining alfresco—in February—along Naples’ tony Fifth Avenue South for the cost of a few tanks of gas and an overnight in Knoxville, Tennessee.
When Ohio native Thomas Edison wintered just north of here 90 years ago, the inventor brought royal palm trees (he considered himself a botanist, too). The tropical umbrellas now line the streets of downtown, where pastel stucco buildings house pricey art galleries and mannequins color boutique windows with yellows, pinks and oranges. In Campiello Ristorante and Bar (campiello.damico.com), white tablecloths provide a crisp tableau for outstanding Italian dishes by owners who hail from Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
A few miles south of the multimillion-dollar homes lining Naples’ waterfront, the wealthy on Marco stay at the sprawling Marco Island Marriott (marcoislandmarriott.com). Rooms can run $800 a night this time of year. But visitors staying at budget spots can enjoy the hotel’s lavish spa, inventive Kurrents restaurant and shelling cruises.
For Wisconsinite Kaye Frye, the decision to come to the Gulf Coast was easy. “I couldn’t handle it anymore—the gray skies; the crunch, crunch, crunch of winter,” she says. “It’s so beautiful here. What’s not to like?”
1 The locals roll up on retro-style bicycles (everyone seems to have them, and no one locks them up) for hot breakfasts served alfresco at 5th Avenue Coffee Company (5thavncoffeeco.com).
2 Naples’ shops look especially pretty at night, when twinkle lights brighten the trees. Our faves: Pucci and Catana Luxury Pet Boutique (pucciandcatana.com), Kilwin’s ice cream (part of the Michigan chain, kilwins.com) and FantaSea Coastal Home (shopfantasea.com).
4 Alligators line US-41—the bus route taken before an airboat ride with Everglades Half-Day Tours, departing twice daily from Naples. The mangrove forests feel ethereal, and you can even hold a baby alligator for a photo op (everglades-excursions.com).
5 On a budget? The Olde Marco Island Inn and Suites’ roomy spaces are dated but comfy (from $214; oldemarcoinn.com). And the on-site Bistro Soleil serves the region’s best French dishes (bistrosoleil.net).
To plan your trip: (800) 688-3600; paradisecoast.com