The good life and the wildlife

Visit Naples, Fla., for its cypress groves, gorgeous orchids and teddy bear museums. Stay for the seven-mile crescent beach of pine and palm.


Burt Wolf
August 17, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

At the turn of the last century, the wealthy families of North America began building winter homes in Florida. The Northeast's rich and flashy built their homes on Florida's east coast. The Midwest's rich and never-to-be-flashy built their homes on Florida's west coast. They came here to Naples and constructed a community of quiet luxury.

Today, Naples is one of the richest and fastest-growing cities in America. But because it sits on a strip of land that runs between the Gulf of Mexico and the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades, the residents are deeply involved in protecting their natural environment, despite the rapid growth. In other words, this Florida city loves the good life but it is just as concerned with its wildlife.

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Naples got its start in 1885, when Walter Haldeman, the owner of the Louisville (Ky.) Courier newspaper, sailed down the west coast of Florida. He was looking for a healthy spot to build a winter home for his family. At the time, the lower west coast of Florida was almost totally deserted. There was no one in Naples -- no houses, no tents, no Native Americans. There wasn't even a Naples! But there was a beautiful seven-mile crescent beach lined with pine trees and palm trees. Haldeman and a group of his friends bought the land and drew up the plans for Naples.

When Haldeman began executing his plan to build a community in the impenetrable wilderness of southern Florida, one of the most famous things he built was the Naples Beach Hotel and Pier. The pier was essential because in those days the only way you could get to Naples was by boat. The hotel was essential because Mrs. Haldeman was getting lonely and the only way that Mr. Haldeman was going to keep her in Naples was to build a hotel so her friends could come down and visit.

Today, the descendant of the original property is called the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. It's right on the beach, and since 1946 it has been owned and run by the Watkins family. Mike Watkins is the president, and his objective is to keep the hotel's local flavor and maintain one of its star attractions -- a greenhouse filled with 5,000 orchids. Built right in the middle of the hotel's 18-hole golf course, the indoor orchid garden supplies flowers for the hotel and also serves as classroom for orchid-growing lessons that the hotel offers. Marty Zewalk is the resident teacher and expert on orchids, "We have over 150,000 hybrid varieties, each with unique shapes and colors. And unique names, too, like Dancing Lady, Donkey Ears, Butterfly Orchid -- there's even one called the Chocolate Orchid, named for the fact that it smells amazingly like chocolate."

Another place to see things growing in Naples is at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, just outside of town. Corkscrew is 11,000 acres of protected wilderness, a giant ecosystem on the edge of the Florida Everglades. It's owned and operated by the National Audubon Society and considered one of their most important projects.

Ed Carlson discovered Corkscrew when he was a teenager. He was awestruck by the wild beauty of the place. Since then he has devoted his life to protecting the region. Today, he is the manager of the sanctuary, but he describes himself as the "Chief Swamp Rat." Explaining why people come to Corkscrew, Carlson says proudly, "It's got it all ... Corkscrew is a world-class natural resource with old-growth forest, abundant wildlife and wetlands. Because it's located where the tropics and the temperate zones meet, we've got a wide range of beautiful plants, plus the largest stand of old-grove, virgin, unlogged cypress trees anywhere in the world." Cypress is an extremely valuable wood because it offers beautiful material for building and for trim-work, and it's very rot-resistant. For that reason, cypress was clear-cut by the industry throughout the United States. The Audubon Society worked to save Corkscrew's cypress grove because it provides an important nesting area for certain birds. Some say the birds saved the trees but the trees have also saved the birds.

Visitors to Corkscrew can also learn a few important survival tips, like how to spot a broadleaf green plant nicknamed Alligator Flag. A relative of the banana, these leafy plants grow in the deepest, wettest areas of the swamp -- the same areas that alligators call home. If you're looking for an alligator -- or to avoid one -- that plant that would be a good warning.

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For another look at the wilder side of Naples, there's nearby Caribbean Gardens. This lush 52-acre sanctuary for unusual plants and animals was created in 1919 as a private garden with 3,000 species of tropical vegetation. In the '60s, Larry and Nancy Jane Tetzlaff, well known leaders of wildlife expeditions, brought their collection of rare animals to the gardens. These days, their sons Dave and Tim run the park.

What's most unusual about Caribbean Gardens is their use of video monitors. Visitors first see a film of an animal active in its natural habitat, then they see the real thing. The video system is a great tool, says Dave Tetzlaff, "because we live in a media age where people want instant images. For a long time when we did educational shows here, we simply described things to people. But when they actually look at it they walk away saying, 'Wow, we've never seen anything like this before' ... you can talk all day about how a leopard jumps out of a tree, but when people view it up on the screen the result is like dynamite. Combine that with live animals and you're giving people a very unique experience."

Another special feature at the Caribbean Gardens is the primate expedition cruise. Started in 1992 when the Tetzlaff brothers renovated a group of islands to create a habitat for primates, the cruise takes guests on a boat trip through those islands, bringing them within a few watery feet of the animals in their natural habitat. It's one of the biggest attractions at the gardens.

Somewhere between the wildlife and the good life in Naples lies the Teddy Bear Museum. It was set up to house the 1,500-teddy bear collection of Mrs. Francis Pew Hayes. Her collection began in 1984 when her grandson gave her a bear as a Christmas present. It turned grandma into an "arctophile," somebody who loves teddy bears. Since then the collection has grown to over 3,500 bears and each year about 50,000 people stop in for a bear hug. Today, the museum is run by Mrs. Hayes' son, George "Brownie" Black, an expert on teddy bear lore. The teddy bear got its name because in 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt took a hunting trip for bears in Mississippi. He didn't find one to shoot, but the guides found one and invited him out. And he refused to shoot it. Because of that incident a cartoon of a bear was drawn by Clifford Berriman of the Washington Star, and thereafter whenever the paper did a cartoon, the bear was featured. It became known as "Teddy's bear."

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The toy industry first introduced the bear as a boy's companion, similar to a girl's doll. Very quickly girls learned that it was a bit more durable than their porcelain dolls, so they started playing with bears also. And so began arctophilia.

Most Naples visitors come because it is considered a vacation paradise. Then they go home and face a different reality. But that didn't work for Walter Wiesmueller. He came to Naples to vacation and decided that he preferred paradise as a permanent address. So he moved his glass-making factory from Bavaria to the beach in Florida, and he named it Glasparadies.

Glasparadies has a collection of glass that dates back over 4,000 years, and includes "Farmer's Silver." German peasants could not afford real silver; glass blowers developed a technique for blowing a little silver dust into the glass. They ended up with objects that looked like they were made of silver, but were much less expensive. Walter brought examples of hundreds of different types of glass from Germany to Naples.

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To see the other things this city is famous for, find your way to Third Street, where people enjoy getting around on bicycles. It's part of the the city's historic shopping district, and it's made up of flower-lined streets, one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants and galleries. A few blocks down is Fifth Avenue, Naples' official Main Street, which offers elegant shopping, good eating and Wynn's Food Market. Wynn's has been a family-run fixture in Naples for over 50 years. And for just as long, it's been famous for its coconut cake (deemed by locals to be the best in town).

But if it's a taste of the good life you want, climb aboard the 90-foot Naples Royal Princess, a yacht that will take you to look at the waterfront homes of the wealthy. The homes in view range in price from $15 million to $33 million -- at last survey. More important, though, is that the Princess cruise puts you smack in the middle of the story of Naples. One side of the river is palatial and pricey, the other side is protected and priceless. It shows the good life and the wildlife, and how Naples' most important challenge is the balance between both.


Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt Wolf.com.

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