When Jennifer and I decided to squeeze in a short two-week Roadtreking adventure to Florida, we had one goal only in mind: To escape the bitter cold of Michigan and get warm.
As I write this at 9 a.m. from the picnic table of our spot at the Naples-Marco Island KOA in far southwest Florida, I can say the warming up part of our mission has been accomplished. It’s already 74 degrees and headed to about 83 today.
It must be challenging to be a weatherman down here. It is always in the 80’s and warm. And sunny.
We love this part of Florida. We have been here many times before. When our kids were young, we rented condos on Marco Island for many years. And Jennifer and I have stayed in condos at Naples, too. But this is our second trip here in our RV in as many years.
Last year, our destination was the Naples Motorcoach Resort on US 41 just east of Collier Boulevard. Highway 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail, leads to the Everglades, just a couple miles down the road. Collier Boulevard south leads to the Isles of Capri and Marco Island, for boating and fishing. That resort, though is for Class A motorhomes only. We stayed there in our Class B under a special media exemption because we were doing some reporting about the place.
This year, we booked a stay at the Naples-Marco Island KOA, located just off Collier Boulevard at the northern end of the Ten Thousand Islands on the Gulf coast of Florida and the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
The KOA, like most KOAs we’ve found, is clean, neat, quiet and friendly. Instead of being surrounded by Class A skyscrapers like last year down the road, this time we are surrounded by all manner of tents, pop-ups, Class A’s and C’s, fifth wheels and at least one other Roadtrek, a late model RS Adventurous with Quebec tags.
There’s something egalitarian and appealing about a KOA, all sorts of people and nationalities, young, old, lots of families. No snootiness, maybe a little tacky at times with excessive RV lighting and kitschy decorations, but real and genuine and welcoming. We prefer boondocking in the wilderness but that’s hard to do in tourist thick Southwest Florida. So a KOA it is.
We could have saved $80 a night and stayed free in the Walmart parking lot on nearby Collier Boulevard but this KOA has access to Henderson Creek, from which you can rent a kayak and explore the Rookery Bay Reserve and on to the backwaters around the Isles of Capri
The reserve represents one of the few remaining undisturbed mangrove estuaries in North America. An amazing world exists within the 110,000 acres of nearly pristine mangrove forest, uplands and protected waters of Rookery Bay. A myriad of wildlife, including 150 species of birds and many threatened and endangered animals, thrive in the estuarine environment and surrounding upland hammocks and scrub found within its borders.
Indeed, the yellow shirt KOA guide who led us to our campsite told us wildlife was very abundant and to be sure to take everything in at night because bears frequently roam the campground and, a couple times a year, someone spots one of the black panthers that prowl the nearby Everglades. Oh yeah, there are also snakes, including – so a neighbor camper told me last night – a sighting last year of an 18-foot long Burmese Python, an invasive new species which now slither throughout the glades.
But another species of wildlife is more bothersome: No-see-ums. You may not see ‘um but you sure can feel ‘um when they bite.
I had to abandon the picnic table to finish this post, retreating to the Roadtrek. It was like some bug hollered “Supper’s here!” inside the swamp and swarms of no-see-ums discovered me.
No problem because we don’t plan to sit around the campsite much. The attractions in the area are many.
According to the Naples Historical Society, the area was long the hunting and fishing grounds of the home of the Caloosa Indians. It wasn’t until the 1860’s that the first white settlers, Roger Gordon and Joe Wiggins, arrived in the area. A river and two inlets still bear their names.
Throughout the 1870’s and ’80’s, magazine and newspaper stories telling of the area’s mild climate and abundant fish and game likened it to the sunny Italian peninsula. The name Naples caught on when promoters described the bay as “surpassing the bay in Naples, Italy.”
In 1887, a group of wealthy Kentuckians, led by Walter N. Haldeman, owner of the Louisville Courier-Journal, purchased virtually the entire town of Naples. One of the first improvements Haldeman and the Naples Company made was to build a pier 600 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. The unusual “T” shape allowed large ships to dock easily. Despite being destroyed and rebuilt three times, the pier’s “T” shape remains.
Naples quickly gained a reputation as a winter resort. Social life revolved around the Naples Hotel, which played host to celebrities such as Rose Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, and Gary Cooper. As the town of Naples went up, so did the price of property. The cost of a beachfront lot soon reached $125.
In 1911, Barron G. Collier, who had made his fortune in streetcar advertising, visited nearby Useppa Island. He was so taken with the area that he bought over a million acres of untouched swampland – including most of Naples. Collier believed that Florida’s west coast could enjoy the same boom that the east coast was experiencing in the 1920’s; but first it was necessary to bring in road and railroads.
Based on Collier’s promise to help build the Tamiami Trail, in 1923 the state legislature created Collier County, of which Naples is the county seat. Collier spent more than $1 million of his own money to construct the Tamiami Trail, which opened in 1926 as the only paved highway linking the state’s two largest cities – Tampa and Miami.
Collier died before he could see his dream come true, but come true it did. Today, Naples enjoys unparalleled prosperity. And the area’s unrivaled sport fishing, hunting, boating, sun bathing, and beach combing attract people today just as it did a century ago.
Downtown Naples is known for impressive shops and sidewalk cafes, chic bistros and gourmet delis that serve up lunch, snacks and pastries. Fine and casual dining options are available at the restaurants located on Naples’ fashionable Fifth Avenue South, Third Street South, and Bayfront. Dress well if you are heading downtown. This is high end, sophisticated shopping and the tourists here are well-heeled and look it.
Parking downtown is hard to find for an automobile, even harder for a Class B RV.
One must visit place is the historic Naples Pier, located on the Gulf of Mexico at the West end of 12th Avenue South. On-street parking is supplemented by a parking lot one block East, with additional parking at beach ends on the avenues to the north and south. It’s easier to park a car here, but still challenging to find space for a small RV.
The Naples Pier is a favorite location for sightseers and fishermen with plenty of space to cast a line. It features restrooms, a concession stand with a covered eating area and beach supplies. Fishing from the pier does not require a fishing license, as the City of Naples has purchased a bulk fishing license for the pier. The beach at the pier also features volleyball nets, and is one of the best places to catch a spectacular Naples sunset.
If fishing is your thing, you will want a license. I bought a seven day out of state license for $37.
My brother-in-law is a snowbird and keeps a boat at the Isles of Capri Marina, at the southern end of Collier Boulevard. The Isles of Capri are adjacent to Marco Island and 20 minutes from Naples’ downtown. It is a waterfront community with canals and mangrove islands and backwater kayak trails that lead to the Marco River and the gulf. On it’s northern side it is surrounded by the the wetlands that are part of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Sanctuary. It’s about six miles across the swamp to our spot at the KOA.
From the Isles of Capri Marina, we boated around the islands to the river and then out to the gulf where we anchored on a spit of sand and spent two great days fishing. In these waters where the river dumps into the gulf are all sorts of salt water fish, including shark, speckled trout, redfish, amberjack snook, tarpon and big game fish. Our target for this trip was one of the tastiest: Sheepshead.
We caught them on both days we fish, though none were over the 12 inch keeper limit. No matter, on light tackle, even the small one fight like marlin.
As usual, we drive off for day trips in our Roadtrek, returning to the campground to spend the night. Tai is not with us on this trip. He’s a sled dog and does not do well in the Forida heat and humidity.
Still, as we walk around the campground and see others with their pets, we miss his gentle spirit and feel just a tad guilty having left him with dog sitters back home in Michigan.