Florida’s East and West Coasts could be compared to two cousins. They’re undoubtedly related, yet markedly distinct. While the East is a coast of beauty both natural and manufactured, it seems the West is one of one of natural joy.
Natural joy is easy to come by at the Ritz-Carlton Naples. Nestled in a shorefront causeway of mangrove on the sugar-sand Vanderbilt Beach in North Naples, the resort property, now in its 30th year, has worn its age well. Much like the twin dichotomy of Florida’s East and West Coasts, the similar opposing yet equal forces of indigenous environment and carefully tended resort grounds has been handily mastered here, with the transition from well-scrubbed patio tile and filtered swimming pools to the headier muck and musk of the estuarine flora seeming effortless, almost harmonious, and decidedly Floridian.
The resort was built by Ritz-Carlton in the days when the brand was ascendant in North America, with a handful of city center locations and just one other resort property, so in a way, the Ritz-Carlton Naples became something of a brand bellwether for the resort developments to follow over the next several decades. The accolades have been coming nearly as long as the hotel has been open. 2015 marks the 25th time the hotel has won the Five-Star Award from Forbes Travel Guide, and the hotel has maintained a AAA Five Diamond rating since 1987. Only four hotels in North America have held the AAA Five Diamond rating longer, and two of those are also Ritz-Carlton properties.
There’s more to a luxury resort hotel, however, than meeting an exhaustive checklist of exacting service and facility standards. The employees of the hotel (“Ladies and Gentlemen” in Ritz-Carlton parlance) were notable standouts in the hospitality profession. The service provided was warm and professional in the manner one might expect from a luxury brand, but not as overtly formal as a city center property might be – the tone and tenor seems tailor-matched to a more leisurely paced guest.
Design is notably boundary spanning as the hotel’s spaces are refreshed in a more regionally focused update from the classic elegance that Ritz-Carlton once seemed to apply to all properties throughout its portfolio—masculine dark woods and royal blues could be found in hotels from Dallas to Denver—but in Naples there’s quite an ascendance of a lighter design palate of teals, yellows, and creams that are more at home in a beachfront resort, which help to impart a more relaxed elegance than in years past.
There’s a fine collection of dining outlets in the hotel, each with distinctive features. Dusk is a modern sushi bar with a cozy lounge atmosphere in a vaguely far eastern nautical style that’s clubby but still intimate for drinks, sushi and appetizers before dinner or well into the evening. Terrazza is an exercise in upscale comfort with a friendly staff that know the wine list backwards and forwards, with some well-considered pairing recommendations. It’s unclear whether the tagliatelle with lamb ragout is a core menu item that remains throughout the year, but it’s certainly not to be missed. For folks who prefer to dine like Italians, they’ll cut the pasta portion in half and serve it before an entrée.
There’s also Gulf-front dining at Gumbo Limbo, which is a favorite with both hotel guests and beachgoers, so it’s helpful to go early to get a good table. Notable here are luscious grouper tacos and sandwiches, coconut shrimp with a fabulous orange horseradish dipping sauce, and a wide selection of the fruity rum based cocktail that it’s hard to enjoy a beachfront meal without. Listen closely to the specials, for they’re usually winners – a recent special was a fried seafood fritter which the server explained was inspired by the chef’s childhood in the Caribbean; these yielded a crispy exterior and succulent creamy center.
The Ritz-Carlton Spa was one of the first spas in a resort hotel in North America, and was added into a separately constructed annex rather than shoehorned into an existing space. The result is a spacious facility that spans three levels and includes a salon, fitness center, kid’s club and private sun deck and pool. The Jasmine and Hibiscus body buff is a relaxing cocktail of pink grapefruit and a floral exfoliant followed by a fragrant body butter that leaves one feeling serene and luxuriously pampered. Although the facility is quite large, treatments are exclusive to hotel guests, so the sanctuary remains refreshingly tranquil and private. At the kid’s club, younger guests can delight in meeting local wildlife and sea life in expansive aquariums and terrariums alongside naturalist guides.
Guestrooms are comfortable and well-maintained, although the dreaded bath/shower combo remains in many of the standard rooms. That aside they’re large and inviting, recently refreshed with the new “beach” palette, and most have balconies from which sweeping views of the gulf can be taken in. Again, there’s plenty of joy apparent here, from children doing cartwheels on the beach to the shouts, whistles, and bell-ringing at the moment the sun slips off below the watery horizon to enlighten distant kingdoms.
Many thanks and warmest Aloha to Ritz-Carlton Naples for furnishing accommodations and meals in preparation for this story.