A Vacation Guide to Southwest Florida – Naples/Bonita Springs

Confession: I have been working on this post for two years. I think it’s a fun activity for anyone to do–create a list of the best gems in your own town to refer back to when you need inspiration to get out and enjoy your corner of the world, with everything from the best restaurants to the park with the prettiest view. But it got overwhelming for me because we live in a tourist destination, our beaches alone could make their own list, and I get super perfectionist about things, wanting to make sure I cover all the details and leave nothing out. There’s no way to include everything though, so I collected our favorites–the first places I think of when asked where to go when visiting the Naples area. This was especially fun because it’s spring break this week, and we are staycationing it–lots of inspiration to get out and drink up the magic people pay money to come here for with the excited little voice inside that hollers “We get to live here!” Remind me of that when my bangs are glued to my sweaty forehead in two months and I’m practicing lamaze breathing just to face the humidity in walking to my car. Other than that…palm fronds, numerous beaches and endless sunshine.

These suggestions are all family friendly because, for the most part, that’s how we enjoy our town. It is, of course, a wonderful destination for a girls’ trip or a couples trip without kids though, and if that’s how you’re visiting, just know I’ll be thinking of you when my kids are making ketchup/cream/sugar concoctions on their plates and crying about how long it’s taking for their drink to arrive when we are “out on the town” Friday night. Here’s what we’ll cover: beaches (that is why people come here, after all), things to do outside of beaches, places to eat and shopping. I didn’t include places to stay because it varies greatly with budget, and most places I would suggest (on the beach) are higher end hotels.

Grab your bathing suits. Let’s do this.

Favorite Beaches

*Note: Most of the beaches in our county require an $8 parking fee for non-residents. 

Clam Pass

Clam Pass Beach is a county beach shared with Naples Grand Resort, so beachgoers can enjoy some of the hotel guest amenities such as a nicer concession area on the boardwalk where you can order real food and drinks, as well as a beautiful tiered deck with tables. You have to take a free “trolley” (golf cart limo) to get to the beach from the parking area, but that’s half the fun, and our kids love it. The beach area near the boardwalk is great if you want to stay near the concession area, but we often walk north on the beach a bit and set up our blanket near the pass opening where mangrove trees and changing tides near the pass provide a more interesting beach setting.

Delnor-Wiggins Pass

Delnor-Wiggins Pass Beach is actually one of Florida’s State Parks ($6 per vehicle state park entrance fee but no county parking fee) and feels a little more secluded than some of the other open beaches. There are picnic areas along the beach which are amazing for lunch if you can snag one, but they are almost always occupied, so you’d need to get to the park early to secure one. We usually park and enter the beach from Parking Lot #4 because there’s a concession stand there where you can get food and beverages (popsicles!) as well as rent paddleboards, kayaks, canoes and beach umbrellas. And the boardwalk where you enter the beach there makes for the most beautiful photos.

Vanderbilt Beach

Lainey on beach
North Naples’ most popular beach for sunset, Vanderbilt Beach is conveniently located in the heart of North Naples, offers a parking garage (which means it’s the most crowded beach in Naples) and is also the beach for Ritz Carlton guests. You can grab a drink from the Ritz’s Gumbo Limbo beach tiki bar (closed for reconstruction after Hurricane Irma but I’m assuming opening soon with spring break coming) or walk across the street to Beach Box, an open lunch/drink bar–not fancy, but they do have ice cream.

Naples Pier

Naples Pier is my favorite beach for weekend morning visits (sunsets are great too). It’s located downtown, so we often go after shopping 3rd Street Farmer’s Market or 5th Avenue and Cambier Park. Or we’ll park by Tony’s Off Third, grab some scones and a coffee there, walk down to the pier, lay our blanket underneath it for shade and have breakfast under the pier, watching the kids play in the water. The homes along the beach there are gorgeous, so a beach walk is a must. Or, you can walk the pier to see the fishermen*. Make sure you pick up a chocolate-covered frozen banana at the Pier Concession (*while the pier is open, fishing is temporarily suspended on the pier until construction of side west of the concession stand is completed–that Irma, man. She messed some things up.)

Lowdermilk Beach
Dash on beach
Located closer to the south end of town, Lowdermilk is a great beach for little kids because it also offers a park and playground. We’ve had the most luck with sandbars and cool tide pools at Lowdermilk too, although that’s all dependent on tides. There’s also a Rita’s Italian Ice Concession stand at Lowdermilk, a nice covered pavilion with picnic tables, and several thatched roof umbrella shad stands on the beach (free, if you can snag one!).

Barefoot Beach/Bonita Beach

dash by boat

These two beaches just north of Naples butt right up against each other. If you want the more touristy vibe, go to Bonita Beach where you can eat at Doc’s Beach House, one of the only non-fancy hotel places in our town where you can eat on the gulf. It’s more of a diner style restaurant (grouper finger baskets, sandwiches, etc.), but they offer both indoor and outdoor seating as well as an upstairs bar. Doc’s is cash only as well (there’s an ATM). You can also rent jetskis and paddle boats from Bonita Beach.

If you want a quieter, more pristine environment, take the Barefoot Beach side. To get to Barefoot Beach, you have to drive into the Barefoot Beach community, but that means you get to pass hundreds of beautiful homes on the path which leads to the beach preserve (no high rises!) and three beach access parking lots. Parking Lot #1 offers a concession stand, the park ranger station, kayak rentals and a learning center with trained docents on hand during season.

The Barefoot and Bonita beaches also offer fun tourist shops near them which are great for kids. Winds and Mango Bay are both huge souvenir shops on Bonita Beach Blvd., offering everything you remember about your childhood vacations to Florida–saltwater taffy, orange bubble gun, alligator skulls, postcards, keychains, beach towels, “My Heart Belongs in Bonita Springs” t-shirts, shell necklaces, beach toys and thousands of sea shells from every other country besides the U.S. (go figure). My kids beg to go these shops and get lost in the overwhelming wonder of tourist merchandise.

Favorite Things to Do

Naples Botanical Gardens

Ahhh! Baby Nella!

Our Botanical Gardens is one of the best things our city offers besides our beaches. You can spend an entire day touring 170 acres of gardens including the Children’s Garden with fountains to splash in (bring the kids’ swimsuits), a child-sized cottage to explore, a butterfly house, a giant tree-house with bridges and climbing tower, a hidden garden, sidewalk chalk art areas, and more. We usually spend a few hours at Botanical Gardens and eat lunch at their amazing sit-down cafe or on a blanket in front of one of their ponds. Currently (until June 3), the gardens feature the Roar! exhibit, ten large-scale animatronic dinosaurs that move and growl (including a 40-ft T-Rex), placed throughout the garden displays.

Tin City

Tin City is old school Florida touristy, but I love it for that very reason. Walk the dock to watch the boats, grab a drink at the crab shack, visit the shell shops and Naples Soap Company and make sure you stop by Vicky’s Sweet Shoppe (tiny old school candy store) for a cookie and some salt water taffy before you leave. The Tin City buildings are fun and colorful, so we always get good photos there too.

Naples City Dock

Tucked in the heart of Old Naples is the city dock where you can watch the fishermen bring in their catch (we’ve seen them clean sharks!), catch a sunset cruise on Sweet Liberty, Naples largest sailing catamaran (we’ve done it–so much fun), or tour the little shops and restaurants in the Crayton Cove area. The Dock at Crayton Cove is great for waterfront dining, but our family tradition is always to grab a piece of pizza or ice cream cone at Napoli on the Bay whenever we visit the dock.

Earth and Fire

While you’re in the dock area, stop in Earth & Fire to paint pottery. For vacationers, this is best on one of the first days of your trip as they’ll need a couple days to fire your piece before you can pick it up. We’ve done parties at Earth & Fire, enjoyed impromptu visits and have had fun girls’ nights out with wine there. There are several great restaurants and shops within walking distance as well.

Naples Zoo

The Naples Zoo and Caribbean Gardens is nestled right along US 41 and offers both botanical and wildlife exhibits including a monkey island boat tour (my kids’ favorite). Feed a giraffe, take an animal-themed yoga class. enjoy the zoo playground and more.

Farmer’s Markets

Our Third Street Farmer’s Market is my favorite, located downtown and recurring Saturday mornings (in season), combining local vendors as well as the many charming Third Street shops. Word to the wise: Go to the beignet truck.

We also frequent the markets on the north side of town–The Shoppes at Vanderbilt on  Saturday mornings or the Pine Ridge Road Farmer’s Market on Sundays.

Fifth Avenue and Third Street

You can’t come to Naples without visiting Fifth Avenue and Third Street, the fancy streets that embody the spirit of Old Naples and offer some of our finest restaurants and shops. If you’re there in the morning, go to Jane’s on Third for breakfast or grab a coffee from Starbucks on Fifth and walk your way down to Third. We sometimes bring tricycles and/or scooters and walk the whole strip, stopping in our favorite shops (Giggle Moon on Fifth is great for kids) or heading to the Pier or Cambier Park after our walk. Get fudge at Kilwin’s on Fifth or ice cream at Regina’s. For something fun and out of the ordinary, book a tea at Brambles English Tea Room.

And Cambier Park is definitely Naples’ best park. The playground is amazing, and the park hosts Sunday morning church services as well as many concerts.

Farmer Mike’s

If you time the season right, Farmer Mike’s offers u-pick fields for strawberries, tomatoes and wildflowers as well as a market area with a small cafe (get the milkshakes!). Those snapdragon fields make for beautiful vacation photos!

Corkscrew Sanctuary

To truly experience the unique landscape and wildlife of Southwest Florida’s Everglades, visit the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp and Sanctuary which offers 2.5 miles of boardwalk through pine flatwoods and marsh areas. This is the best place to spot alligators, and if you’re into bird watching, this is your haven.

Isles of Capri

I could have categorized this in places to eat as well as beaches, but our favorite family place on Isles of Capri (I’ve written about it numerous times over the year) is a destination in itself, and when we go, it’s usually a whole day experience. Isles of Capri has a completely different vibe than Naples–a laid back, retro island vibe.

There are a few little restaurants there, but when when we say we’re going to Isles of Capri, we’re referring to Capri Fish House, a family owned (say hi to Mike & Teresa and tell ’em we sent you!) restaurant on the bay that offers an island tiki bar with live music, a small beach for the kids to play, a Sunday seafood buffet, a boat dock and kayak rentals. It’s super laid back, so we show up in bathing suits and sit outside while the kids explore and make memories.

Marco Island

Marco Island is another destination in itself, and many people choose to stay right on the island for their entire vacation. We’ve stayed at the Marco Marriott Resort, and in three days never left because it offers everything you need (multiple restaurants, pools, kid entertainment, shops, etc.). Marco Island beaches are pristine, beautiful and offer some of the best shelling in Southwest Florida. My favorite thing about the island? It has one of Southwest Florida’s last independent bookstores, Sunshine Booksellers.

Fort Myers Beach

Another destination in itself, the Fort Myers Beach area could have its own post with things to do, but I’m including it because if you’re staying in the Naples area for an extended period of time, it’s only 30 minutes away and a really fun place to visit to switch things up. We take Bonita Beach Blvd. all the way up for the scenic route to see all the houses along the beach and Lover’s Key, and once you pass Lover’s Key, the scene shifts to the colorful retro vibe of Fort Myers Beach–beach motels in pastel colors, tourist shops, spring break bars. Grab breakfast at Tuckaway or a drink at Lani Kai. Hit the beach for some good people watching, and keep your eye out for the man on the bike cooler who sells popsicles.

Sanibel and Captiva Islands

For a day excursion, travel to Sanibel or Captiva Islands for a true vacation vibe. Go shelling, grab lunch at The Island Cow (super family friendly) in Captiva, or get a piece of Milky Way Pie at the Lazy Flamingo.

Other great places for kids: C’mon (our children’s museum), Sun N’ Fun Lagoon water park, a show at Sugden Theater

Places to Eat

Beach Dining: If you’re looking for places to eat along the water, there are only a few restaurants in Naples that are on the gulf (there are more on canals), but they are all really nice: The Turtle Club (kid friendly outside), Gumbo Limbo (Ritz Carlton beach bar), Baleen at Laplaya, Coast at Edgewater Hotel, Naples Beach Hotel HB’s on the Gulf or Doc’s Beach House in Bonita which is super laid back and more of a diner.

Other places we love that are family friendly:

Best Pizza: The Crust. The pizza is amazing, and the atmosphere of this restaurant is super fun.
Best Mexican: We love Flaco’s (also where we first met!) and Senior Tequila’s.
Best Breakfast: Jane’s on Third, La Colmar Bakery & Bistro Sunburst Cafe, Skillets, Peace Love & Little Donuts (pick up–not really an eat-in place)
Best Healthy: True Food, Delicious Raw(more of a quick lunch stop), Food & Thought (quick lunch stop as well–eat outside the general store)
Fun Dinner PlacesThe Village Pub, 7th Ave Social, Hob Nob, Coconut Jack’s (a fun canal bar in Bonita), Tommy Bahamas, Shea’s at Landsdowne Street, Campiello’s, DaRuma’s (Japanese steakhouse by the beach–and  where Brett and I had our first date, just the two of us), The Counter (great family-friendly burger restaurant)
Ice Cream: The Royal Scoop, Regina’s on 5th

For fine dining, there are so many great places tucked into Old Naples, especially Third Street and 5th Avenue.


Waterside Shops 
If you came to shop, Waterside is where you want to be, offering high-end shops like Gucci and Louis Vuitton as well as my favorites, Anthropologie, Free People, J.Crew and Nordstrom. There are also home shops like Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma as well as Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and a nice variety of great restaurants.

Mercato Shops
Mercato is the hub of North Naples and the most popular Uber destination on weekends. You can bar hop without a car, choose from a number of dining options, watch a movie at our fancy cinema and shop while you wait for a table. One of my favorite clothing stores in Naples is tucked right in the middle of Mercato–Simply Natural.

Venetian Village
Venetian Village is close to the water and offers a nice collection of elegant boutiques.

5th Ave and Third Street
High-end gift shops and boutiques

The Promenade
Go north to Bonita and hit the Promenade for another outdoor shopping experience and collection of unique boutiques, high end retail stores and my favorite gourmet market, DeRomo’s.

Coconut Point
Drive a little more north to Estero (in between Naples and Fort Myers) to Coconut Point for everything you need in one place and familiar shops with everything from Dillard’s to Sephora.

And there you have it! Our vacation/staycation favorites, all in one place. And now that I’ve typed this out, I have half a notion to pack up the kids and head out to Captiva Island. If you are headed this way and have any specific questions about the area, ask them here in the comments and I’ll do my best to get back with you quickly!


The post A Vacation Guide to Southwest Florida – Naples/Bonita Springs appeared first on Enjoying the Small Things.



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