The Ritz-Carlton Naples Still Sparkles, Despite a Hobbling Economy
In the posh lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Naples last Christmas, the club level concierge was British, the air conditioning was turned up to 11, and snow birds from the east coast huddled around a larger-than-life gingerbread house crowing, “It’s too cold in here.”
The economy may have been in a deep freeze in most of the country, but somebody forgot to tell Naples, a wealthy hamlet of 21,000 surrounded by a larger metropolitan area of 300,000 who undoubtedly wish they lived in the 34109 zip code. Tourists and retirees flock to this southwest region of Florida for its mild climate and the Ritz’s two highly regarded golf courses, Tiburon Black and Tiburon Gold.
“Our numbers are down a little … just like they are all over Florida,” admitted David Rothwell, the general manager of one of the two sister Ritz-Carlton hotels in Naples. (The two hotels are three and a half miles apart but share the golf courses with the residential development of Tiburon.) But during the week of my visit, no one at the Ritz was complaining. Hotel occupancy was up. An increase in leisure bookings has nearly offset the decline of corporate travelers. Naples’ peak tourism season is begins just after Christmas and runs a couple of weeks past Easter.
Given the recent economic clouds, a spring vacation to a golf resort in Hawaii or the Caribbean may seem a bit of a reach for some. But a quick two-hour flight to Naples could be just the thing to shake the winter doldrums. Count the two Ritz-Carlton hotels in Naples among those who are adding more value to their offerings to pique your interest.
After the airlines instituted new luggage fees, the Ritz staff noticed that more golfers were leaving their gear at home and renting clubs at the resort. To cushion the financial blow, the two hotels tout their “hassle-free golf” initiative, stocking the clubhouse with a hundred TaylorMade rental sets and waiving rental fees for all the usual golf equipment – clubs, shoes, balls, glove – for afternoon tee times on Tiburon. Noticing more guests traveling with their pets, the Ritz-Carlton near the golf course added a pet “dining menu” and pet-friendly common areas. Ritz guests also receive resort credits for spa services, golf amenities and exclusive access to private golf courses nearby.
Those offerings represent a sea of change for the once-staid Ritz-Carlton hotels, long known for their mantra of ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. Four years ago, the collection of upscale hotels sought to relax its image and soften the staff’s formality.
Ritz-Carlton co-founder Ed Staros was intimately involved with that decision. Nattily dressed in a brown silk sport jacket trimmed with an intricately woven Italian silk tie, Staros describes how he accumulated 5 million frequent flyer miles during the 15 years he traveled the world developing new Ritz hotels until finally settling down to run the Ritz-Carlton Naples a decade ago.
“The days of three martini lunches and formal greetings in the lobby are long gone,” Staros told me, his pale blue eyes seeming to focus on me and a dozen other details in the room simultaneously. “We had to change because our clientele has changed.”
In the Grill Room, the hotel’s snazziest dining room, dry aged steaks and a deep wine list are the draws. But as in the rest of the resort, golf shirts and khakis have replaced coats and ties.
Naples, too, has changed a great deal since Staros purchased the land and developed the Ritz-Carlton Naples, which opened 23 years ago as the company’s fourth property, an event that jump-started the region as a tourist destination.
Three decades ago, most of the Naples area was farmland. Now, tomato and cucumber fields have been replaced by Nordstrom and Whole Foods, farm roads have been paved over with six-lane highways, and a handful of remaining low-slung single-story beach homes quiver in the shadows of multi-million dollar mansions on beachfront Gordon Drive. The skyline is one splashy condominium tower after another. In the tony neighborhoods close to the white-sand beach, on narrow streets named Rum Row and Gin Lane, the wealthy wrap their palm trees with pearl strands of white lights at Christmas. “For Sale” signs are as rare here as an expensive home on the water without a private boat slip.
Naples is a booming golf destination. Not long ago, though, it was an isolated stretch of beachside farmland 110 miles away from Miami down a long, lonely strip of interstate known as Alligator Alley. Today, the greater Naples area has more golf courses per resident than anywhere else in America but Myrtle Beach, S.C. The catalyst for much of that growth has been the Ritz-Carlton Naples, with its enormous spa and two Greg Norman golf courses at Tiburon (Spanish for shark, Norman’s nickname), a short distance away.
Golf remains a driving force in Naples, as it has since 1919 when the first course opened. More than 80 courses now populate the landscape, including Tiburon’s twins; they opened in 2002 and now boast a Rick Smith golf academy. When I ran into Smith at Tiburon, he boasted that he plans to spend a lot of time at his academy.
Whether I was playing on a public or a private course in Naples, what impressed me most was how customer-friendly and attentive the golf staff was. Guests were greeted quickly and enthusiastically. Cart girls smiled. Starters and marshals kept pace of play brisk. Clubs were cleaned thoroughly and without an expectation of a tip.
It’s no wonder that at good public access courses and at private courses like Tiburon, the tee sheets fill in quickly.
Tiburon has the edge for luxury. Greg Norman and his team designed Tiburon’s courses, a pair of private layouts with access restricted to its members or guests of the Ritz hotels. The pros play the Gold, probably because the terrain can better accommodate spectators and crowds, but the Black is the player’s course.
A bald eagle spends its days luxuriating atop the clubhouse’s copula like a retiree, occasionally soaring across one of the courses’ many lakes and ponds then diving down to snatch a duckling in the spring. (If the eagle misses, panthers or alligators usually finish the job. Somehow, though, there are still plenty of ducks on the water.) Golfers may not have to contend with the eagles or the panthers, but oaks and pines line narrow chutes that tease with tee shots, feather into a fairway or protect the backside of a green. Both courses cover a lot of ground, weaving through thick woods and grassy marshes, many of which you traverse on weathered pine bridges that could double as location sets for romance movies.
As for public access courses, there are two I recommend without reservation. Both are privately owned, offer memberships, and allow daily-fee play.
Naples Grande is a traditional, old school design by Rees Jones, the Open Doctor. If you were thinking flat and barren, you’d be wrong. The tee boxes are shaped like long landing strips of bermuda; the bunkers are deep, sculpted, thick-lipped and filled with fluffy, white sand. Jones wrapped his fairways and greens around water and cliffs. Nos. 16 and 18 run around the elevated edges of a wide lake, finishing on greens that look as if their sides were gnawed by decades of sea spray. (But they haven’t been – this being inland Florida, it was likely a bulldozer.) There are no houses to contend with, only tall pines, palms, and the occasional waste bunker that links native grasses with the course.
I like Naples Grande a lot, but my favorite daily-fee course in the Naples area – and maybe in all of Florida – is Old Corkscrew. Jack Nicklaus and his team are responsible for the Audubon-certified design, which opened only two years ago and takes its name from a nearby river. For the golfers the Audubon designation means two things: fantastic turf conditions and no residential development to spoil the views. The site is thick with native oaks and slash pines, which provide plenty of hiding places for the egrets, herons and spoonbills that swoop across the lakes and preserves on the property. Generous, sinuous fairways, silky bunkers and TifEagle greens make Old Corkscrew a blast to play, but in all honesty, it’s the shapers – the workers who sculpted the earth so that it rolls and swerves in just the right places – who deserve the accolades. Old Corkscrew is another example of how the Nicklaus design franchise keeps getting better with each new course it builds.
There are plenty of other good courses for a golf lover to discover in Naples, but Naples can be more than a top-notch golf destination. Two Ritz-Carlton hotels, clean beaches, sunny skies, a temperate climate, and a vibrant downtown mean there’s plenty to keep you engaged off the fairways.
If you’re used to the magic of Orlando or the caliente of Miami, then Naples will be a delightful surprise. Downtown Naples is full of little cafes and hidden alleys with dazzling fountains, wide awnings and shady oaks with benches on which you can sit and catch a nap, read the paper in the morning or nurse a glass of cabernet in the evening, and listen to the wind rustle the palms.
If you find yourself with an early morning tee time at Naples Grande, pull off Golden Gate Parkway onto 3rd Avenue in downtown and stop at a shop called Tony’s off 3rd, a tiny storefront where you can join the locals for café au lait and a homemade berry scone, and watch the first beams of sunlight creep into downtown. On the rare day when the wind kicks up and the surf turns nasty, head a bit further down 3rd Avenue to the Naples Pier and its long, graying boardwalk that juts into the Gulf of Mexico, where big knots attract dozens of kite surfers who dance on the tops of the whitecaps and never seem to fall.
Just the Facts
Naples, Fla., 239-598-3300, www.ritzcarlton.com
Naples, Fla., 941-659-3700, www.naplesgrande.com
Estero, Fla., 239-949-4700, www.oldcorkscrew.com
The author visited with other journalists as part of a media tour partially sponsored by Ritz Carlton