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Naples offers fun, sophisticated Spring Break alternative

Naples offers fun, sophisticated Spring Break alternative

by Joe Arnold

Posted on September 9, 2013 at 11:50 PM

Updated Monday, Sep 9 at 11:55 PM

(WHAS11) -- The school year is not even one month old but if your children are anything like mine, they are already asking about Spring Break travel plans. 

Here's a "fun and sun" idea that my family loved.

Though our foursome has previously joined the annual Louisville pilgrimage to Destin and other Florida panhandle destinations,  farther down the Gulf Coast we discovered some fantastic opportunities.

After several family friends promoted Naples as a family-friendly outpost (more on Louisville's integral role in the town's development, below), we planned our "fun and sun" Spring Break that gave our two boys a jolt of theme park adventure followed by the beach resort respite their parents were seeking.

Our week began in Tampa, about a 14 hour drive from Louisville (compared with the 10.5 hour drive to Destin).

If you're flying, be sure to shop for the best airfares in other regional cities; we found a good deal out of Indianapolis, but there are also direct flights to Tampa from Louisville, at often a lower price than flying to other Florida cities.

My now nine-year-old son Sam's love of animals has taken us to nine different zoos and aquariums.  Coupled with his love of roller coasters (hat tip - Holiday World), Busch Gardens Tampa was a perfect fit for a one-day adrenaline rush with interesting zoo exhibits that invite a more leisurely pace.

We stayed at the Hyatt Place near Busch Gardens. The surrounding area was not ideal for families, but it was a very nice hotel, new with a boutique feel. In addition, the hotel provided a free shuttle to
the theme park. We took the first shuttle of the day arriving a full hour before the gates opened at 9am. 

As a result of our early arrival at the park, we were first in line when the ropes dropped and Sam and I made a mad dash (along with several hundred other vacationers) to the 4,400 feet long Cheetah Hunt triple-launch roller-coaster.  We had heard the wait for this thrill ride reaches 2 hour at peak times, so our morning sprint was worth it.

Nine different themed areas are carved into the 335 acre park.  The gardens and shows are top-notch.  We stayed until closing time and the kids slept soundly in advance of our three hour drive the following day to Naples.

A relatively hidden gem one county shy of Florida's southern tip, Naples has the old-world charm of its Italian namesake with a touch of sophistication no doubt subsidized by its wealthy property-owners.

Louisville pizza magnate John Schnatter is a part-time Naples resident, following in the footsteps of the two Kentuckians who founded Naples in the late 1880's.

Louisville Courier-Journal publisher Walter Haldeman partnered with U.S. Senator John Stuart Williams (D-Kentucky) to found Naples, marketing Southwest Florida's temperate climate and its hunting and fishing opportunities.

Today, Naples' tony neighborhoods are a mix of snowbirds, year-rounders and tourists.  We enjoyed people-watching and walking in two shopping districts, downtown.  Flush with visitors, the community of some 20,000 people offers an impressive variety of shops, restaurants and other attractions.  Lots of outdoor seating, art galleries and boutiques.

Some area spring-breakers can tap into still-strong Kentucky connections to find a private home to stay in Naples.  Thanks to my wife's travel savvy, we lucked upon the Waldorf-Astoria Naples, a perfectly located beach resort popular with Louisville travelers.

Formerly the Naples Grande, the 18 story resort with great views of the Gulf of Mexico changed its name to the Waldorf-Astoria in 2012, part of Hilton Worldwide.  In fact, if you have racked up Hilton HHonors points, you can apply them to your stay at the Waldorf-Astoria.  Some families opt for one of fifty "bungalow suites" that include a spacious living room.

With a 100 foot water slide, the resort's children's pool (one of three pools) was an instant winner with our kids.    The resort offers poolside kids activities throughout vacation season, from tie-dying t-shirts to ice-cream socials.  My two boys also enjoyed a lesson on the Waldorf's clay tennis courts.

But what would a Florida gulf coast vacation be without the beach?  To get to the beach, the hotel provided golf cart shuttles which took guests down a winding wooden bridge through a 200 acre nature preserve and mangrove estuary to the sugar-white sand beach. The only downside was the fact that non hotel guests were given access to the golf carts, which made for a 15 minute wait in the afternoon for a ride home. Upon reaching the beach, the few extra dollars for umbrellas made the complimentary beach chairs worth the comfort. Our kids literally spent hours building sand castles and making new friends on the very family-friendly beach.  Overall, we could not have asked for a better mix of fun, sun and relaxation.

Though I am not a golfer, the resort's 18 hole championship course designed by Rees Jones comes highly recommended.

If you are looking for a spring break of go-carting, miniature golf and hordes of teenagers, Naples is not the destination for you. 

But if you want a blend of family fun and sophistication, Naples is a perfect fit.

And you don't have to be a descendant of Naples' Louisville founders to have a seat at the beach or the table.