I have a fraught relationship with my home state of Florida—I haven’t felt like a Floridian in a long time, but I am one. I grew up on its beaches, drove down coastal highways on the weekends, and slogged in the Everglades on field trips. Key lime pie was a Thanksgiving table fixture. I’ve lived in Atlanta for a decade, but the nostalgia for my home state has only intensified in recent years with the loss of my mother. I have my own daughter, whom my mom never got to meet, and as she and I get older, I long to take her to the places where I still feel a connection with my mom. Naples is one such place.
I was born in the small Gulf Coast town but lived there only a short while before my parents’ divorce sent my mother and I across the state to Broward County, where I spent most of my youth. An industry conference brought my mother, an insurance broker, to the Ritz-Carlton, Naples every August when I was growing up. In middle school I started tagging along, and, as a classic only child with an active imagination, I felt like a Floridian Eloise romping around the resort while my mother attended meetings. I lounged by the pool, ate lunch beachside at the Gumbo Limbo restaurant, and occasionally indulged in afternoon tea, during which I dreamily gazed out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the tropical surrounds. I eagerly looked forward to the chocolate squares left on pillows after turndown service—suffice to say, this was not how my budget-conscious mother and I usually traveled. While it was a work trip for her, my mother still carved out time for me, and we’d sometimes sneak away for an excursion to the Waterside Shops (an open-air shopping mall) or to Fifth Avenue, Naples’s historic dining and shopping district.
Naples itself is a city that shows Florida’s juxtapositions: Stately mansions and developments sit on the edge of swampy wildness. Last year, Hurricane Ian caused approximately $2.2 billion in damage in Collier County, destroying thousands of commercial and residential buildings. When I heard that the Ritz-Carlton, Naples reopened this summer after a major renovation, it seemed like the right time to revisit the property. Changes at the resort by architects at Cooper Carry and the design firm Parker Torres Design included a refresh of the resort’s 474 rooms, a transformed lobby, and the addition of a tower with seventy club-level rooms and a 4,000-square-foot club lounge. My husband and I made the ten-hour drive from Atlanta with our four-year-old in tow.
When I was a kid, my heart fluttered when we pulled up to the resort’s porte-cochère. This time, I felt the bleary-eyed exhaustion of a parent traveling with a small child—until I saw the lobby. Instead of rich wood tones and heavy drapery, the new lobby was light and bright. Originally designed to accommodate afternoon tea, the floor had been lowered, creating a dramatic entryway, and a bar stood in the center against the same floor-to-ceiling window backdrop that captivated me years ago. “We went from tea to champagne, which just feels so on point for the Ritz,” Kathy Logan, a principal of Cooper Carry’s Hospitality Studio, told me later. “You’re greeted with this absolutely brilliant chandelier coming down from the ceiling that looks like hundreds of champagne flutes.”
Other additions delighted, too. The new poolside restaurant Sofra, helmed by Johann Piscoya, reminded me of Moroccan cafés with its terracotta-hued walls and open-air dining room, but the menu spans the Middle East with dishes like hummus adorned with crisped onions and chickpeas; Sofra’s version of the Turkish mezze called atom, with marinated peppers and tomatoes atop labneh; and barrel-aged feta—all of which we devoured by scooping with the restaurant’s cooked-to-order pillowy pita. At the family pool, high-tech bungalows with half-bathrooms and flat-screen televisions made a day of poolside lounging all the more enjoyable on a college football Saturday.
It would have been easy to loaf around the resort all weekend, but we made sure to get off the property a bit. One stop of note was the Naples Botanical Garden which showcases Florida’s wetlands and native flora among other tropical plants from the Caribbean and Asia. The garden borders a wetland expanse; of its 170 acres, ninety of them are a nature preserve, explains Brian Galligan, vice president of horticulture. “The garden feels like a stepping-off point,” he says. The preserve’s unpaved trails, ensconced in goldenrod and forked bluecurls, encourage you to daydream a bit before moving on to one of the other sections, like the orchid garden.
As ritzy as Naples is, it excels at no-frills dining institutions. The twenty-seven-year-old mainstay Grouper & Chips, in a nondescript strip mall, buzzed with locals on their lunch breaks. A fifteen-minute drive north led us to Coconut Jacks in Bonita Springs. My husband and I had visited the tiki bar located on an estuary about eight years ago and were happy to see it was still standing after Hurricane Ian. A sign marked where the seven-foot storm surge had hit; the restaurant closed for four months afterwards but quickly rebounded. A blackened mahi sandwich and a slice of Key lime pie, made by nearby Sweet Melissa’s, scratched the itch for proper waterfront Florida dining.
Back at the hotel, sitting at the Gumbo Limbo, I caught the pre-sunset glow on my daughter’s face as she took in the scene: tables of boisterous diners—some conference attendees, some locals—and the less lucky, but no less happy, guests standing in line at the bar as servers darted in and out of the fray. I reflected on how things had changed since my last visit to Naples with my mom. The hotel no longer serves afternoon tea, for instance, and she’s not here with us. But I took comfort in what was the same. People still cheer when the sun sets at the Gumbo Limbo, and my daughter couldn’t wait to call dibs on one of those turndown chocolates.