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The narrow-gauge Durango & Silverton train steams through history above the Animas River. (Photo by Scott DW Smith.)

The 20 Best Small Towns in America of 2012

From the Berkshires to the Cascades, we've crunched the numbers and pulled a list some of the most interesting spots around the country

9. Naples, FL

Naples, FL
(Brian Tietz)
World-class music, design to die for and palm trees: What’s not to like?

Even when it’s snowing somewhere up north, around the historic Naples pier they’re catching mackerel, opening beach umbrellas and looking for treasure in the surf. Grandkids are building sand castles, pelicans are squawking and the Gulf of Mexico is smooth as far as the eye can see.

Travelers have been coming to this small town on the edge of the Everglades ever since the late 19th century, when you could reach it only by boat and there was just one place to stay, the steeple-topped Naples Hotel, connected to the pier by a track with a cart for moving steamer trunks. Back then the visitors were chiefly sportsmen drawn to the abundant fish and game of southwest Florida’s cypress swamps.

Once the Orange Blossom Express train reached Naples in 1927, followed a year later by the opening of the cross-peninsula highway system the Tamiami Trail, sun-seekers arrived in boaters and bloomers, many of them Methodists from the Midwest who thought the drinking started too soon after Sunday church service in West Palm Beach. So when the snow flew, say, in Cincinnati, they decamped to winter retreats in Naples with wide sleeping porches, pine plank floors and whirring ceiling fans. Palm Cottage near the pier is a sterling example of classic Florida vacation cottage architecture. Built in 1895 for the publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal, it is now headquarters of the busy Naples Historical Society, which sponsors walking tours through the town’s winsome historic district and bougainvillea-lined back alleyways.

Sure, Naples (pop. 19,500) has malls and high-rise condos. Touristy development has taken over bayside docks where fishermen used to haul in giant grouper and tarpon. Traffic clogs the ritzy Fifth Avenue South shopping and restaurant district.

If most of the folks you meet are over 65, in Naples old age looks pretty golden. Ask a duffer with a fishing pole how he likes his martinis and he’ll tell you the third one’s always beautiful (Methodists notwithstanding).

A fair percentage of the snowbirds are retired executives with cultural expectations and the means to pursue them. So the town has an astonishing concentration of deeply rooted cultural institutions like the Naples Zoo, located in a tropical garden founded in 1919 by botanist Henry Nehrling; the Naples Players, a community theater now in its 59th season; and the almost-as-venerable Naples Art Association, at the Von Liebig Art Center in Cambier Park.

“A group of people wanted this little winter paradise to have the same cultural features as Northern cities do,” says Kathleen van Bergen, CEO of the Naples Philharmonic. 

The Phil, born 30 years ago of an amateur group on nearby Marco Island, is a renowned orchestra with a state-of-the-art concert hall visited by the likes of Kathleen Battle and Itzhak Perlman. From September to May, it holds 400 events: classical and chamber music performances; concerts by pop stars; galas; Broadway musicals; and lifelong learning programs, along with appearances by the Sarasota Opera and Miami Ballet. Bronze sculpture by the Spanish artist Manolo Valdés and massive art glass by Dale Chihuly spill over into the lobby from galleries in the adjoining Naples Museum of Art. Its chiefly modernist collection got a new star in 2010: Dawn’s Forest, Louise Nevelson’s last and largest work of environmental art.

Dozens of art galleries line Third Street South, just a few blocks from the designated Design District. Meanwhile, at the Naples pier, there’s bound to be someone at an easel, with a palette provided by the Gulf of Mexico—all sky blue, sand white and aquamarine. -- SS

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