This past January, Napa Valley Life publisher Kari Ruel and I had the honor of attending one of the most distinguished wine auctions in the country, the 2015 Naples Winter Wine Festival. This exclusive and prestigious event is annually hosted at the luxurious 5-Star Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Florida.

The town of Naples has been renowned in years past as Florida’s gulf coast winter escape for “snowbirds” and retirees. My return to Naples after so many years was an enlightening and wonderful opportunity in so many ways. Not only did we experience the grandeur of the celebrated wine event, we had several days to experience so much of what the splendor of Naples has to offer.

Florida’s Paradise Coast is an extended stretch of beautiful white sandy beaches and aquamarine waters encompassing Naples, Marco Island and the western Gulf Coast portion of the Everglades, and is considered “Paradise Refined and Redefined.” This popular destination provides visitors a variety of vacation options all year around.

Being a Florida girl born and raised, we spent many spring breaks and summer vacations in what was once the quiet little Gulf Coast town of Naples, just a short two hour drive from Miami. There wasn’t much to do in those days except enjoy the beaches and spend time leisurely gathering colorful collections of shells, which were plentiful on the quiet and pristine silver sands of this quaint beach community. Having not been back to Naples in over thirty years, my arrival back to this mecca by the sea completely astonished me. It was no longer the sleepy getaway I remembered in my teenage years. Naples beaches are now regarded amongst the finest in the world, and as some of the top vacation spots internationally.

Naples has transformed into a casually sophisticated, stylish destination resort town. However, when the town is in full swing with winter residents and visitors, it segues to an exciting, bustling winter escape. This coastal haven offers visitors a tranquil and beautiful escape from everyday life. Trip Advisor even puts Naples at #13 of the top #25 of Florida’s Most Beautiful Beaches. No longer just a retreat for retirees, Naples is growing in popularity with families and as a romantic retreat for younger couples, as we experienced during our visit there.

Naples had evolved…Naples really grew up! And for the better. It has been “Carmelized,” as it reminds me much of the Carmel-Monterey coastal area here in California, with its charming downtown, upscale shopping and trendy restaurants.  Downtown Naples’ Third Street has been noted as one of the “Top 10 Prettiest Southern Streets for a Stroll.” And stroll we did, as each evening we had the opportunity to experience the restaurants, nightlife and shops of downtown. The dining scene is amazing. There are numerous deliciously delightful cafes to dine in and people watch.

In fact the restaurant scene is exploding and has recently elevated the Paradise Coast, with more hotly anticipated openings on the horizon. We had the opportunity to savor a few of the top-rated dining hotspots, Sea Salt – Naples; Osteria Tulia; and Chez Boet. Each offered a different menu presentation and atmosphere, from Fresh Seafood to Italian to Country French.

Osteria Tulia has the charm of an exquisitely restored old world Italian farmhouse; it opened in 2013 and quickly established itself in the first year as one of the busiest and most popular restaurants in Naples, offering peasant-style dishes from locally popular chef Vincenzo Betulia. Adjacent to the restaurant is the recently opened gastropub Bar Trulia, serving chef-driven food and craft beers, a welcome addition for the late night crowd. The cuisine presented to us was amazing and prepared with the highest quality ingredients from artisanal growers in Italy, housemade cheese, sausage and pasta. Fresh local produce and just-caught seafood are delivered daily. With the rustic Italian-style preparation you would think you were dining in Napoli!

Sea Salt Naples chef/owner Fabrizio, a native of Venice, Italy, takes pride in showcasing fresh seafood along with innovative contemporary specialties. He puts a Venetian touch on Florida’s freshest seafood and produce, using organic, sustainable ingredients from local farmers and day boat fishermen, with menus changing daily depending on the catch of the day. The chef uses over 130 different types and flavors of salts from around the world to season his innovative dishes, and addresses it with his unique touch. All of the dishes presented were uniquely amazing. Of course, Florida girl that I am still at heart, the Stone Crabs with the Tarragon Mustard and Sriracha Mango Sauce were near and dear to my heart and special treats for my taste buds.

Chez Boet is owned by Lisa and Philippe Boet, the classic “American Girl Meets a Frenchman in Paris.” They met in Paris and spent weekends in the French countryside, where they gathered for home-cooked meals, called by their family “grandmother food.” They returned to the States in 1994, and in 2003 they lived their dream by opening up their restaurant, Chez Boet in Naples.

Their commitment was to cook with locally grown, organic seasonal produce and locally sourced seafood. Their creations meld extraordinary ingredients with classic French dishes to come up with their signature cuisine. The comfort of their country French home cooking is spearheaded by Lisa and her team. Mouth-watering stews and decadent desserts will tease your taste buds. Their daughter, Isabella, has joined the family’s enterprise, creating a healthy children’s menu. Chez Boet is an absolute treat as well as one of Kari Ruel’s favorites. Do not miss this gem on your next visit to Naples.

The denouement to all of the epicurean pleasures of the week’s event was the presentation of the celebrated chefs representing a grand variety of Ritz-Carlton locations from around Florida and the Caribbean. These amazing chefs created a coming together of the Ritz-Carlton Executive Chef team of gourmands in one grand ballroom. Their each uniquely inspired dishes showcased their award-winning talents to hungry and eager Naples Winter Wine Festival auction bidders. A memorable moment in time. Deliciously delicious!!! A win-win for all!    NVL

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