Blowin' in the wind: The American Naples

On Florida's Gulf Coast there are two types of weather: hot and hurricane. Robert Liebman reports on a town where Britain's ex-pats brave the elements
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The Independent Online

Sailing, fishing, golf and sunbathing are the main attractions on Florida's Gulf Coast, and in Naples, shopping comes high on the list too. The main retail spot - with its pricey fashion boutiques, jewellers, art galleries and antique shops - has the iconic name of Fifth Avenue. There's also Third Street South, with still more boutiques and art galleries, and Tin City, for nautical antiques, maps and sporting goods.

A city of extreme wealth, Naples also boasts first-class restaurants and its Philharmonic Center for the Arts offers music, dance and plays. The surrounding countryside contains cypress swamps and salt marshes, and the local fauna include the occasional oversized reptile (the Everglades are 30 miles south) as well as turtles and tortoises, fish-eating eagles, dolphins and manatees. Local beaches reward seashell hunters, and local waters satisfy anglers and sailors. For second-home owners, Naples attracts a steady supply of seasonal visitors, mostly between January and April.

House prices at the very top are stratospheric even by elite American standards, but many homes are modest in price as well as size. The mix includes condominiums (apartments) and family homes, some in gated communities devoted to golf, tennis or water sports - or all three. And it is a buyer's market.

There are bargains to be had now, and prices may drop further. Moorings are everywhere, and the most exclusive communities have private beaches. In addition to properties on the Gulf itself, waterside homes are available in inland developments near lakes or other waterways. Some one-third of Naples' 21,000 inhabitants claim English or Irish ancestry. Nowadays, however, this area is too far away for the many British visitors who don't stray far from Orlando or Miami.

The Goulds from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, strayed: "Eight years ago, we came on a typical Disney trip and chose Naples for our week of escape from Orlando," says Robert Gould. "It is a subtropical environment, like being in the Caribbean but with first-class food, shopping and health care." After numerous trips on holiday, they bought a detached 3,500-square-foot house with pool and central air conditioning two years ago. Robert, his wife Anne and children Connie, 12, and Andrew, 10, are getting their money's worth. "We come on the first day of every school holiday and leave on the last. The kids love it - the pool, the beach, we play golf and go fishing."

A chartered surveyor, Gould notes that "houses in Britain are built to keep the elements out. Florida houses are built to keep the heat out. We were here during Wilma, a category 3-4 hurricane. It was the first direct hit of a hurricane on Naples in 45 years. There is a saying around here, 'God has a condo in Naples.'" That long-ago hurricane was the still-remembered Donna, a mini-Katrina of her day. In the ruinous aftermath, Naples got a good clean up and plenty of reconstruction, and building codes were toughened. Subsequent hurricanes led to further toughening.

The Goulds bought their house from realtor Derek Chorlton, whom they met by chance when his accent caught their attention. A Manchester native and a keen sailor, Chorlton originally settled in California and moved to Naples when he was enticed by the Gulf of Mexico: "Naples has fabulous boating. The gulf has 10,000 islands, and you can go to the Florida Keys and the Bahamas by boat. The Gulf is always 85F. The Pacific is freezing." Chorlton notes that Naples is not marred by the pitfalls that plague some popular Florida holiday destinations: "The city prohibits shops like bars and T-shirt outlets from operating along the beach, so there are no lager louts. It is pristine."

A sailing paradise, Naples also amply caters for golfers. "We have more than 100 golf and country clubs with homes in all price ranges, from about £150,000 to £500,000. British buyers tend to buy a condominium. They can leave it, lock up and go, come back, and there is zero risk of break-in."

Originally a health spa, Bonita Springs has waterside properties in abundance, thanks to a location alongside Estero Bay as well as the Gulf of Mexico. Surrounded on three sides by water, it also has a river flowing right through the town centre. Two-bed new lakeside condo apartments start at about £140,000, whereas second-hand flats in gated communities start at £180,000.

In addition to providing protection against intruders, gated communities have rules and regulations, some pertaining to lettings and subleases. Local and state ordinances may also have a say in what you can and cannot do with your own property. Before you buy, familiarise yourself with the small print. In Florida, reality checks tend to be harsh. As realtor Chorlton notes, "We have guaranteed good weather. Unless we get a hurricane."

John R Wood Realtor (Naples), 00-1-239-434-0101; (Bonita Springs), 001 239 498 2888.