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Florida Stay and Play by Grant Fraser
Ritz Carleton Golf Resort

There are so many reasons why Florida is my golf destination of choice any time of the year. In fact, if I had my way I would live in the sunshine state because of its near perfect climate, wonderful beaches and abundant flora and fauna. For avid sun and sand seekers, Florida’s beaches are among the best in the world. Millions of dollars are spent every year to preserve and restore the state’s beaches from the effects of Mother Nature and the forces of erosion. Mangrove ecosystems can be found along Florida’s extensive coastline and provide outstanding opportunities for birders to view the hundreds of migratory bird species flourish in their natural habitat.

And then there are Florida’s golf courses. With over 1,200 courses to choose from, it is no wonder you’ll often see a Florida license plate bordered with the phrase “World’s Golf Capital” as you travel along Interstate 75.  

Flying to Florida from Toronto is easier than driving north on a long weekend to cottage country. In approximately the same length of time, you can set foot with golf clubs in tow in Orlando, Tampa or Fort Myers to begin your Florida golf vacation.

For a group of any size, Florida features many outstanding and affordable stay and play golf destinations. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit several golf resorts along the west coast of the state, widely referred to as Florida’s “Golf Coast” by golf aficionados worldwide. Renowned for its golf and accommodations, I’ve listed five exceptional resorts between Tampa and Naples that provide the perfect getaway for a passionate group of golfers looking to play from sun up to sun down.

My first recommendation is the famous Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club. Located 40 minutes from Tampa, Innisbrook was purchased by Salamander Hospitality in July 2007. Since then, the resort has undergone a $25 million facelift which now includes a new luxury spa and fitness centre. The resort features 620 guest accommodations, four championship golf courses, 11 clay tennis courts, six swimming pools, a fitness centre, and a children’s recreation centre. For hard core golfers looking to emulate their PGA idols, a must play is the 7,340-yard Copperhead Course, home of the PGA Tour’s Transitions Championship. The 7,065-yard Island Course is also a must play and, after its recent renovation, may now be more challenging than its famous cousin. Two other golf courses, the Northand the SouthCourse, and the Innisbrook Golf Institute, can also be found on the resort’s 900 manicured acres. In addition to being one of Golf Digest’s “Top 75 Golf Resorts in America”, Innisbrook also offers fine dining on site in any one of their five restaurants. After a day on the golf course there is no better way to reminisce than over a delectable steak dinner at Packard’s Steakhouse, appropriately named after golf course designer Larry Packard who designed all four of Innisbrook’s championship courses.

Innisbrook Copperhead Course
Innisbrook Copperhead Course       

Another destination in the Tampa area ideal for a stay and play golf vacation is the Emerald Greens Golf Resort and Country Club. Featuring 27 holes designed by golf course architect Dan Maples, Emerald Greens is a new boutique resort conveniently located fifteen minutes from the Tampa International Airport. Since 2003, millions of dollars have been spent redesigning each 9-hole golf course and renovating the 23,000 square foot clubhouse. The resort also features eight Har-Tru tennis courts, a junior Olympic swimming pool, a recreation centre with fitness room and a European-style spa. Accommodations are within a five-iron’s distance to the first tee as the resort offers 50 elegant hotel-style villas with two bedrooms and two bathrooms in each. A variety of great restaurants are available on site should you decide to stay close to home and do nothing more than sleep, golf and eat during your stay.

Further south en route to Fort Myers, in the quiet hamlet of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, is arguably my favourite Florida golf retreat. A little off the beaten track, but certainly worth the drive from the mainland, The Gasparilla Inn and Club is one of Florida’s finest vacation destinations. The fact that the resort features an 18-hole, 6,942-yard, par 72, Pete Dye championship golf course adjacent to the azure waters of Charlotte Bay makes the Gasparilla Inn and Club even more appealing. The resort is also home to a 220-slip marina providing easy access to the Gulf of Mexico and the best tarpon fishing you will find anywhere in the world.

The origins of the property date back to 1913 when the Gasparilla Inn opened as a luxurious 40-room hotel for wealthy vacationers from New York and Massachusetts. Today, after extensive renovations, the resort now features 62 guest rooms and suites in the Inn and 20 multi-bedroom cottages and villas thoughtfully designed with your favourite golf foursome in mind. A preferred destination for former President George H.W. Bush and his family during the holiday season, the Gasparilla Inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of Interior in 2008.

During your Gasparilla golf getaway, don’t expect a bustling night life or a bar scene reminiscent of a university pub crawl. The Inn’s own Pink Elephant restaurant or the few small eateries in town are as exciting as it gets. Remember, it is the signature seaside golf course and the resort’s subdued sophistication that make Gasparilla special. If you’re looking for a different and more laid back golf holiday, your Gasparilla experience will reintroduce you to a slower pace of life, where tee times are not required and the recommended mode of transportation is a golf cart.

Gasparilla Inn
Gasparilla Inn       

Should you and your group decide to forgo playing golf for a day, I would recommend spending some time exploring Florida’s non-golf attractions. In between Port Charlotte and Fort Myers are numerous islands and keys that provide visitors with a true taste of Florida’s tropical environment and ecological habitat. It is on the barrier islands of Pine, Cayo Costa, Captiva and Sanibel that you will discover Florida’s “Gulf Coast” as the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and pristine, white sand beaches stretch for as far as the eye can see. Consider an out-island cruise from Captiva Island or a visit to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island where you will be introduced to the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the U.S., world renowned for its spectacular migratory bird populations.

Westin Our Lucaya Resort
Roseate Spoonbills in Refuge       

In Fort Myers, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates is also worthy of a visit. Both entertaining and educational, the attraction features the 14-acre riverfront estate of inventor and genius, Thomas Edison and the neighbouring 3 ½ acre estate of automobile industrialist and good friend, Henry Ford.

One hour south of Fort Myers is Collier County, the region of the state that encompasses the city of Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades. Home to over 100 golf courses, immaculate beaches, charming alfresco restaurants, eclectic art galleries and upscale shopping along Naples’ Fifth Avenue, there is plenty to arouse the senses here. Spectacular sunsets illuminate the horizon over the Gulf of Mexico every night which likely explains why this area of Florida is appropriately referred to as the Paradise Coast.

Two outstanding, yet very different golf resorts are located in the Naples area. The first is GreenLinks Golf Resort and Conference Centre, a 36-hole facility featuring two championship golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and Lee Trevino. Respectively named the Flamingo Island and the Mustang, these two layouts are the only signature public golf courses in Naples. The Flamingo Island course was recently designated as one of “America’s Best” by Golfweek and received a four-star rating by Golf Digest. The Mustang is equally impressive and certainly deserving of similar accolades.

The accommodations at GreenLinks were designed with the golf enthusiast in mind. Clean, comfortable and fully-furnished one, two + den, and three bedroom suites are available adjacent to the golf courses allowing you to fall out of bed every morning and be on the first tee minutes in advance of your tee time.  

Greenlinks Golf Resort
Greenlinks Golf Resort       

The second golf resort affords the ultimate bonding experience for a group of avid golfers. Voted the top golf resort in Florida and #9 out of the Top 100 Golf Resorts in North America by Conde Nast Traveler is the unsurpassed Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples. The 295-room hotel is a AAA Five Diamond property and home to two 18-hole, Greg Norman signature golf courses at Tiburon - the 7,005-yard Black Course and the 7,288-yard Gold Course - and the Rick Smith Golf Academy. It is on the Gold Course at Tiburon that the PGA Tour hosts its annual Merrill Lynch Shootout.

Ritz Carleton Golf Resort
Ritz Carlton Golf Resort       

First class in every way imaginable, guests of the golf resort are also entitled to visit and enjoy the neighbouring Ritz-Carlton Resort, a short ten minute drive away(yes, there are two Ritz-Carlton hotels in Naples!).  Considered to be the crown jewel among all Ritz-Carlton hotels, this spectacular beach resort is located on twenty acres overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. As to be expected from the Ritz-Carlton, every guest amenity has been considered including a state-of-the-art massage and fitness centre, business centre and spa. Exquisite restaurants are available at both locations leaving you with the unenviable task of deciding where to have dinner every night after a fabulous day on the golf course.

So there you have it. Five great stay and play golf destinations along Florida’s Gulf/Golf Coast. If you have never taken part on a golf getaway with a handful of your closest friends, this is the year to do so. Great deals, great golf courses and even greater memories await in what I consider to be the golf capital of the world.

Fast Facts

Great Golf Destinations:

Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club – www.innisbrookgolfresort.com
Emerald Greens Golf Resort and Country Club – www.emeraldgreensgcc.com
The Gasparilla In and Club – www.gasparillainn.com
GreenLinks Golf Resort and Conference Centre – www.greenlinksnaples.com
Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort – www.ritzcarlton.com

Non-Golf Activities and Places of Interest:

Captiva Cruises – www.captivacruises.com
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge – www.dingdarling.fws.gov
Edison and Ford Winter Estates – www.efwefla.org
Naples Princess Cruises – www.naplesprincesscruises.com

General Information:

Visit Florida - www.visitflorida.com and www.golf.visitflorida.com
Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau – www.fortmyers-sanibel.com
Naples, Marco Island, Everglades – www.ParadiseCoast.com

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