Sporting neon-painted toes and a crow's-feet-free face, the spiky-haired blonde busted into the Naples, Fla., handbag shop like a hurricane slamming the gulf coast.
"Omigod, Sonja!" she gasped to the owner, and to the three of us in the tiny store, and to everyone in the courtyard outside and at the gelato shop across the breezeway. "I couldn't wait to get back from the Caribbean! There was nothing to buy there. Noth-ing!"
Here's a woman who lives by Naples's unofficial credo, which shop owner Sonja Benson had aptly posted on a sign in her front window: "Alan Greenspan just called and said it's OK to buy anything you want."
Because that's what women in Naples do. Call it cliched, but in this well-to-do southwest Florida city, old couples retire, husbands golf and women shop. We forgave Benson for what she had to do: swiftly end her chat with us -- the pale Northerners in Beltway-drab clothes who probably weren't going to buy her $250 purses anyway (correct) -- and follow the platinum blonde with the platinum card. Later, we saw the woman combing Third Street South with a Sonja Benson shopping bag in hand.
If Orlando is for forced family bonding and South Beach was made for nightly skin parades against an art deco backdrop, Naples is where you go to spend money and have something to show for it. It is such a luxury shopping mecca that one of its main shopping drags is called Fifth Avenue. And that's not just because countless Naples residents are transplants from New York.
"In all the boutiques, everything is high end. And the shops are so centrally located that you don't have to worry about taking a taxi or a limousine like in New York," said Bernice Gant, a personal shopper to Naples's elite residents and spend-hungry visitors. She likens the shopping to that on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or Worth Avenue in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Like those boulevards, Fifth Avenue in Naples pays homage to the art of fine shopping. And to shopping for fine art. Home to many art galleries, Fifth Avenue South is a major reason Naples was ranked first in the 2005 edition of "The 100 Best Art Towns in America" by John Villiani. Third Street South, meanwhile, is aswarm with boutiques for clothes, housewares and jewelry, plus more galleries.
Naples is better known for its golf -- there are more than 90 18-hole golf courses in the area -- and for pristine beaches (though sadly, many beachfront condos shoo away tourists from their sands with signs saying "private"). It's senior-friendly without the early bird specials, family-oriented without water parks and mini-golf, and in general moves at a slower pace than most Florida beach hubs.
The shops are packed with snowbirds in the winter, but the best bargains and smaller crowds are found off season, if you can handle the swelter of a Florida summer. The shoulder seasons of September-October and April-May are ideal.
Third Street especially is jammed with more shops in its plazas and nooks than first meets the eye, and trying to cover them all can be exhausting. Here's a shopping primer.
GETTING ORIENTED: Old-growth trees line the streets of downtown Naples, which is organized in a grid pattern. The six square blocks of Third Street South between Broad and 14th avenues South are Boutique Central, with plenty of fountain-filled nooks and cafes for taking a break. Fifth Avenue between Third and Ninth streets South is best explored at night before a late dinner at one of its chic restaurants. Waterside Shops (5415 Tamiami Trail N.) and the Village on Venetian Bay (4200 Gulf Shore Blvd. N.) are two other shopping venues.
BOUTIQUES: For such a small shopping district, the Third Street South region is packed with enough shops to blow the better part of a day. It's dominated by Marissa Collections (1167 Third St. S.), the superstore of boutiques. The 30-year-old clothing shop, which takes up an entire block, sells haute couture, from $1,000 gauzy tunics to more Manolo Blahniks than you'll see on a New York runway. Femme Fatale (1170 Third St. S., in the Plaza shops) dresses the twentysomething bunch, and Fancy Nancy's (1193 Third St. S.) is stocked with sherbet-colored sequined tops and capri pants.
The men's clothing store Brodeur Carvell (850 Fifth Ave. S.) has perfected the nearly extinct art of first-rate service, so you almost don't see the price on that Pal Zileri suit and the Bruno Magli shoes you're trying on. And even a longtime restaurant has a boutique: Campiello (1177 Third St. S.), an Italian eatery in a New Orleans-style building, sells clothing alongside its homemade pasta and brick-oven pizzas.
JEWELRY: Junk jewelry shops have no place in this beach town. Pricey pieces abound. Among its Native American pottery and traditional baskets at Four Winds Gallery (340 13th Ave. S.) are intricate gold and silver jewelry in nature-inspired styles. For its signature "Sealife" line, Congress Jewelers (601 Fifth Ave. S.) crafts dolphins, shells and manatees from 14- and 18-karat gold. Port Royal Jewelers (623 Fifth Ave. S.) has diamond and white gold in modern art deco styles, and Yamron Jewelers (380 Broad Ave. S.) sells watches by Harry Winston and diamonds worthy of celebs.
ART: Naples has more than 100 galleries, including those along a block of Broad Avenue South that's nicknamed "Gallery Row." Paul Arsenault houses his (284 Broad Ave. S.) in a little bungalow with a yard filled with impatiens the size of bushes. His impasto paintings of Florida, the Caribbean and New England are filled with light that seems to shift as the day progresses.
Along the storefronts of Fifth Street is the Shaw Gallery (761 Fifth Ave. S.), with everything from bronze sculptures and Kandinsky-like modern canvases to Impressionist beach scenes. Artists Natalie Guess and Phil Fisher display their works in oils, watercolor and clay alongside art by other locals at the Guess-Fisher Gallery (824 Fifth Ave. S.). HW Gallery (1391 Third St. S.) has a big-name collection of Picassos, Chagalls and Lichtensteins, among others, and the Lady from Haiti (476 Fifth Ave. S.) is a refreshing change from the standard Fifth Avenue art galleries, with painted steel drums, folksy papier-mache wall hangings and glass bead bangles that are like visual music.
HOUSEWARES: You could finely appoint a large home entirely with what the downtown shops have to offer. Linens are displayed on $4,200 sleigh beds sold by the shop And So to Bed (1170 Third St. S., in the Plaza shops). Zazou (also in the Plaza shops) is a warehouse of hand-painted tableware by New York designers MacKenzie-Childs, with their signature checkered and flowered designs. Though it's primarily a high-end furnishings shop, Le Cherche Midi (1209 Third St. S.) offers a signature fragrance for the body or home that smells of lemon, bergamot and lavender.
OLD NAPLES: Shops that existed before Naples's high-rises obscured the view of the gulf rub elbows with the trendier stores. The food shop Fantozzi's of Olde Naples (1148 Third St. S.) is filled with wobbly tables with mismatched tablecloths on which you can eat airy truffle mousse and caviar. Since 1904, Gattle's (1250 Third St. S.) has sold linens and bath accessories. Native Spaniard Jose Aragon (395 13th Ave. S.) has used his background in sculpture to design jewelry since 1968.
DELUXE HAND-ME-DOWNS: The city's best bargains live in its many high-end consignment shops, as long as you don't mind last season's shoes and the occasional velvet jacket that smells like garlic. Wear in the World (859 Fourth Ave. S.) moves worn-once Chanel suits and Hermes bags within days of receiving them, for a third to a quarter of the original price. When homeowners redesign, their decor often is shipped to stores like Twice as Nice (11905 Tamiami Trail N.). There are more than two dozen other consignment shops in the area.
PERSONAL SHOPPER: Snowbirds with million-dollar homes and tourists with limited time but unlimited budgets call on personal shopper Bernice Gant to outfit their homes and suntanned bodies. A New Hampshire transplant, Gant weaves you in and out of the top shops, especially those with fine linens (her weakness). $75 per hour, with a three-hour minimum. Info: 239-290-2335.
WHEN YOU'RE WEARY: Shopping is hard work. Do yourself some good and take a refocusing break. Walk from Third Street two blocks toward the sea and hang out at Naples Pier, dating to 1889. Clam Pass, considered one of the best beaches on the gulf coast, is a secluded public park you reach by walking along a mangrove-shaded boardwalk. Drive along Gulf Shore Boulevard and Gordon Drive to salivate at the pricey homes painted the colors of Jordan almonds and landscaped to the hilt. The Everglades are also nearby.