Winter weather is blasting many parts of Ireland and the US, but sunshine and sandy beaches are not far way. Florida is less than a three hour plane trip from Newark or JFK or nine hours from Ireland.
Although Miami, West Palm Beach, Clearwater Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando draw lots of Irish and Irish-American visitors, the small and picturesque city of Naples (population 21,653) in the SW corner of the Sunshine State is fast becoming a favorite place to go because it is not over-run with tourists or traffic – and it also has a lot of Irish connections including an annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade (this year, slated for March 13).
Nestled between the Gordon River and the Gulf of Mexico, the Naples waterfront is reminiscent of the coastal coves of Bantry Bay or the Ring of Kerry, with palm trees swaying in the breezes and endless unspoiled beaches, except Naples also boasts hundreds of meg-millions mansions, all built in recent years.
Fly into Ft. Myers Airport and drive ½ hour south to Naples. Compared to Irish cities and towns, Naples is relatively young, founded in the 1880’s and named after the Italian port of the same name because of its idyllic location and climate (average annual high temperature: 84, and average low temperature: 64 – even though the past week has brought temperatures 25 degrees below normal!). It has also retained a beautiful historic area of old tile-roofed buildings flanked by huge banyan trees.
You’ll know you have arrived in Naples as you turn onto the main street (Fifth Avenue) and see the shamrocks amid the palm fronds at the Shamrock Bank of Florida (www.shamrockbankfl.com), a Naples-originated community bank.
Naples is known for The Pier (dating back to 1888), a rustic 1,000-foot wooden platform jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico and a favorite for visitors and locals alike who crave the sea air or seek the best vantage point for sunsets. A stroll on the Naples pier is similar to walking out along the pier in Dun Laoghaire or along the promenade of Salthill.
For a large dose of Irish atmosphere amid the sunshine, step into McCabe’s Irish Pub (www.mccabesirishpub.com) on Fifth Avenue. An epicenter of Irish culture and cuisine, McCabe’s is the brainchild of Phil McCabe, owner of the Inn on Fifth, one of Naples leading hotels. In 1997, Phil, whose grandparents came from Co. Cork, decided he wanted to add an Irish pub to his posh hotel but he wanted to make it as authentic as possible. He visited Ireland and went on a “pub crawl with a purpose,” visiting some of Ireland’s oldest and most well-known pubs, such as the Brazen Head in Dublin, to get ideas on décor and style.
Seeking authenticity, McCabe ordered rich mahogany paneling, molding and doors milled to order in Ireland. Historic details like tin whiskey signs, old bank notes, a Kerry fiddle, etched glass window panels, converted gas lighting fixtures and countless bric-a-brac were hunted down at estate sales, auctions, fairs and markets all over the Emerald Isle.
In the course of his travels, Phil arranged for a veritable treasure trove of Irish pub decorations and memorabilia to be shipped out from Ireland to Florida, and eight carpenters were employed from Ireland and brought to Naples for six weeks to assemble it all in place.
Menu choices are equally authentic – from Old Tatty Leek Soup and Dublin Slow Roast, to Guinness-marinated sliced beef, and Finnegan’s fish and chips, as well as the usual corned beef and cabbage, stew and pot pies and Florida seafood and salads. Live Irish music is often played at McCabe’s with entertainers from Ireland including a harpist from Ashford Castle and Galway-musician Gerry Forde.
Fifteen miles south of Naples and flanked by palm trees is another bastion of Irish food and drink – Cathy O’Clarke’s Pub on Marco Island (http://irishpubmarcoisland.com) - Cathy’s father came from Co. Cork. This pub is situated on Collier Blvd., the island’s main street opposite the Hilton Hotel so it is hard to miss the green, white and gold façade.
“Every day is St. Patrick’s Day” is the theme of Cathy’s pub, with Guinness posters on the walls and a menu offering choices such as Cork City Nachos; Derry Quay Mussels, Bantry Bay crab dip, Wexford Wings and Feisty Fiona’s Shrimp, as well as corned beef and cabbage, bangers and mash, Irish stew and shepherd’s pie. Guinness, Smithwicks, Harp and Murphys are all on draft, and Irish music is played five nights a week by Robbie Doherty from Donegal.