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Naples is a top flight golf destination for foodies

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NAPLES, Fla. -- The self-proclaimed 'Golf Capital of the World' takes itself very seriously as a town for foodies.

Eateries for all budgets and taste buds rock the entire strip of U.S. 41 for more than 20 miles from Estero to Naples. It seems that every major chain has a presence on Tamiami Trail and every strip mall has a secret place worth discovering. A handful of top independent restaurants have banded together to form Naples Originals, where locally owned translates into something special on the table. Fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico remains a local delicacy.

A new Naples Food Tour (naplesfoodtours.com) provides guided tours of the area's best finds, including off-the-beaten-path markets, local chocolatiers, restaurants and custom caterers. Special Farmer's Market tours are offered on Saturdays.

Four annual food festivals highlight the calendar -- the Everglades Seafood Festival (always the first full weekend in February), the Marco Island Seafood Festival, the Taste of Collier (featuring the best taste treats from local restaurants) and the Stone Crab Festival.

There's even a popular restaurant guide, 'Where Should We Eat' by Sharon Kenny, which recently released its fourth edition (whereshouldweeatnaples.com) with an insider's take on more than 100 area restaurants. It all adds up to quite a dining scene for such a small seasonal community of roughly 22,000 people. When I asked Sue Phelps of Connecticut what she loved about Naples as a golf destination, the first words out of her mouth were 'the proximity to great restaurants.'

Like everything else, dining out in Naples can be expensive. That doesn't stop snowbirds on vacation from splurging during high season. It doesn't hurt to make a reservation or call ahead during peak times from mid-January to mid-April.

My party wisely called Carrabba's Italian Grill in Bonita Springs ahead of time to tell the hostess we were on our way. She put us on the wait list, which had grown to more than an hour, but we got in relatively quickly while dozens of others were stranded outside. Two nights later, looking for reservations at Seasons 52 in North Naples at opentable.com, we only had two choices, 4:30 p.m. or 9:30 p.m.

Planning ahead can make all the difference in making any night out a good experience. But if one place is booked, never fear. There's a place just as good, or better, nearby.

Dining in downtown Naples

Downtown Naples is a place to see and be seen. It's a Rodeo Drive clone, where boutiques, art galleries and restaurants all intermingle for a pleasant park-and-stroll.

Many of its restaurants are a part of the Naples Originals, notably Bleu Provence for French cuisine and Stoney's Steakhouse for meat. Others include Bistro 21, Dock at Crayton Cove, Mangrove Cafe, Ridgeway Bar & Grill and Sea Salt.

Bonefish Grill, Chops City Grill and Roy's have locations here and farther north along U.S. 41. All are local favorites. I've heard good things about Tommy Bahama's Restaurant (just don't spill any on your Tommy shirt!). Campiello, Cafe Luna and Pazzo! compete for the business of Italian food lovers. Just off downtown is Tin City, a unique enclave on the water with Pincher's Crab Shack and Riverwalk at Tin City (another Naples Originals member).

Relatively new hot spots are the Osetra Champagne & Caviar Bar, Alberto's On Fifth and Barbatella.

Tamiami Trail dining

Just driving up and down U.S. 41 introduces all sorts of choices, such as P.F. Chang's in North Naples. Of all the meals on my recent five-day visit to the area, my favorite was the asparagus and scallops dish at Seasons 52 in North Naples. This unique chain serves wonderfully fresh healthy meals, bookended by treats: flatbread pizzas as appetizers and mini-deserts in large shot glasses after the main course.

The Promenade, a stylish outdoor mall in Bonita Springs, features the other Roy's location and the Silver Spoon Cafe, where its ribs or salmon go down smooth.

Veering off the path in Naples is a good idea to find The Village on Venetian Bay and the M Waterfront Grille, where cutting-edge continental cuisine utilizes fresh and organic ingredients.

Coconut Point

This outdoor shopping mall in Estero is littered with dining options, from the fast-food king, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, to the high-end Ruth's Chris Steak House. Most are chains, but it's a convenient place for a date night with dinner and a movie. Some to try are the California Pizza Kitchen, Hemingway's Island Grill, Johnny Rockets, Blue Water Bistro and Ted's Montana Grill.

Resort dining in Naples

The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club offers HB's On the Gulf -- the only beachfront restaurant in Naples. It serves up the latest fresh catch with a view to match. The Sunset Bar & Grill, with bar stools overlooking the beach, is a favorite hangout of both locals and resort guests. It's been named 'Best Place To View A Southwest Florida Sunset' and 'Naples' Best Beach Bar' by the Travel Channel.

Global and Lemonia, an American Bistro, feed the spoiled guests at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples, next to Tiburon Golf Club. Its sister Ritz-Carlton Beach Resort, a high-rise with 450 rooms three miles away, includes the Gumbo Limbo (on the beach), The Grill (a steakhouse) and The Sushi Bar.

The Strip House, an upscale steakhouse, emerged during a rebranding of the Waldorf Astoria Naples. Tanglewood and Tarpon Bay (seafood) are found at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs.