The search for the “Fountain of Youth” led famed explorer, Ponce de Leon, to what is today known as Florida. His 16th-century mission turned out to be a bust, he wasn’t far from a destination within the Sunshine State gaining prominence—and relevance—as a fountain of wellness for the 21st century.
Florida’s Paradise Coast, Florida’s Paradise Coast, which comprises Naples, Marco Island, and The Everglades, is an oceanfront setting where activities that nourish the mind, body, and spirit are as prevalent as its white-sand beaches. The region is consistently ranked as “happiest and healthiest” in the nation, according to Gallup-Sharecare polling. It’s also taking a research-informed cue from some of the healthiest destinations around the world—places such as Okinawa, Japan, and Sardinia, Italy, as they are home to some the longest-living populations—and proactively weaving lessons for good health and long life into the very fabric of its community.
This benefit extends to those vacationing in this Gulf Coast destination about 1 hour from Fort Myers and two hours from Miami. While it may not offer the eternal youth for which Ponce de Leon was searching, it does offer opportunity to experience life practices that could help to extend your life and spark something we all seek: happiness. “People are just happier here,” said one of my taxi drivers, a former resident of New York who transplanted his family here some 20 years ago. “It’s a way of life, to be happy.”
Here is some of what I discovered on a visit that may inspire your journey to what could be renamed Florida’s Wellness Coast.
Yoga on the beach. Photo courtesy of Edgewater Beach Hotels
YOGA ON THE BEACH
Practicing yoga on the beach was a blissful, soul-healing hug for this girl from Chicago. As the melody of ocean waves intermingled with the rhythm of my breath and gentle movement, dolphins frolicked in the ocean in front of me—a true pinch-me moment.
The chance to do yoga alongside dolphins certainly adds to the experience of this mind-body practice proven to enhance flexibility, strength and vitality. Sunrise and sunset classes are extremely popular on beaches up and down Marco Island and Naples; a simple Google search will yield a treasure trove of pubic classes open to beginner and seasoned practitioners alike. Edgewater Beach Hotel in Naples, in fact, will offer several yoga retreats at its property in 2021; and if you cannot make one of those, request its Serenity Suite, a yoga-themed suite that includes yoga props (perfect for practice on the outdoor balcony overlooking the ocean) and yoga DVDs for in-room guidance.
If sand between the toes isn’t your thing, however, you also can find it offered within a variety of outdoor locations: in the botanical gardens, at the zoo, on a paddleboard, even on a nearby farm alongside goats. With natural settings as the yoga studio, you have an opportunity to unplug from screens and draw inspiration from nature.
Practice yoga while floating atop a paddleboard.
GUIDED MEDITATION CLASSES
Buoyed by an ever-growing body of research highlighting its benefits on memory, attention, empathy, and physical health, meditation is a vacation “activity” offered alongside yoga and fitness classes in Florida’s Paradise Coast. Even if you’ve never meditated in your life, vacation time is a time for new experiences and discoveries, and Paradise Coast Florida offers plenty of opportunities to learn the practice in one of the most idyllic settings.
Find daily meditation classes led by experienced guides at the The JW Marriott Marco Island, as well as the resort’s special in-room channel that offers guided practices on your television. Many other beachfront hotels and resorts offer similar options. To meditate among the mangroves, consider joining the weekly yoga-meditation class led by Simon Tracy through Naples Kayak Company, where participants float atop anchored paddleboards in still waters. Or, experience a guided meditation among the bald cypress trees at Big Cypress Preserve or Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Erica Bray and guest practicing Yoga Nidra; Photo courtesy of Erica Bray
Many of the world’s elderly credit their long lives to making time for sleep, yet more than one-third of us aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep each night (7-9 hours), and that has had a detrimental impact on our health and well-being. So, while vacation can be a time to “catch up” on ZZZs, why not use a small piece of it to learn how to sleep better in everyday life?
Inspired by this, I made time for what was called a “Sleep Class” at the J.W. Marriott Marco Island. It involved laying on our backs, supported by bolsters and swaddled by blankets, on a balcony beneath an almost-full moon, listening to a local meditation teacher guide us into a deep, deep state of relaxation. As I listened to her voice and felt the warm breeze on my skin, I felt cradled, supported and relaxed. Deeply relaxed.
More commonly called Yoga Nidra, this practice is unlike traditional yoga in that the only posture you hold is on your back, resting. It’s a guided technique to relax body and mind, to rest and restore, so that sleep can happen naturally. It’s becoming more widely available in audio recordings and via meditation apps, making it accessible anywhere—but the in-person experience with a live instructor, especially if it’s your first time, is blissfully special. This style of class is offered elsewhere across Florida’s Paradise Coast, such as The Ritz-Carlton Naples and Love Yoga Center.
We are what we eat, and it’s easy to fuel the body with food that promotes vitality while visiting Florida’s Paradise Coast. Fresh-caught stone crab is among the most popular local delicacies. (It’s even sold at local gas stations!) This low-fat protein is a terrific source of B12, which promotes nerve and blood cell vitality— so, go for the large portions at local gems such as Triad Seafood, a no-frills, dockside joint serving fresh-caught seafood daily. In Naples, slip away from the glitzy 5th Avenue to enjoy creative dishes such as “Kung Pao” avocado and Florida Gulf Shrimp pasta at The Local, where Executive Chef Jeff Mitchell prides himself on creating farm-to-table dishes that pull from the freshest Florida-grown ingredients.
Florida’s version of forest bathing is a calming practice with roots in Japan called shinrin-yoku
DITCH THE CAR
As a human species, we spend an obscene amount of time either in the car or in front of screens. The sunshine-laden landscape of Florida’s Paradise Coast beckons you to get out an explore -- and do so with the sort of intimacy that sparks discovery. For me, this came through walking and biking. Stroll some of its 30 miles of shoreline, or participate in Florida’s version of forest bathing, a calming practice with roots in Japan called shinrin-yoku, with a guided swamp walk. Many hotels and resorts offer bike transportation to guests, making it easy to utilize the (generously wide) bike lanes in Naples to ogle the oceanfront mega-mansions, Maseratis and Mercedes of this affluent enclave in Florida.
EVERGLADES KAYAK: HARMONY WITH NATURE
A magical setting of mangrove tunnels, wild orchids, and wildlife await in the Everglades, an easily accessible playground for those visiting Naples and Marco Island. Forgo the zippy airboat tours for an even more intimate and serene experience by joining an escorted kayak tour, as I did during my visit. While slowly paddling the narrow channels of the Turner River in Big Cypress National Park, led by a licensed guide from Everglades Area Tours who resembled Ernst Hemmingway, I remained mesmerized by what I was floating past, through and around. It was January, on an 80-degree day with overcast skies, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. I intentionally distanced myself from our small caravan of six kayaks to slow down, literally and figuratively, and moving at this pace was so peaceful, so calming, and so harmonious. Sometimes in the rush of the everyday, it’s easy to forget that we, too, are very much a part of nature as human-beings. This experience, for me, was a reminder that nature is a symphony in which we’re all playing—humans, the river, the orchids, the insects, the alligators, the birds, everything.
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