The Bear's Club | Links Magazine | Scott Kauffman | April, 2009

"Sizing Up South Florida"

Upscale golf developments appear all over the Sunshine State, but on the southern coasts two decidedly different cultures mark the gated-community lifestyle.To many first-time homebuyers, Florida’s various regions might seem indistinguishable. Wherever you look, the state offers an abundance of sunshine, water and golf course communities. In fact, Florida has more than 500 golf-related real estate developments overall, accounting for one-sixth of the nation’s golf course communities.

So what are prospective golf course homebuyers to make of so many options? For starters, it’s important to note that while all points Florida might seem similar in nature, there are two distinctly different lifestyles being served in the Sunshine State—particularly along the highly desirable east and west coasts of South Florida.

Does that mean one coast has an edge over the other? Not at all. That would be like saying a round of linksland golf is better than parkland golf, or vice versa. However you slice it (pardon the pun), it’s still golf, which is something any avid player can appreciate.

The same goes for Florida when it comes to picking a coast to call home. Whether it’s the swank Southeast or the understated Southwest, you can’t go wrong with either side of the Sunshine State. Nevertheless, if this decision leaves you hanging like a chad, following is a primer on what makes Florida’s two main coastal regions tick.Thanks in large part to places such as Palm Beach, Boca Raton and Miami, Southeast Florida is synonymous with glitz and glamour. Its people—many of them transplanted Northeasterners—often reek of money and ostentation. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “It’s sooo Boca.”

On the opposite side of the state in Naples, there’s certainly no shortage of wealth, either—Collier County is one of America’s wealthiest counties per capita. But in matters of style, Naples is as far from Boca or Palm Beach County as you can imagine. Simply put, things are more understated on the Gulf Coast.

When it comes to Florida real estate, the Southeast—or Gold Coast, as it’s sometimes called—is where New Yorkers, Bostonians and Jerseyites tend to buy. Some even describe this section of the state as “New York City South.” Not, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything wrong with that.

It’s just that Naples is where Midwesterners tend to locate. And with the Midwest migration comes another kind of culture. In many ways, Naples is the antithesis of, say, Palm Beach or the hopping hubs of Fort Lauderdale, Boca and Miami. Naples is “Old Florida,” as the locals put it, and it moves at a much slower pace—the way Boca Raton and the rest of the Southeast coast were 30 years ago.That’s why Chicagoans Peter and Susan Crawford chose Naples. After wintering in that area for some two decades, the Crawfords retired from United Airlines several years ago (Peter was a pilot, Susan a flight attendant) and bought a permanent home on the “Platinum Coast.”

“This is like another world compared to that coast,” says Susan Crawford, referring to Southeast Florida. “What we saw when we traveled and spent time in Miami or West Palm were places that just seemed more congested, more populated. Naples was more of a true vacation—more calm and more peaceful.”

There are several other reasons Naples and its surrounds make for such an attractive destination: Mediterra, Tuscany Reserve, Fiddler’s Creek and Tiburón, a foursome of upscale golf communities as impressive as any in the country.

In the Crawfords’ case, it was Mediterra that earned their mortgage. The Crawfords moved into the gated North Naples community four years ago after buying a home in Villoresi, one of three luxury villa neighborhoods where single-family residences started at $750,000. In all, there are 950 residences planned for this 1,697-acre development that features two Tom Fazio-designed courses and a spectacular beach club on the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s just an amazing place,” says a smiling Susan. “This has everything you could ask for—the European flair, the amenities. But to me, it all comes down to the people. And the friends we’ve made are wonderful. We feel like we hit the jackpot with Mediterra.”

Peter Crawford agrees: “Life is much more laid-back and unassuming here,” he says. “We find that especially true at Mediterra. I worked hard in my career to compete. When I get here, I just want to relax and enjoy life.”

Another dynamic golf course community in Southwest Florida is Fiddler’s Creek, where homes ranged in price from $300,000 to more than $4 million when the Arthur Hills-designed golf course opened nearly three years ago. Located on the southern edge of Naples just a short drive from Marco Island, Fiddler’s Creek is an ambitious 4,000-acre, “resort-style,” Mediterranean-themed community that also features a 54,000-square-foot clubhouse and spa, a second Mike Hurdzan/Dana Fry-designed course under development, a nearby yacht club and full-service marina, and a world-class hotel/condo on Marco Island that doubles as the community’s private beach club. Next up for Fiddler’s Creek: an even larger clubhouse facility that developer Aubrey Ferrao says will be the finest ever built.

“We treat amenities as the soul of Fiddler’s Creek,” says Ferrao, whose Gulf Bay Group of Companies is one of the leading developers of high-rise towers in the Naples area. “Everyone can build. But you have to offer what I call the soul.”For Michigan native Gregg Elliott and his young family, enjoying a “moment in time” at Fiddler’s Creek doesn’t necessarily mean splurging on one of Fiddler’s many luxurious amenities. It can be as simple as enjoying the thousands of acres of marshland, preserves, parks and other open space that will never be developed at the community.

“Obviously, there are a lot of nice places [to live], but we just love Fiddler’s Creek,” Elliott says. “The golf is great, the health club and spa is second to none, and we have a nice exclusive getaway at the beach. The development is so spacious, with a lot of wonderful wildlife. We just really felt at home here.”

On the opposite coast, particularly Palm Beach County, there is arguably no more comfortable place to call home if you’re a golfer. Palm Beach County officials describe their Southeast Florida location as having the “best of everything.” Forty-seven miles of prime Gold Coast shoreline and three of the world’s swankiest places to live—Palm Beach, Jupiter Island and Boca Raton—certainly give the county an impressive array of real estate options. Throw in top-shelf resorts such as The Breakers and Boca Raton Resort & Club, 40-plus cultural venues like the Kravis Center, endless amounts of world-class dining, shopping and entertainment, and a year-round sub-tropical climate, and the “best of everything” is a label that easily fits.

But these are just some of the reasons well-known golfers such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Ray Floyd, Nick Price and numerous others live in the region. Another main attraction, of course, is the golf-rich nature of Palm Beach County, which hosts a number of international and national golf events and is home to more than 160 golf facilities (including the 90-hole PGA National Resort & Spa, the national headquarters of the PGA of America). That partly explains why the 2,578-square-mile county—the largest southeast of the Mississippi River—calls itself Florida’s Golf Capital. Most of the courses in Palm Beach County are open to the public, but there are several private clubs where a select few can enjoy a life of luxury.

One of the newest developments appealing to such clientele is Old Palm Golf Club, a project by WCI Communities Inc., in Palm Beach Gardens. WCI has more than 50 communities and 600-plus holes of golf throughout Florida, the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. But Old Palm is destined to distinguish itself. The exclusive course is the vision of Ray Floyd, the “honorary club chairman,” who is intimately involved in ensuring all elements of Old Palm are synonymous with the finest golf clubs of the world.

Old Palm is a unique 22-hole facility, including a 19th “bye hole” where many a bet will surely be settled, and three practice holes that highlight a 33-acre, state-of-the-art Golf Studio. Other features of the 658-acre Old Palm community are a no tee-time policy, caddie program, Golf Estates that start at $1.6 million, Grand Estates from $2.3 million and custom estate homesites priced from $1 million.

“Southeast Florida has a longer-established clientele, so the restaurants, entertainment, shopping and transportation are attractive,” says WCI spokesman Kyle Reinson. “There is a different energy. Worth Avenue in Palm Beach is different from downtown Naples, and professional sports and a larger population afford for different volumes of lifestyle activity outside the Old Palm experience.”

Another Palm Beach County locale for the privileged few is The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, an ultra-exclusive enclave of 55 multi-acre estate homes that start at $3.5 million and exceed $12 million. Just as the name implies, this is the private lair of Jack Nicklaus and his family, at least when it comes to playing golf. The Golden Bear and his wife, Barbara, actually live in nearby Lost Tree Village, where they have maintained the same house since 1970. Still, The Bear’s Club has as much of the Nicklaus imprint as any place in the world, from the championship layout that features the same imported sand he used at Muirfield Village in Ohio to the 35,000-square-foot, Tuscan-style clubhouse that Barbara helped decorate with numerous personal mementos and gifts.

How private is The Bear’s Club? The hand-forged steel gates at the front entrance are the product of a company that did similar work at the White House and the U.S. Capitol building.

So there you have it, two distinctly different entrees to Florida living at its finest: from White House-caliber steel gates on the Southeast coast to the unassuming private communities of the Southwest. Whatever your tastes, Florida has the flavors to satisfy.