La Playa Beach & Golf Club

I usually hate surprises. But sometimes being caught off-guard leads to a wondrous experience.

The La Playa Beach & Golf Club in Naples, Florida, provided just such serendipity. I hadn’t even heard of it until a few weeks ago, so my expectations were modest. Having now spent a few days coddled along the Gulf of Mexico, my wife and I give four emphatic thumbs-up to this comfortably elegant resort.

Naples has many great hotels, including some much better-known hostelries. But La Playa—which is a little ways north of downtown Naples and nearly hidden among a string of high-rise residences—sits on its own private beach while many of the other properties are well away from the water. And La Playa doesn’t sprawl but is casually compact: It’s just a few steps from the lobby and room access to the outdoors, a choice of pools, hot tub, spa, and sand.

The rooms aren’t gargantuan, either, but neither are the rates—and there are numerous packages that make it very affordable. Our room had a lovely balcony with wide-angle views over the gulf, from where we watched pelicans and other birds and sat engrossed as the glowing orange sun sunk into the west each evening.

Besides the outdoor bar/restaurant—which served good, fresh sandwiches and salads as well as a full menu of tropical drinks—there is an excellent restaurant, called Baleen, just off the lobby. A number of locals told us it is one of the best dining rooms in the area and our meal gave no reason to doubt that claim: Terrific fish dishes, including a well-stocked raw bar, creatively prepared and presented, at tables both inside and on a covered outdoor terrace that looks out over beach and gulf. Once finished, we were no more than 15 seconds from a fire pit in the sand where we enjoyed after-dinner drinks, cigars (just me, not my wife), and amusing conversations with new friends from all over the country.

One couple we met was celebrating their second anniversary in the same room they’d occupied on their wedding night. They didn’t have to tell us that La Playa is a popular spot for beachside nuptials: There was one wedding each night we were there and some of the guests drifted over from their parties to join us for fireside drinks. We even saw another couple get engaged. Must be something in the air.

Far less romantic but just as efficient, a business group arrived one afternoon (its opening night event was an outdoor barbecue that smelled great), but the hotel never felt crowded.

While the hotel is a hidden gem, I’m less enthusiastic about the golf course, La Playa Golf Club. A few minutes’ drive inland and both a resort course and private club, the course was designed by Bob Cupp on a tight parcel of land striped with waterways. The opening hole is quite a test—a long, risk/reward, right-to-left dogleg with water hugging the left side—anything but a gentle easing into the round. After that, La Playa is what I consider typical Florida golf, with water and vegetation menacingly close to greens and fairways, putting a premium on club selection and direction. I enjoyed some holes, was confounded by others, and found it difficult to establish a rhythm. However, the small greens were in great condition, quick with subtle breaks.

The practice range was very wide—there’s a David Leadbetter Academy on property, too—making me wish that a little of that land could be added to the course to provide some breathing room. Expect to be challenged, maybe even a bit frustrated, on your first round at La Playa. I suspect it’s a course that grows on you, becoming fairer and more interesting with subsequent play, an observation confirmed by the members I spoke to in the well-appointed locker room.

No matter where you spend your days teeing it up in Naples—and someone told me there are more than 100 courses within about a 10-mile radius—consider spending your evenings at La Playa. I hope I haven’t ruined the surprise.