Coastal Living recently revealed its list of the top 15 “Happiest Seaside Towns” in America. It is perhaps no surprise that the two communities atop the list – #1 Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and #2 Naples, Florida – reflect many years of careful planning as tourist destinations. In both places, a series of development companies with stringent regulations created and sustained compelling visions for these seaside communities.

On Kiawah, following years in the hands of lumber interests in the middle years of the twentieth century, the still well-forested barrier island entered the hands of a Saudi Arabian oil company in the 1970s as an almost blank slate. The company drew on the talents of Charles Fraser, who as American Tourism contributor James Tuten details, carefully and sensitively nestled villas and other amenities in the natural environment in much the way he had done at Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island to the south of Kiawah. Branching out from vacation villas and inns, Kiawah used its image of symbiotic development and nature to drive home sales as vacationers found it irresistible to own a little piece of paradise.

Kiawah River seen from Inlet Cove Club on Kiawah Island, 2010. Photo by J. Mark Souther. All Rights Reserved.

Likewise, in Naples, a succession of companies, as American Tourism contributor Aaron Cowan observes, created the “Naples image” of refined leisure through both resort hotels and residential allotments. From the Naples Hotel, which catalyzed the first carefully planned residential development, to later residential communities like Port Royal (launched in the 1940s) and Pelican Bay (envisioned in the 1970s), master-planned luxury lifestyles continued to build the Naples brand.

Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park in Naples, Florida, 1995. Photo by J. Mark Souther. All Rights Reserved.

Although subsequent development has made inroads on the beautiful scenic settings at both Kiawah and Naples, much remains of the original vision at each. Kiawah Island has developed many of the fingerlike, forested hammocks at marsh’s edge that were in the 1970s-80s open only for Jeep safaris. Yet in most cases the new homes, if drawing more on high-style period revivals than rustic, understated styles, crouch beneath only partially disturbed canopies of maritime forest in a fashion similar to their predecessors from the 1970s. In Naples, it’s true that sprawl has made many of its outlying areas indistinguishable from any other suburban community, but the portions of the town along or near the Gulf of Mexico shores retain a master-planned feel. Even the town’s main street, Fifth Avenue South, has moved decidedly toward a strong Mediterranean architectural motif in the past couple of decades, reinforcing the emphasis on high-quality design for which Naples is famous.

The bottom line is that satisfying beach towns draw no small measure of their positive image from the ability to control design principles and maintain a balance of the natural and built environments, with the latter never overwhelming the former.