As the largest barrier island within the Ten Thousand Islands area, Marco Island features beaches that are consistently ranked among the nation’s best. But there is much more to the island’s 24 square miles than meets the beachcomber’s eye. Discover Naples’ southern neighbor with our insider’s guide from A to Z.
ART in Marco Island ranges from casual gift shops to serious collections. At the top of the list is the Elizabeth Evans Gallery. Founder Diana Evans Gratz has created a gallery of fine art photography (think Iran Issa Khan and Greg Lotus) where discriminating art lovers fawn over exhibits such as Bryan Bogater’s “Forgotten America” collection. Marco Island Center for the Arts also hosts events, workshops and classes, while showcasing the work of many artists at the Lauritzen & Rush Gallery and La Petite Galerie.
BEACHES. Marco Island has more than 100 miles of waterways and six miles of shoreline. The beach at Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort is a wide berth of sand that beckons on lazy afternoons between lunch at Quinn’s on the Beach and drinks at sunset. Public beaches like South Marco Beach and Tigertail Beach draw water babies and sun worshippers. Family-oriented Tigertail features the famous Sand Dollar Spit (once a detached island) where you can go shelling, fishing and birdwatching to spot everything from herons and egrets to ibis and terns.
COCKTAILS & BREWS. When you’ve finished exploring and it’s time to sit back with a libation, the gazebo holds up the happy-hour fun at CJ’s on the Bay in the Esplanade Shoppes. That’s where you’ll also find locally owned Mango’s Dockside Bistro and its lovely tropical cocktail menu. For beer connoisseurs, the Marco Island Brewery is home to excellent craft beers and burgers. And Don Henley’s classic tune “Down at the Sunset Grill” may not have been about the Sunset Grill in the Apollo Condos on Marco Island, but it’s worth a stop nonetheless—the views and vibe are all island.
DINING OPTIONS. There’s no shortage of places to eat on Marco, whether it’s a quick bite or a lavish meal—and we’re sharing some of our favorites. For a quick bite, try Empire Bagel on Collier Boulevard and Marco Island Italian Deli. For a variety of gluten-free options, check out Summer Day Market & Café. When dining out in the evening, some sumptuous dishes we love are the west Florida cobia with vegetables and morel emulsion at Fin Bistro, the mushroom crostini in gorgonzola cream sauce at Verdi’s and the shellfish bisque and lobster thermidore at Marek’s Restaurant. And we’re still craving the melt-in-your-mouth croissants and Comté mac n’ cheese at Petit Soleil.
EVENTS. Contrasting with the serenity of the beaches are events happening across the island in any given week. Among the most popular: the Marco Island Paddle Challenge at The Esplanade Marina; Annual Mullet Festival at Stan’s Idle Hour; Marco Island Film Festival; Southwest Florida Soap Fest Charity Weekend for local children’s charities; and Goodland’s Annual Holiday Bazaar (239-734-5523). Event dates are subject to change, so check with the organizations for details.
FISH is to Marco Island like pork belly is to gourmands. The best is at Lee Be Fish Company, a tiny spot that has one of the best fish tacos on the Paradise Coast, as well as other fresh seafood dishes in the utterly charming Shops of Olde Marco on Royal Palm Drive.
GOODLAND. When exploring this fishing village on the southeast tip of the island, stop in at Stan’s Idle Hour or The Little Bar on Goodland for fresh seafood and chilled cocktails. Both are also accessible by boat.
HIDDEN GEM. Joe’s Hideout is tucked away in the Shops of Olde Marco just down the path from Lee Be Fish Company and next to its sister store, Sweet Dreams of Marco,where the cupcakes are like little works of art. Cold beer, wine, pizza, burgers and Boston hot dogs are on the menu. It’s packed for happy hour, and the impossibly cute Key West courtyard seating with overhead lights is always happening.
ISLAND BIKE SHOP. If you prefer to discover the island on two wheels, come Island Bike Shop to rent and purchase bikes—plus, the shop will share the best routes for the most picturesque views. Serious cyclists are most drawn to the buns-burning Indian Hill area, the highest spot in Southwest Florida.
JAMMIN’ IN THE HAMMOCK, the annual bluegrass festival at Collier-Seminole State Park (239-394-3397), is going into its seventh year with live music and fun for the entire family. The festival features well-known bluegrass and folk bands, food, and arts and crafts vendors. Mark your calendar for February 8 and 9, 2014.
KAYAK MARCO, the Marco Island arm of Charles Wright’s Chokoloskee-based Everglades Area Tours, offers an eco-education bioluminescence night kayak tour on the darkest nights of the month. Or join the full-moon paddle and party that ends at a local restaurant. Participants meet at a central location and caravan to the selected launch. Families are welcome.
LEARN TO SCUBA. Feeling adventurous? Head over to Scuba Marco, the trusted source for scuba diving and snorkeling trips from the island and the place to get certified for diving in the Gulf and around the world.
MOVIES. Forget On Demand. Get in the car and make it a movie night at Marco Movies, where you can see first-run films with table service in the theater. Arrive a half hour before the movie starts to settle in.
NATURE. Mother Nature is a vibrant companion throughout the Island with vast marine life and native habitats. Take Caxambas Park: Aside from fishing, there’s a lovely little pier flanking the boat ramp and a rookery full of wading birds.
OWLS. Some of Marco’s most interesting residents are the elusive burrowing owls, and no one knows more about them than City Environmental Specialist Nancy Richie, who leads people on walks in hopes of viewing the tiny owls and their burrows.
PAMPERING. If you’re longing to step away from the crowded resorts and unwind with a massage or facial, consider Tom Brummitt’s Salon and Spa Botanica, a little island gem that proudly states it is “more than 2.5 miles from any of the resort hotels” in the Shops of Marco. You’ll be treated to organic products and, at around $75 for an hour massage and $110 for 90 minutes, it’s worth the drive.
QUAINT PARKS. Known for its butterfly garden and walking trail, Petite Calusa Park on Winterberry is the perfect place to begin a stroll. For another quiet afternoon, bring a book to Leigh Plummer Park or wander around Mackle Park’s 10-acre lake.
RICH HISTORY. An afternoon at the Marco Island Historical Museum reveals a storied timeline of Southwest Florida’s Calusa Indians. Various exhibits follow Marco’s settlement from its early fishing village pioneer days, pineapple plantation and clam cannery all the way to the present day.
SHELLING. On Sand Dollar Spit, sand dollars and shells that wash up on the beach make this spot prime shelling territory. Access it via Tigertail Beach. Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort also offers a sailing and shelling adventure on a six-passenger catamaran. Tours leave directly from the beach three times a day, weather permitting. If you love shells but not the actual shelling, head over to Marco Craft & Shell Company for shells, books on seashells, shell-themed gifts and local shell art.
TAKE YOUR PETS. What makes posh Naples pet owners trek Fido and Fifi to Marco? The Canine Cove dog run at Mackle Park is one of the cleanest and friendliest dog parks in Collier County. Places like The Critter Café also offer four-legged friends gourmet treats and darling shopping.
USUAL SUSPECTS. Naples residents are likely familiar with the Sand Bar, Snook Inn and the Crazy Flamingo bar. But they bear mention anyway since they can be the sites of many a cool clambake on the island, especially during season. Marco Island’s Dolphin Explorer has been lauded by National Geographic author Keith Bellows in his book, 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life.
VIEWS. Jolly Bridge and its southern neighbor, Goodland’s Stan Gober Bridge, offer spectacular vistas. While dining, Sale e Pepe at Marco Beach Ocean Resort offers a sunset terrace overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Elsewhere, the “Dome House,” known for its hauntingly slow descent into the Gulf at Cape Romano, is a popular attraction only visible by boat (below).
WATER SPORTS. Marco Island is the perfect place to engage in water sports, including but not limited to paddleboarding, boat rentals, tubing and waterskiing. Jet Set Surf Shop is an island supplier for all board sports—from wake boards to paddleboards to surf boards.
XMAS, ISLAND STYLE. The island makes a big splash over the holidays with more than a dozen events to choose from throughout the season at Christmas Island Style. Highlights include the Annual Tree Lighting (November 30), Holiday Pets Parade (December 3), Annual Christmas Boat Parade (December 7), and Holiday Caroling Cruise (December 20).
YOUTH. Don’t be surprised to find a lively young crowd among the permanent island residents of 15,000. Marco young professionals flock to the Sand Bar, Apollo (239-642-6767) and Snook Inn. For snorkeling, the south area is popular, and known for shark fishing during the summer. On weekends, Keewaydin Island (referred to as “Waydin”) is a draw. Dogs are allowed as long as they’re on a leash.
ZZZ. For those craving a simple weekend of rest and relaxation, Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort and Marco Beach Ocean Resort have beautiful accommodations and spas. For charming boutique lodging, consider the Olde Marco Inn, which was built in 1883 by Captain Bill Collier on Calusa Indian grounds.