No exotic vacations for me when I was growing up – vacation meant a Florida beach trip for our family of five. During that glorious week, we spent just about every minute on the beach, with short interludes to go jump, backflip or cartwheel off the diving board in the pool. (Ah, I miss diving boards.) Back then, there just wasn’t that much else to do on the beaches we visited. Now, there’s so much to do you have to select what you can fit in. During a recent visit, I got a taste of some of the dozens of things to do in Marco Island.
Marco Island is a true island off the coast of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico, the largest and only inhabited island that’s part of a chain known as Ten Thousand Islands. Visitors come for one of the top beaches in Florida, amenity-filled resorts and outdoor activities like fishing, boating and golf. You can go fly fishing, play pickleball, go shelling and dolphin exploring, kayak through the mangroves and learn about the history of the people on the island dating back 6,000 years.
Marco Island is part of what is known as Florida’s Paradise Coast, which also includes Naples, Everglades City, Immokalee and Ave Maria.
The closest airport to Marco Island is Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, about an hour away. I really enjoyed flying into this light-filled airport and renting a car is super easy. You just walk out of the baggage claim area and cross the street to a large rental facility for almost all of the rental car companies – goodbye to long rental car shuttle rides!
Here are several things you can do in Marco Island, both in the water and out of it. Hey, sometimes it rains at the beach, you’ve had enough sun or you’re ready to put on dry clothes and check out other adventures, so I’ve included things to do in Marco Island when it rains as well.[See related story on another of the best Florida Gulf Coast beaches: Navarre Beach, Florida: Jewel of the Emerald Coast ]
Spend a day on one of the beaches in Marco Island: Tigertail Beach or South Marco Beach
We have to start with the beach, right? The four-mile coastline of Marco Island has been called one of the most beautiful beaches in the United States. If you’re not staying at a beachside resort, there are public beaches at either end of the island. The choice depends on what you’re looking for during your day at the beach.
Tigertail Beach Park has the advantages of a developed beach area along with an undeveloped area for exploring. Pay a small parking fee and you can access a playground, park and concession area that rents equipment for water sports and a snack bar that serves food, wine and beer.
To get to the main beach area, you do have to cross over a shallow lagoon, which puts some people off due to the mushy bottom. Wear water shoes and bring a raft or paddle board to float your belongings and small children across.
It’s worth the trek as on the other side you’ll reach three miles of unspoiled white sand beach with untouched dunes. Look out for the sea shell tree where visitors have written notes on shells and hung them on a tree. Mine would say, “This is my resting beach face.” I’m pretty deep that way.
At the other end of the four-mile beach is the less-busy, more developed South Beach where high rise condominiums tower behind the dunes. There’s a pay parking lot and restrooms. A paved walkway from the parking lot of Swallow Avenue allows for easy access.
Paddle through the mangroves with a naturalist tour guide
One of my happy places is seated in a kayak on a smooth body of water, ready to explore new territory. I tried the ocean kayaking exactly one time and that was way too much work for me. I’ve never paddled so hard in my life as I did trying to get that kayak back on shore as the waves were pulling me back out to sea. From now on, I’ll take a slow-moving body of water.
And that’s what I got with Paddle Marco. We each got our own one-seater kayak and headed out to some open water and through the mangroves while learning more about the wildlife on Marco Island from our excellent guides Jake and Glenn. Nervous paddlers will be happy to know there are no alligators here.
Two-seater kayaks and paddle boards are also available. Bonus: The guides take photos of you and provide them for free that same day.
Spot dolphins and collect bags full of shells
“There’s a dolphin in Sarasota that is 66 years old. Another one had a baby at 48.” These were just two of the fun facts the naturalist Kent Morse shared with us during our three-hour ecotour and cruise on The Dolphin Explorer.
He told us about the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project, launched in 2006. It studies the movements and behaviors of bottlenose dolphins in Southwest Florida, using photo identification – a way to identify dolphins by their dorsal fins, which function like our fingerprints do. Kent told us if we spotted a dolphin they hadn’t already found, we could name him.
He held up a notebook with photos of every dolphin they have been following along with their names. It reminded me of a high school yearbook, but without the you’ll-regret-this-later senior quotes.
“Older male dolphins pair up with another male dolphin and stick together for life,” Kent told us. “We have identified one that lost his partner and can’t find another dolphin to pair up with. They are all younger and not interested or are already paired up.”
Wow – that sounds like the lament I’ve heard from some of my single friends and made me feel sad for the lonely older male dolphins. Isn’t there a senior citizen center where they can all meet up and talk about the Good Old Days?
While I’d been on plenty of dolphin cruises this was the most educational one. I also enjoyed being out on the boat and loved when we stopped on a small island for some shelling and swimming. We each received a mesh bag with “Just for the shell of it” to gather any of the thousands of shells we wanted. But the highlight of the tour was watching dolphins swimming and jumping by the boat.
Take an adventure boat tour of Ten Thousand Islands
Head out on a flat-bottom boat for a three-hour tour with Eco Endeavors, which has a mission to promote ecological awareness. You’ll explore a barrier island, go swimming and shelling and visit the Cape Romano Dome house.
This bizarre looking home looks like where aliens would live if they decided to stay on planet Earth. It’s made up of four concrete dome-shaped huts on stilts built by oil producer Bob Lee in 1980 as a family vacation home. He built it on land, powered it completely with solar energy and the family lived there for years.
Although the home survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992, erosion of the island led to the home being submerged in the water with no way to access it. The home was abandoned as it was no longer habitable.
Boat your way to Keewaydin Island
This barrier island, a nature preserve in the Rookery Bay Reserve, is popular for day trips and on weekends with the locals. The island has no cars, bridges or roads and is only accessible by boat. If you don’t have a boat catch the Hemingway Water Shuttle. Pack a picnic or buy snacks and adult beverages from a food boat.
The beaches are on the Gulf side and are the quieter part of the island, excellent for shelling. If you’re looking for more action, head to the waterway side, where you’ll find the volleyball nets, boom boxes and umbrellas set up for the day.
Launch your own canoe or kayak at Capri Paddlecraft Park
This park has parking, restrooms, picnic pavilions and thousands of acres of beautiful mangrove forests to paddle through. If you don’t have your own canoe or kayak, local outfitters will deliver one here for you. Pay your minimal launch fee and you’re off.
Talk like a pirate, dress like a pirate, fight like a pirate
If you’re traveling with young buccaneers, check out the tour with Black Pearl Pirate Ship Cruises. Kids get to dress up, get pirate tattoos and interact with pirates while manning one of the 12 water cannons on board during this one-hour family adventure. Adults can dress up too to join this high-adventure outing on the high seas. The company also has sunset cruises on the 60-foot-long custom-built ship.
Take a sunset cruise, enjoy a meal
The 90’ Princess has sightseeing, nature and history cruises around the Gulf of Mexico. For a longer expedition try a lunch or dinner cruise. Seats are assigned for the meals, then you are free to roam around the boat. People enjoy seeing the gorgeous homes on Marco Island from the water. There’s a climate-controlled interior space if you’re concerned about the Florida heat.
Go under the sea on a dive
This full-service dive shop has been outfitting divers since 1998. If you’ve never dived before, you get an entry level PADI Open Water certification in as little as three days. Certified divers can sign up for a dive trip to several locations that have artificial reefs, shrimp and barge boat wrecks and natural limestone formations. The deepest site, the Blue Hole, is a bottomless wall dive. Trips last from 4.5 to 5.5 hours.
For you scuba divers who care about the details, USA Today reported that Marco Island has moderate visibility in the 20-50-foot range and the inshore waters are typically less than 100 feet.
Explore the largest artificial reef complex in the Western Hemisphere with 37 artificial reef modules installed 10 to 30 miles off the coastlines of Naples and Marco Island. There’s even one in the shape of a turtle designed by Vito DeBari.
Reel one in with Marco Island backwater fishing
More than 100 species of fish have been reported in the backwaters here, including massive tarpon and redfish. Other common species include Spanish mackerel, pompano, snapper and grouper. Backwater fishing trips are great for any skill level and as the fishing is done in calm waters, there’s no need to worry about waves causing motion sickness.
Jungle Jim’s Safari leads four-, six-, and eight-hour backwater fishing tours. Check them out for fly fishing and shark fishing too.
Beyond the Beach: Things to Do in Marco Island Out of The Water
Although you may want to vacation like we did as a child, and never get out of your swimsuit, there’s plenty of things to do in Marco Island out of the water, including many things to do on Marco Island on a rainy day.
Hit the courts for a game of tennis, pickleball or racquetball
Grab a racquet at Marco Island Racquet Center for a game on one of its clay or hard surface tennis courts. The center also has pickleball and indoor racquetball courts. Non-members are welcome and if you don’t have a racquet or pickleball paddle, there are some available for loan. Three instructors are available for group and private lessons.
View the famous 1500-year-old Key Marco Cat
It may only be six inches tall but it’s known as one of the finest pieces of pre-Columbia Native American art ever found in North America. But the poor thing spent hundreds of years buried in the muck until an anthropologist uncovered it in 1896.
The Key Marco Cat has been at the Smithsonian but came back to Marco Island Historical Museum, which mounted an exhibition, “Paradise Found: 6,000 Years of People on Marco Island.” In addition to some artifacts from the period and interactive activity stations, the exhibition includes information on the Calusa tribe and a life-size Calusa Village with a native plant walk.
The museum also has a display related to its most recent history. Marco Island had just a small wooden bridge connecting it to the mainland until the 1960s when the Mackle brothers of the Deltona Corporation purchased a large portion of the island to develop it. Part of that development included the construction of the S.S. Jolley Bridge in 1969.
Some of the ads for those original homes are on display. They include The Constellation, priced at $25,300 in 1968 and The Catalina, listed for $33,000 in 1970.
Be sure to check out the gift shop before you go for some locally made items.
The Marco Island Historical Museum also has outdoor murals that depict Marco Island from the Pleistocene period to today.
Catch an art exhibit or take a class at Marco Island Center for the Arts
Admission is free at this small museum with rotating exhibits, a monthly wine reception with live music and art classes. Don’t miss the gift shops with items made by local artists.
Grab a key lime tart, quiche and other local goods at the Marco Island Farmers Market
One of the top-rated non-beach, non-water activities is a visit to the Marco Island Farmers Market. Held weekly on Wednesdays in Veterans Community Park, the Market features local vendors like Art of Steel with steel art – get your steel manatee here – Angelic Desserts, Bliss Jewelry Creations, Captain Ken’s Seafood and dozens more. Just don’t take a plastic bag to carry your finds – they are not allowed here. The market is open mid-November to mid-April.
Get a taste of fresh-caught Florida seafood and enjoy all day happy hour
I did one of the two at lunch one day at Pinchers Marco Island, one of the most popular Marco Island restaurants. I’m not much of a day drinker and couldn’t even fathom indulging in the restaurants 2-for-1 special at lunch. The restaurant features peel-and-eat shrimp, stone crab claws (in season), jumbo lump crab cakes and a fresh catch-of-the-day.
While I didn’t get a chance to explore many of the dining options in Marco Island, other top-rated ones include The Oyster Society, Italian Deli and Market, Fin Bistro and Red Rooster. For inexpensive fare, try Sami’s Pizza & Grill, Hoot’s and Big Al’s.
Grab an evening cocktail and watch for the Green Flash
I’ve only seen it once, but it was an awesome sight. When the atmospheric conditions are right during sunset, just as the sun disappears over the horizon, you can catch a super quick glimpse of the Green Flash. This brief glimpse of green is caused by the refraction of light.
Hang out with the locals in the fishing village of Goodland
Not many tourists make it to the small fishing village of Goodland, located in the southeast section of the island. It boasts a population of around 400 people who claim to live in a drinking village with a fishing problem. You won’t find glitz and glamour here, but you will find the oldest restaurant on Marco Island and some of the most fun bars in Marco Island.
Head to Stan’s Idle Hour restaurant for tastes and experiences of an “Old Florida” bar on the water with cold beer and live music. On Sunday afternoons from 1:00 to 6:00 the action really heats up. It’s also home to the annual Goodland Mullet Festival, held before the Super Bowl, featuring fried and smoked mullet and the Buzzard Lope Queen competition.
Another popular spot is Little Bar, which also features live music and the annual Spammy Jammy party in June. Guests are encouraged to harness their collective powers to ward off tornadoes during the season by wearing their pajamas (it’s not really known why) and creating sculptures out of leftover canned Spam from their hurricane preparation closets.
Sculptures are given names like Pink Spamingo, Spamela Anderson and Sponge Bob Spam Pants. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say you’ve truly never seen anything like it.
Ask about the hours for Little Bar and they will tell you, “until midnight or until everyone is through singing.”
Things to Do in Marco Island at a Luxury Hotel
With all the activities available at some of the hotels in Marco Island, there’s really no need to ever leave. Here are a few activities you can enjoy at these luxury hotels in Marco Island.
See related story Top 10 Hotels and Resorts
I was lucky enough to stay at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort on Collier Blvd., where I loved my room, ocean view and all the amenities.
The only downside for me was the staff all wears the fun, brightly colored prints of Lily Pulitzer. I brought a Lilly blouse with me, but never wore it for fear of being mistaken for someone who works there and not being able to answer any questions a guest may have.
But it was a small price to pay for staying at this magnificent resort. Outside of Las Vegas, it may be one of the largest properties I’ve stayed in. It has 810 rooms, three outdoor pools, 10 restaurants and two private 18-hole golf courses.
The resort recently completed a $320 million renovation, which included the addition of
Paradise By Sirene, a 94-room, adults-only luxury resort on the top five floors of the new Lanai Tower. This is your spot for a private, quiet vacation when you’re traveling without kids.
Every room has a private balcony, marble bathroom and small refrigerator, while some have water views of the pool or Gulf of Mexico.
Here are just a few things to do at JW Marriott.
Get your game on at 10K Alley gastropub and gaming emporium
Take the family during the day for indoor simulated golf, mini bowling, burgers and shakes at 10K in the JW Marriott Marco Island. Then return at night when it’s adults only for a taste of some of the 60 Florida craft beers and barrel-aged bourbons.
Get really decadent by ordering one of the sinfully delicious adult milkshakes, topped with items like doughnuts and cupcakes.
Catch the nightly live fire dancer show
Every night as the sun sets, a fire dancer clad in Balinese-inspired clothes wows guests with his skill and bravery by juggling sticks and rings of fire. Fully immersed in our own sunset session (see below) we only caught the very end.
Indulge in a sunset session rum tasting at Kane
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when you’re at the beach, you have to have a rum drink. But why limit yourself to just one? Every night from 5-8 p.m. Kane hosts a rum tasting with rums from the Facundo Rum Collection, available in only four cities in the United States. Guests also get a free hand-rolled Padron cigar from the Padron Family shop in Little Havana in Mimi.
There’s plenty more rum where those come from, however, as Kane has more than 70 rums. We tried a sampling of several rum drinks underneath a tiki roof, where every drink tastes better, with the toasted coconut mojito being my favorite.
You won’t be sipping your drink out of a plastic straw, however. JW Marriott Marco Island was one of the first properties to ban plastic straws. When an inventory was done to see how many the resort was using each month, the answer was an astonishing 65,000.
See decorative shell walls at the Otter Mound Preserve
After eating oysters, clams and other shellfish, what do you do with the shells? Calusa Native Americans stacked them up and over hundreds of years they formed a huge mound. A white settler named Ernest Otter decided to live on the mound and made his home there from the 1940s to 1997. That property is now a 2.5 acre preserve, free to tour.
Relax at the biggest spa on the Paradise Coast
Retreat from the sun and head to the 24,000-square-foot Spa by JW with a full service of treatments. If you didn’t book an appointment, walk in and ask for an Express Spa treatment. Neck, shoulder, scalp, hand and foot massages can be booked by the minute without an appointment.
While I didn’t stay there, we did get a tour and dine at the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa. After an electrical fire in 2017, the hotel reopened in 2018 after a $60 million renovation. The redone resort has 310 rooms, each with a pullout sofa bed, full-service spa, four restaurants and complimentary beach chairs for guests.
Dine at The Deck at 560 at the Hilton on Marco Island
As we entered the indoor space of The Deck at 560 I was enthralled by the large fire feature surrounded by couches at the entrance. I was told it wasn’t a real fire and we could even stick our hands in it. It looked so real to me, but I tested it out and didn’t feel a thing.
The setting for The Deck at 560 is beautiful, even in the indoor space where we dined as it was dark outside, where there are 200 seats with a view of the Gulf.
The menu features items like donut holes stuffed with whiskey cheddar and goat cheese, steaks, lentil cakes, catch of the day, and items from the onsite garden.
Take a short drive for a few more attractions
Naples Outlet Center is the place to find those deals on brands like Ann Taylor, Coach, Bass and Bon Worth. Visit Everglades National Park, the largest tropical wilderness in the United States. The Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge has a trail and wildlife viewing.
For more information, visit Paradise Coast.
– Jan Schroder, Editor in chief