If your ideal vacation is luxury hotels and first-class experiences -- or cozying up to Mother Nature and roughing it -- Marco Island offers the ultimate in vacation adventures. Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands region is home to vibrant sea life and is situated on a migratory bird path.
Beautiful beaches, water sports, bird watching, and outdoor adventures are the hallmark of Marco Island. With one eye to protecting the ecosystem and the other to all-out fun, your vacation will be uniquely Floridian. Marco Island is a perfect place to enjoy the sunshine.
1. Explore Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
There are many options for exploring the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Begin your visit at the Environmental Learning Center at the main entrance. Here you can wander the exhibits and pick up a bird list. Your journey through the reserve can be on foot or bike, or by car or boat.
With careful observation, you will be able to check off many birds on your list including kestrels, American bald eagles, kingfishers, vultures, pelicans, owls, herons, egrets, and many more. Be sure to pack your camera and binoculars.
The reserve is not just about birding; you can rent boats and kayaks to explore the shorelines, too. Fish from the shores or venture out into deep waters. Shelling and relaxing on the beaches is high on everyone’s to-do list. Consider Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve nature's playground.
2. Experience A Water Adventure
There are so many ways to enjoy the water surrounding Marco Island. You can find adventures that will educate, entertain, exercise, and engage you. Marco Island is a water seeker’s paradise waiting to be explored.
Imagine an evening cruise around Rookery Bay to watch the sun set and the stars come out. Rookery Bay Boat Tours offers a romantic Sunset to Starlight cruise around Keewaydin Island. For a more hands-on cruise, they offer the Essence of the Estuary Eco-Cruise, during which a local biologist will captain you through Rookery Bay and educate you on the delicate coastal ecosystem and ongoing preservation initiatives.
Kayaking and stand up paddleboarding (SUP) are great ways to see the bay and get your workout in at the same time. Paddle Marco rents Kayaks and SUP boards for as few as two hours and up to a full week. They will even deliver to your rental property or boat launch. Paddle Marco also offers a Mangrove Tunnels Tour during which a knowledgeable naturalist will take you on a journey through the mangrove forest. Venturing too far into the forest without a guide can be a challenge. This tour is a great way to see deep into this natural wonderland without the worry of getting lost.
For the true water enthusiast, jet ski tours are available from Avi’s Watersports. Avi will train even the most timid newbie and take you on a tour in the Ten Thousand Island area. You will have an adventure you won’t forget. Imagine jet-skiing alongside playing dolphins with a tour guide who takes great photos. That would be an amazing souvenir of your visit!
3. Watch All The Beautiful Birds
The Gulf area of Florida has some of the best birdwatching in the world because Florida is along the Atlantic Flyway, used in the spring and fall as a migration route for many species of birds. Pretty much everywhere you go, you will encounter quintessential Floridian birds.
The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail is composed of a network of over 500 viewing sites statewide. Bird sightings include the bald eagle, mangrove cuckoo, roseate spoonbill, wood stork, whooping crane, and many more. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has categorized 524 bird species in the state and provides a downloadable checklist. You have plenty of reasons to pack your binoculars, watch the sunrise, and be on the lookout for bird sightings.
Everglades Area Tours offers group and private birding photography tours. Their customizable tours can be walking, kayaking, or motor boating tours during which you’ll seek out different birding experiences. Lead by a naturalist guide, your bird-centric adventure will be unique (and the envy of your friends).
4. Explore The Parks And Hiking Trails
Collier-Seminole State Park in Naples has over six miles of hiking trails where the bird watching brings you up close to native nesters. Rangers offer nature tours, or you can hike the paths through the park, which is open from 8 a.m. to sundown.
Keewaydin Island is the perfect place to hunt seashells, spend some time on the sandbars, and enjoy frequent dolphin sightings. Belly up to the local food boats for a refreshing beverage, snack, or ice cream. Keewaydin Island is only accessible by boat. The Hemingway Water Shuttle is a 30-minute ferry from Rose Marina on Marco Island to Keewaydin Island (reservations are highly recommended). If you prefer, you can rent a boat or jet ski to get you out to the island with more freedom.
5. Relax At The Beaches
South Marco Beach is known for its fine, soft sand and wide beachfront. The line of highrises with coveted beach access forms a backdrop. This is the place to experience parasailing, SUP boards, and jet skiing, paired with plenty of Florida sunbathing.
Tigertail Beach Park is open from 8 a.m. to sundown. This is one of Marco Island’s barrier beaches, and it offers lots of amenities and rentals. It is a favorite for families and seashell collectors. The adjacent tidal lagoon is perfect for viewing shorebirds like plovers, terns, and spoonbills and hunters like falcons, osprey, and bald eagles. The park is ADA compliant.
6. Sea Life Adventures Await
The Dolphin Project is a study of Florida’s bottlenose dolphins. You can join one of their eco-focused tours on the Dolphin Explorer. The research team keeps track of the Marco Island dolphins by photo tracking of their dorsal fins, which are unique identifiers. Rumor has it, if you spot a new, unidentified dolphin, you are responsible for naming it. How fun would that be?
Beautiful, gentle manatees thrive in the Gulf waters, too. Viewing these interesting sea mammals in their natural habitat is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Manatee Eco-Tours at the Port of the Islands Marina in Naples are a manatee-friendly way to enjoy the Ten Thousand Islands waterways and view these lovely creatures up close.
You can also read up on these six Florida places to see manatees in the wild.
7. Get There With Ease
There are several small airports that serve Marco Island: Naples Municipal Airport and the Marco Island Executive Airport.
The closest large, commercial airport is Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, about an hour north of the island.
8. Stay There
The Boathouse Motel is situated on Old Collier Creek with boating access to the Gulf of Mexico. While they offer traditional guestrooms, the star attraction is the Gazebo House. Situated literally on the water, the two-bedroom rental property has a surround deck, is open to pets, offers boat dockage, and boasts beachy amenities. There is a four-night minimum stay, and it is recommended to book this popular getaway way in advance.
If you prefer to tuck in with Mother Nature, there are lots of camping options available. Collier-Seminole State Park on the Tamiami Trail offers campground sites with electricity and water. The Blackwater River flows through the park’s mangrove forest and canoe rentals and hiking and biking trails are available. Camping loop A is closed for updates and will reopen April 1, 2020. Site reservations are required.
The Port of the Islands Marina in Naples offers houseboat rentals that guarantee unique stays. Spend your free time lounging on the deck as it gently rocks the day and your cares away. A fun rental for a small group, this would make for great vacation stories.
9. Eat There
For fine dining on the island, go to Fin Bistro, known for its locally sourced, seasonal seafood. Be sure to try the yellowtail avocado crudo; it is a flavor bomb -- in a good way. For the main course, try the seared Florida black grouper with lump crab fricassee or the shellfish Meyer lemon brodetto. Your taste buds will thank you. Reservations are recommended.
If you are planning a picnic lunch, stop at Hoots; they have a shop on Marco Island and one in Naples. Hoot’s specializes in breakfast and lunch, and the Marco Island location is open for dinner during the peak season. They offer scrumptious homemade items like mac and cheese and chicken pot pie. Also, a good selection of paninis, sandwiches, and salads are available for takeaway picnic lunches.
Also, visit the traditional commercial fishing village of Goodland. This quiet village of 200 people is like a place time forgot. A must-stop is Stan’s Idle Hour, where you’ll get down-home fun, appetizers, and an adult beverage. Stan’s also offers a grill-style, seasonal restaurant; you might want to sample the Gator Bites with Bayou Sauce.
Marco Island is a vacation wonderland. There is so much to do and see. Where else can you kayak in the mangrove forests? Balancing eco-friendliness and a full-on adventure-seeking spirit, Marco Island masterfully offers a Mother Nature-first approach to fun in the Florida sun.