Easy Escapes

Marco Island: A Laid-Back Florida Beach Destination with a Surprising Cultural Side

by  Katie McElveen | Dec 26, 2018
Sunset in Marco Island
Sunset in Marco Island / poladamonte/iStock

Friendly, laid-back, and just a little bit funky, Marco Island, Florida draws sun-seekers in search of an affordable beach vacation where informality reigns and activities revolve around the water. Hemmed by the Gulf on one side and a pristine network of mangrove forests, uninhabited cays, and wide bays on the other, the island mixes beachy fun with outdoor exploration. 

Where to Stay

At the dog-friendly Boat House Motel (nightly rates start at around $260), BYOB means Bring Your Own Boat. Slips outside the well-equipped rooms (some have full kitchens, all have microwaves and refrigerators) cost just $2 per foot, per day. What’s more, a prime location on the Big Marco River puts the Gulf of Mexico within easy reach. There’s also a pool for cooling off, and grills for cooking up your freshly-caught grouper. If you're looking for a more intimate environment, check out  the Marco Island Lakeside Inn (nightly rates start at around $750) The cottage-style rooms within the two-story property each have terraces or patios overlooking the only freshwater lake on Marco Island. The pool is surrounded by stately palms and sits next to a shady tiki hut, and the beach is about a mile and a half away. The family-friendly Olde Marco Island Inn & Suites (nightly rates start at around $1150) is perfect for groups. Each of the two-bedroom, two-bathroom suites come equipped with a full kitchen, large private balconies, and oversized living rooms. Plus, the pool and hot tub have pretty views of the water. The on-site Bistro Soleil is known for its authentic French specialties and piano bar, and at the adjacent Shops of Olde Marco, you’ll find several restaurants and boutiques.

Where to Eat

You’ll find all your favorite breakfast treats such as pancakes, biscuits at Doreen’s Cup of Joe where flapjacks come in flavors like lemon ricotta and key lime. Cherished by locales for more than 30 years, the waterfront (and boat-accessible) Snook Inn welcomes visitors, too. While you're there, you may be lucky enough to spy a dolphin or two. In addition, Snook Inn also offers live music every night and a Chickee Hut-topped bar (the name comes from the Seminole word for dwelling). There’s plenty of great bar food on the menu, but, thanks to new owners, you’ll also find well-prepared healthy bowls, salads, line-caught fresh fish, a raw bar, and killer fish chowder. Set right on the beach, one mile south of the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort is Sunset Grille, where you can refuel with burgers, salads, crab cakes, and wings. If you're looking to catch a view of the sunset, come here during dusk, when crowds gather to watch the fiery sun slip peacefully into the Gulf.

What to Do

Beyond the beach, kayaks are a popular mode of transport. While paddling, be sure to take in the sites at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, where a jigsaw puzzle of waterways and marshes lead to tiny, dog-friendly Key Island, (locally known as Keewaydin Island), and its pristine beach. You can either bring your own lunch, or buy it from one of the food boats (think, food trucks but on water) that pull in each day. Another popular kayaking spot includes the alligator-strewn waters of the East River and the Isles of Capri, which are known for their series of dark, slightly spooky mangrove tunnels. In 1896, a team of Smithsonian archeologists working on a dig on Marco Island discovered five Pre-Columbian artifacts that, thanks to being submerged in oxygen-free muck for hundreds of years, were in almost-perfect condition. These artifacts will now be featured as part of the Marco Island Historical Society Paradise Found: 6,000 Years of People on Marco Island exhibition in the free Marco Island Historical Museum. 

How to Get There

Located on the south end of Florida’s west coast, Marco Island lies about 20 miles from Naples Municipal Airport, and Ft. Myers Southwest Florida Airport is about 50 miles away. The northern entrance to Everglades National Park is a 40 minute drive, and you can get to Miami in a little over two hours by car on US Route 41, which cuts through the Everglades as it crosses the southern tip of Florida.

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