Between mangrove-lined bays and the Gulf of Mexico, Marco Island is a city on the namesake barrier island.
This is the largest island of a chain known as the Ten Thousand Islands, stretching for more than 70 miles down to Cape Sable.
Starting in Marco Island you can spend unforgettable days paddling in mangrove tunnels, and combing beaches on deserted islands.
For all these adventure opportunities, you may find it hard to leave Marco Island in the first place.
I can’t get enough of the powdery white beaches here, but there’s also culture, community events, museums and an endearing farmers’ market in season.
1. South Marco Island Beach
Blessed with spectacular stretches of white sand and endless gulf vistas, Marco Island is a beachgoer’s paradise.
Still, in terms of public beaches there are only two access points with amenities. One is South Marco Beach, at 930 S. Collier Blvd.
This patch is cherished for its clear and shallow waters and soft white sands. There’s also a range of lodging, dining, and recreation options along this part of Collier Boulevard.
It’s not uncommon to see dolphins frolicking in the surf just offshore, and watching the sun go down here is something I think everyone should do at least once.
2. Marco Island Historical Museum
This superb Marco Island Historical Museum is dedicated to preserving the area’s rich history. Exhibits include historical artifacts, early photographs, and first-hand accounts of the pioneers who settled the area when it was little more than an undeveloped fishing village.
Best of all for me was a large reproduction of a traditional Calusa Native American village. This gives an interesting insight into the lives of the area’s original inhabitants before it was officially settled.
The most remarkable single item is the bronze reproduction of the Key Marco Cat, an anthropomorphic feline statuette.
Produced by the Calusa Native Americans and discovered in 1896, the original was made from native hardwood between 500 and 1,500 years ago.
3. Frank E. Mackle Park
Marco Island has what must be one of the best community parks I’ve ever come across. Surrounded by the city’s matrix of waterways, this is a hushed space on the shores of a lake.
There’s a wide paved path by the shore, and a lot of places to pause and take in the views and birdsong.
For amenities, Frank E. Mackle Park has a playground, splash pad, a basketball court, shuffleboard, bocce courts, an open field, and a community center at the north end. This is the venue for the Marco Island Farmers’ Market, which I’ll cover below.
4. Keewaydin Island
Now, if you really want to escape the crowds, Keewaydin Island, to the north of Marco Island, is my bet.
Inaccessible by road, this barrier island has close to eight miles of flawless white sands. With just a few private residences near the shore, this place can feel completely deserted.
To get there you can either join a sightseeing cruise, rent a boat, or hop on the Hemingway Water Shuttle.
This departs seven times a day. Another feather in the island’s cap is that it has the only dog friendly beach in the Naples/Marco Island area. The shuttle also accepts dogs, so you can plan some beach time with your pup here.
5. Tigertail Beach
If unspoiled and remote are words you often use to describe your perfect beach destination, then Tigertail Beach is probably a good fit.
Tigertail Beach is the other public beach park in Marco Island, and doesn’t get nearly as much tourist traffic. This has a lot to do with its more secluded location near the north end of the island.
In fact, the simplest way to get there from the parking area is to wade across a lagoon. So I’d advise anyone to pack some flip flops or water shoes.
What you get at the end of this expedition is a dreamlike sweep of powdery white sand. The shelling is amazing here, too, from conches and sand dollars to whelks and scallops.
6. Marco Island Farmers’ Market
The city has a fabulous seasonal farmers’ market, held on Wednesday mornings, mid-November through mid-April.
This happens at the Frank E. Mackle Park, and is an uplifting community event, full of color and bustle.
On my last visit, I saw tons of fresh produce, flowers, exotic teas, homemade granola, fresh baguettes, olive oil, vinegar, and a lot more besides.
This is a great lunch option as there’s always a cosmopolitan lineup of prepared foods. Think acai bowls, lobster rolls, chowder, breakfast sandwiches, and coffee and beignets.
Lastly, if you’re disappointed with your own shelling exploits, there’s a vendor selling amazing finds from local beaches.
7. Collier-Seminole State Park
Just east of Marco Island, this 7,300-acre state park is partly on the Great Mangrove Swamp of South Florida. So, here you can venture into one of the largest mangrove swamps on the planet.
Collier-Seminole State Park preserves the kind of ecosystems associated with the Everglades. As well as mangrove swamp, this includes one of just three original stands of royal palms.
For me, this is another place that demands some time on the water. You can rent a canoe or kayak and paddle through several miles of mangroves on the Blackwater River.
There’s also a network of hiking trails, through flatwoods, along the river, and into an area of prairie hammock.
8. Breakwater Adventures
This local tour company offers unforgettable experiences around the remote waters of the Ten Thousand Islands.
Unlike the many tour providers, they offer private options customizable according to the needs and interests of their guests. Their wildlife viewing tours are among their most popular, and include dolphins, manatees, and sea turtle sightings, depending on the time of year.
Breakwater also offers activities like water-skiing, wakeboarding, and shelling along serene stretches of remote beach.
I went on a combined shelling and dolphin watching tour. I have to say it was kind of humbling to set foot on a totally uninhabited island.
9. Paddle Marco
Away from the Gulf of Mexico shore, the various bays’ sheltered waters brim with winding mangrove tunnels that are teeming with life. I have to say, the only way to fully appreciate these environments is on a kayak tour.
Paddle Marco offers a two-hour tour of the mangroves, in the company of an expert naturalist. They will lead you through the most beautiful parts, and point out dolphins, wading birds, tree crabs, massive conches and much more.
In the summer these trips depart as early as 9:00 am to avoid the storms that sweep in later on. For self-navigated trips you can also rent a kayak or paddleboard for anything from two hours to a whole week.
10. Isles of Capri Paddlecraft Park
If you have your own kayak, canoe or paddleboard and are looking for a place to launch there’s a dedicated public access point on McIlvane Bay just north of Marco Island.
Within the Rookery Bay Reserve, this is Collier County’s only facility exclusive to non-motorized vessels. With its shallow waters and twisting mangrove tunnels, McIlvane Bay is a delight.
I was amazed by the sense of seclusion and abundance of nature in this place. It’s even more remarkable considering the site was previously earmarked for a high-rise hotel and marina, and was then used as an unauthorized garbage dump.
If you don’t have your own vessel, then this launch is served by companies like Paddle Marco. Finally, there’s a small parking fee if you don’t have a Collier County permit.
11. The Marco Island Princess
At nearly 100-feet long, the Marco Island Princess has been a recognizable feature on the waters around the island for decades.
For those who long to get a view of Marco Island from the water, there’s no better way to do it than aboard the Princess. This vessel is climate-controlled, but there’s also an upper deck if you want to feel the breeze.
The Princess sails from the Rose Marina, multiple times a day. Each tour features narration by the captain that includes historical, and natural insights you won’t likely find elsewhere.
A wide variety of cruise packages is available. Most of all I’d recommend the Admiral’s Sunset Dinner Cruise, to close out the day in romantic style.
12. Marco Island Center for the Arts
After days at the beach, the time may come when you’re in need of a cultural interlude. The great news is that Marco Island has had a robust art community for more than 50 years.
With so much natural beauty, I think it’s no wonder that Marco Island and other coastal towns in the vicinity have inspired artists for generations.
If you’d like to get a good look at a few locally-produced masterpieces, the Marco Island Center for the Arts is a great place to spend a couple of hours.
Also in the complex is the Arts Center Theatre, with a full season of dramas, comedies and musicals. Complementing that is a comedy series,and live performances, from ballet to concerts.
13. Briggs Nature Center
Ten minutes out of Marco Island, the Briggs Nature Center is set within the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
This is a breeding and hatchery area for a variety of animals, including birds, marine turtles, and fish.
For visitors the key attraction is a boardwalk, on a loop just over half a mile long. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has set up interpretive kiosks helping you identify the reserve’s many species.
At the far eastern end the boardwalk climbs to a tower, looking out over a large expanse of mangroves. I lingered here for a few minutes and caught sight of what looked like a white egret and a red-shouldered hawk.
14. Marco Golf and Garden
Marco Island’s only mini-golf course also doubles as a sublime tropical garden. I don’t think I’ve seen many courses as pretty as the one at Marco Golf and Garden.
These 18 holes take you into a little oasis, bursting with flowers, dainty shrubs, and palms, all threaded with streams and a waterfall. There’s also some tasteful contemporary sculpture hiding among the vegetation.
Each hole poses a different challenge, and can be surprisingly tough thanks to the subtle contouring. In short, kids will love it here, while serious golfers can get some useful putting practice.
15. Otter Mound Preserve
Covering about three acres in the bayside Indian Hills area, Otter Mound Preserve is a small but worthwhile natural attraction.
The preserve was established to safeguard a tropical hardwood hammock, a habitat that has often been lost to development in the area.
You explore this environment along unpaved trails, all shaded by the forest canopy. The property got its name from the former resident, Ernest Otter, who built the whelk shell terraces you’ll see here.
I was thrilled to find out that there’s Calusa Native American history here too, as the entire preserve is on a midden built between 700 CE and 1200 CE.