Make Mine Marco

by Louis Bignami

Something special just off the usual Florida tourist trails.

Marco Island lurks just north of the 10,000 Islands and the Florida Keys, south of Sansibel Island and west of Miami, down "Alligator Alley" through the Everglades. Once an isolated barrier island on the Gulf backed by mangroves, it's a full-service, if little-known destination with exceptional beaches, wonderful bay and offshore fishing, fine boating and sailing and a host of solid hotels and acceptable restaurants. Add a fine wildlife area and easy access to nearby attractions such as the Everglades and it's a wonder so few, save savvy Miami residents, discover this fine destination.

While I remember the area from years back when the only access was by ferry, we last visited during a convention of the Outdoor Writers of America. Each morning I'd rise at dawn and hit the fine fishing off the pedestrian bridge under the main access bridge. Snook and a host of saltwater panfish and -- at least temporarily -- a tarpon hit plugs and jigs.

Newcomers might park and ride the Marco Island Trolley which makes 21 stops on its 1 3/4-hour tour. You can get on and off when you like. This is an excellent way to explore new sections of the beach. Marco Island is famous for its seashells, and beach walks at low tide added more than a dozen notable specimens to my collection. A guide to shells is a help.

Note: not every shiny object on the beach is a pull-tab; very now and then some lucky shell collector finds a gold Spanish coin. So keep an eye out! Modern coins spill from supine beach buffs too. We found the best beaches were along "hotel row" where wide, soft sand invites a lazy day contemplating the cosmic all. Rent an umbrella, slosh on lots of sun block and, if you get thirsty, try beachfront bars which mix a lethal line of tropical drinks.

Light gear and medium-size fish spread action over the fishing day.

Aquatic action abounds. During many breezy afternoons we sailed rental catamarans and other craft available in "hotel row." Swimming is, as usual in Florida, warm and safe. You can wade far out into the Gulf or try the deeper water off passes. Don't step on sea urchin shells, and shuffle your feet so you don't step on a stingray. Portuguese Man-of-War aren't common, but if you spot one you need to avoid the painful tentacles which trail below their pinkish-blue gas-filled floats. You might, if you like, take an underwater snorkel tour or SCUBA lessons to learn diving basics and enjoy the fauna and flora underwater.

Fishing highlights the area. Guides are available at the Marco Island Marina near the Marco Island Bridge. Rental boats are available; if you fish on your own start early -- fishing is best at first light and dusk. You need a fishing license. Maps help too.

Offshore fishing offers a chance to catch grouper and snapper off reefs and wrecks. We spent a half-day at this and connected with masses of feisty barracuda, a cobia, lots of tripletail and the odd permit. Big offshore species require a major investment: $450 to $600.

Fishing the passes for tarpon means more jumps for the dollar. Like bonefish, tarpon shine in the water, not the pan, so you catch and usually release your fish. Tarpon have extremely tough mouths so many releases are "long line" as 150 to 200 pound tarpon jump three to six feet out of the water and break off.

On calm days freshwater-type boats might run out to Reef #1 just a couple of miles offshore from Marco Island. This artificial reef made of old tires collects snook and snapper schools.

Two other options suit casual fishermen. You can use bait or small jigs and catch a host of pound to six pound fish in the many passes between the Gulf and inshore inlets. We tried this one morning with Captain K. O. Williamson out of the Marco Island Marina and caught and mostly released 20 to 30 fish --snook, trout and other species. Fishing the flats for bonefish offers another unique option. Early and late on days when the tides run strongly seem the best bet. 

Those who don't fish enjoy a host of other options. Hotels have freshwater swimming pools. There's golf and tennis at Marco and Sansibel Islands. Port of the Islands also offers special picnic excursions into the Ten Thousand Islands area. These are highly recommended and a wonderful chance to see southwest Florida's only manatee sanctuary. Birders go bonkers here with at least a dozen species seen on most trips, which are uncommon outside Florida.

Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve off Highway 951, the highway to Marco Island, is one of two Florida reserves. Over 9,300 acres of tidal creeks, mangrove forests, islands and uplands help scientists study these important areas where over 70 percent of all marine life in the area spends some of its life.

When we visited the Biggs Nature Center in the Reserve we were delighted to spot Roseate spoonbills, ospreys and bald eagles too. The Center offers canoe trips, bird watcher safaris and boat tours at a nominal fee. Free nature walks are available too. Call 775-8845 after you get to Marco for information.

Tours of the Florida Everglades are available off Highway 41 towards Miami. A number of small Seminole Indian villages offer visitor access. Some have large airboats -- shallow-draft scows propelled from the rear by a massive aircraft-type propeller in a mesh cage. Such airboats take several passengers at a time for tours to spot alligators and other swamp life. However, if you can afford the $250 or so for a guided day for a couple, that's the way to go.

Shopping and dining out complete your options. We found the usual beachwear and shell shops -- some of the best are in the bigger hotels -- along with adequate arts and crafts and some astonishingly tacky souvenir items.

Meals were decent. Most spots have conch chowder, fried conch and fine fresh fish. There did not seem to be much difference in seafood quality between local spots recommended by the Chamber and the much more expensive hotel restaurants. We did enjoy wonderful duck one evening at the Marriott. Fried chicken is another worthwhile option on a budget. The weak spots were poor bread and the dubious joys of Southern specialties such as biscuits and gravy or grits. It seemed surprising that more tropical and semi-tropical fruits were not available.

Overall, Marco Island offers a laid-back escape from the too frantic East Florida Coast life. After a few days in Orlando or Miami a relaxing stay at Marco lets visitors wind down before they head home.

INFORMATION

  • Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce, 1102 North Collier Blvd., Marco Island, FL 33937 941-394-7549.
  • Florida Department of Commerce, Division of Tourism, Collins Bldg., Tallahassee 3230. Lots of quality information. Try to make requests area- and interest-specific.