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Want a getaway that has white sand beaches, plenty of activities, and is easy to get to? Let me introduce you to Marco Island, Florida.
Surprisingly, I hadn’t heard much about Marco Island before a few years ago. The farthest south I’d ever been on the Gulf Coast of Florida was Sanibel and my family usually spent more time up around Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island. But I’ve been there twice now and I love it!
Just south of Naples on the Gulf Coast (the southwest part of Florida), Marco Island is known for its laid back vibe, beautiful beaches (excellent shelling), and close proximity to the Everglades. To get to Marco Island, you’ll most likely fly into Fort Myers (RSW), rent a car, and make the hour or so drive south.
So why do I think Marco Island is such a great Florida beach destination? Here are a few reasons:
- Marco Island has white sand beaches, relatively calm water (it’s on the gulf) and it’s just about 45 minutes south of Fort Myers (love the airport-it’s fairly small and new).
- There’s an incredible JW Marriott that sits right on the beach. I don’t know about you, but having a great place to stay (or not) can really make or break a destination for me. There aren’t a ton of great beach resorts on Florida’s Gulf Coast so this is definitely a gem.
- The shelling is fantastic. Like-better than Sanibel.
- It’s close to the Everglades. Everglades City (the gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands and the gulf entrance to Everglades National Park) is just about 45 minutes south of Marco Island and there are a ton of outfits that offer airboat tours.
In this post I’ll let you know some of my favorite things to do on Marco Island, share some of the best restaurants, and breakdown where to stay on Marco Island.
Things to Do on Marco Island
Go Shelling in the Ten Thousand Islands
Though not as well known as Sanibel Island to the north, the shelling around Marco Island is hands down the best in Florida. The Ten Thousand Islands is an ecosystem of mostly mangrove islands between Marco Island and the Everglades, but there are a few islands with sandy beaches that are absolute treasure troves. You can only get to these islands by boat, and I think the best way is to go on a tour with Treasure Seekers. Their four hour tours leave from the Goodland Boat Ramp and only have six people per boat. They’re experts at knowing where to go depending on the time of day, time of year, tides, weather, etc. I did a tour with them and found about 30 sand dollars and a bucket of other impressive shells. One lady on our boat found a super rare junonia!
Take a Kayak Shelling Tour
If you want to add a little adventure to your shelling expedition, book a kayak shelling tour with Southwest Florida Shell Guide. Ali will take you to one of the best shelling spots near Marco Island where you’re sure to find some treasures.
Take the Ferry to Keewaydin Island
If you’d rather shell on your own, take the Hemingway Water Shuttle over to Keewaydin Island and spend a few hours shelling on the near deserted barrier island. The shelling isn’t as good as it is as the places the two tours I mentioned above will take you to, but it’s decent and a more affordable option. I would recommend going on a weekday as it turns into a bit of a party island on the weekends.
Tigertail Beach & Sand Dollar Spit
Tigertail Beach is by far the most popular beach on Marco Island (although the whole island is really one long stretch of sand) and it’s mostly because of the public access and the phenomenal shelling. Now I’ll be honest…it’s nowhere on the same level as the Ten Thousand Islands, but it’s a steady shelling spot and if I hadn’t been shelling on a tour, I would have been over the moon impressed (I found three sand dollars which I would consider a pretty big success normally).
It’s $8/car to park and there’s quite a bit of public parking, a cute cafe and rentals for paddle boards and kayaks.
But here’s the deal…the area where you park your car (where all of the amenities are), there’s a small white sand beach which is technically Tigertail Beach. That little beach sits on some brackish brown water surrounded by some mangroves and you either have to wade through it or walk around it to get to the main beach (on the ocean) also sometimes called Sand Dollar Spit.
See the graphic here to understand what I’m talking about.
The quickest way to get to the beach/ocean (where the shells are) is to wade across the “lagoon” and trek through a brushy trail. The water is usually 2-3 feet deep and I’m not going to lie…it’s pretty gross. It’s a sandy/muddy bottom so you can’t see what’s in the water ; ) but in the shallow parts there were a lot of little jellies. They didn’t bother me, but I would definitely recommend wearing shoes.
Now if the thought of wading through the swamp grosses you out, you can walk around it. From the main parking lot (by the cafe) around the lagoon and to the start of the beach it’s close to a mile and took me a solid 15 minutes (moderately paced walk). There is no shade, it’s VERY hot and I would NOT want to do this with kids. Tip: when you’re parking, park as far south as possible and take that entrance. It will save you a fair amount of time (it’s still a big walk though!).
The last thing I’ll say about logistics…if you’re staying on the beach on Marco Island, you may seriously consider walking down to Tigertail Beach. From the JW Marriott it’s about 1.5 miles and all things considered with where we parked and how long the walk was, we would have been better off walking especially since we just went for shelling (we weren’t there to set up camp for the day). Also, you can’t get into the parking lot until 8AM so if you walk you can get an early start on it, avoid the blazing heat, and get the best dibs on shells.
Now about the beach itself…it’s a beautiful beach and the farther you go down the “spit” the more remote it gets. The shelling was really good (better than anywhere I’ve been except for the Ten Thousand Islands) and it’s pretty picturesque too.
***Want to save major $$$ on a fancy beach resort? My favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free nights at some of the island’s most high end resorts. My go to hotel brand is Marriott so I use this Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card to rack up points for a lot of my trips to Florida. If you pay for your monthly expenses on the card and are responsible about paying it off every month, the points add up really fast. Plus, if you sign up through my link, you’ll get THREE bonus free nights to use. In Florida, use your points at some of my favorite Marriott properties like the Swan Reserve at Walt Disney World, the Vinoy in St. Pete, the EDITION Miami Beach, the JW Marriott Marco Island, and the soon to open St. Regis Longboat Key.
Take a Dolphin Eco Tour
This is probably the most popular thing to do on Marco. Dozens of companies run boat tours through the 10,000 islands to spot dolphins and manatees and many make stops at uninhabited islands for world class shelling.
The best overall bang for your buck option is going to be the Calusa Spirit Eco Tour with Marco Island Water Sports (departs from the beach in front of the JW Marriott). It takes you into the Ten Thousand Islands to see the dome houses at Cape Romano and includes a shelling stop in addition to dolphin and manatee spotting.
If you’re a true dolphin fanatic, you’ll want to go out on The Dolphin Explorer where they track local dolphins and educate you on the Ten Thousand Islands Dolphin Project which is studying the behavior, movement, and patterns of bottlenose dolphins in Southwest Florida.
Take the Key West Express
Zip on down to Key West for the day (it’s about 3.5 hours each way) and spend a few hours on the notorious isle. Boats depart from Marco Island seasonally but from Fort Myers all year round. You can book here.
Visit Old Marco Island
This historic area on the north end of the island got its start as a tiny fishing village is now home to several cute shops, yummy restaurants, and an inn. And it’s just picture perfect! It’s worth a trip over to check it out one evening, but make sure everything is open before you go. A lot of places are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Eat Stone Crab Claws
Stone Crab is a south Florida tradition and Marco Island is one of the best places to find it. Stone Crab season runs October through May and most places have it on the menu. In particular, head to City Seafood in Everglades City for some of the best seafood you’ll find in Florida. It’s right on the water and you can sit in the open-air restaurant and watch all the airboats head in and out.
Everglades Day Trip
The Everglades are super close to Marco Island so it’s a popular day trip (or half a day really). We went with Jungle Erv’s instead of one of the outfits out of Everglades City because it’s a little more remote and while they run boats every 20 minutes or so, we never saw another boat. Pro tip: our captain told us that the first tour of the day sees the most wildlife (birds and other critters) as they start to clear out once the boats start coming through. We did see an alligator though!
As a quieter and more natural alternative, consider kayaking through the Everglades. Everglades Area Tours runs quite a few options but one is boat assisted so you’ll ride in on a boat and then start kayaking when you get to the good stuff.
If you’re a National Parks enthusiast, don’t forget to stop by the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City to get your passport stamped (there’s also usually rangers onhand to chat with).
And be sure to hit up City Seafood for lunch! It’s a dive in the best possible way. Everything is amazing, but they’re pretty famous for their stone crab if it’s in season (October through May). Sit out on the dock and watch all the airboats roll through.
Naples Day Trip
Naples is just about 30 minutes or so north of Marco Island, but it couldn’t be more night and day. While Marco Island is super casual and laid back, Naples is…not.
Known for being the playground for the super wealthy, I think it’s fun just to drive around. Their are so many impressive neighborhoods but my favorite is around Gulf Shore Drive and 5th Avenue. 5th Avenue between Gulf Shore Drive and 9th St is kind of the heart of Naples. It feels more like Beverly Hills than Florida to me and it’s packed with shops and restaurants.
The Lilly Pulitzer at the Waterside Shops is another favorite spot of mine.
And if you’re looking for more non-beach activities, check out the Naples Zoo and Botanic Gardens.
Fort Myers Day Trip
Fort Myers is just about an hour north of Marco Island and while I haven’t spent much time in the area, I really loved visiting the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.
Where to Eat on Marco Island
For Breakfast: Doreen’s Cup of Joe, Hoot’s, Empire Bagel Factory, Mermaid Blues, and Wake Up Marco
For Happy Hour/Casual: Capri Fish House, Cocomo’s, The SpeakEasy, Sunset Grille, Island Gypsy Cafe, Dolphin Tiki Bar & Grill, Quinn’s on the Beach, Mango’s Dockside Bistro, Snook Inn, Lee Bee Fish
For a Nice Dinner: Tesoro, Café de Marco, Davinci’s, Marco’s Prime Steak and Seafood, Fin Bistro, Sale e Pepe, The Oyster Society, Ario
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount USA Car Rental. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. I started using their sister company (Discount Hawaii Car Rental) on my Hawaii trips almost 10 years ago and now I use their main site for all of my other trips. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
Where to Stay on Marco Island: JW Marriott Marco Island Review
If you’re trying to figure out where to stay on Marco Island, there are quite a few places, but the JW Marriott is hands down my favorite.
I stayed at the JW Marriott Marco Island back in 2017 (on a spring break trip that included a full week of fluke 40 degree temperatures) but I hadn’t been back since and a lot has changed. There was one big thing in particular that I wanted to check out on my latest trip…
Paradise by Sirene
In 2018, the JW Marriott Marco Island introduced a new feature to the resort…Paradise by Sirene. It’s basically an adults only luxury tower attached to the resort with bonus amenities. It’s a separate booking category (priced higher than the standard rooms, of course) but it comes with exclusive features. Namely…
- Access to a pre-vacation concierge who can help you make reservations, set up activities, etc.
- A private check in lounge with a champagne toast upon arrival.
- Rooms are in four floors of the “Lanai Tower” and access is restricted with a wrist band.
- Access to a private pool on the 5th floor overlooking the ocean.
- A private part of the beach.
- A daily complimentary breakfast in Tesoro, the resort’s signature restaurant (with a spectacular view).
- Access to a private fitness center (the only one with a view) including a Peloton bike.
- And it’s reserved for guests 21+ (and a max of two people per room).
During the dates that I stayed at the resort, they were offering a $100/day food/beverage/spa/golf credit that made it a pretty attractive offer.
Check In & First Impressions
This JW Marriott is a happening place.
As soon as the lady at the front desk looked up my name she kind of exclaimed “Oh! You’re staying in Sirene!” and quickly left her desk to usher us down the hallway into the private lounge.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure I got an email that asked for my expected arrival time but I wasn’t super communicative, but I bet if you are they’re probably out front or in the lobby waiting for you.
We were given champagne and we had a seat while we got checked in and briefed on how everything worked. Pretty smooth. Guests of Sirene (that’s what they call you ; ) have wristbands to wear that serve as your roomkey, elevator pass, and entrance to the fitness center, pool, etc.
Our room wasn’t ready yet (again, if you let them know when you’ll be arriving you probably stand a better chance of having an available room), but we were able to check our bags and head off to lunch. Once we got the message that our room was ready (you communicate with your concierge via text), we stopped back by the lounge to get our wristbands coded and the concierge took our baggage claim ticket to have the bags sent up.
The room was great! Pretty large and bright with a comfy bed and a great balcony.
There is a full size closet and a mini bar complete with a mini fridge and a Nespresso machine (with pods).
This is why I wanted to stay at Paradise by Sirene. I don’t particularly care about champagne upon arrival, a private concierge, or kid free spaces by OH MY THIS POOL. It’s located on the 5th floor terrace and it is stunning. People always ask if I’m a pool person or a beach person. I’m a person who likes to look at the beach from the pool and that’s how this place is set up.
There’s full poolside service. They do chair set up for you and bring around water pretty often. There’s also food and drink service. The two are separate so make sure you tip the set up staff separately from the wait staff.
The chairs are set up in twos with plenty of space between and most sets have umbrellas. There’s an assortment of little pod lounge chairs around the railing too. The pool is a pretty decent size for the number of chairs (always seemed to be enough no matter what time of day we showed up) and there’s a hot tub too.
Overall, the Paradise by Sirene pool was pretty lovely. The views are incredible and it never felt particularly crowded however for anyone expecting a super tranquil experience at the adults pool just know that once the drinks start flowing, it’s usually about as loud as the kids pool ; ). But that’s not just here…that’s my experience as most adult only pools unless it’s a spa like situation where it’s implied that you’re supposed to be quiet.
And FYI just to be clear, this adults only pool is ONLY for people staying in the Paradise by Sirene part of the resort…not for all adults in general.
Besides the pool at Paradise by Sirene, there are two other LARGE pools on property for everyone to use. The main pool right off the lobby is the largest and it’s got little islands with palm trees and fountains.
The second pool is to the north and it has a waterslide (albeit a small one) and a waterfall feature. So it seems to be where more of the kids gravitate although both pools have a lot of kids. These pools are first come first serve…they open about 8AM and there’s a hut where you can grab towels. There are a lot of chairs scattered around, but just like at any resort…if you want a good/specific spot…come early!
Quinn’s on the Beach is super close to the main pool and they’ve got a full service bar as well as to-go food and on the other side of the resort (close to the waterfall pool) is Kane’s Tiki Bar.
It’s what you came for, right? Marco Island is basically one long stretch of beach and the JW Marriott sits right about in the middle of it. The beach is white sand and it’s WIDE. There’s chair and umbrella set up (I believe two chairs and one umbrella are included per room) and usually some mobile carts roaming around with food and drinks. Paradise by Sirene has a private beach section (white umbrellas) to the left and the main resort stretches along the right side (blue umbrellas).
So the sand is gorgeous, but I’ll admit that the water isn’t as pretty as it is farther north on the gulf side (around Sarasota and St Pete/Clearwater). The first time I visited it was pretty overcast and gray most of the time so I thought that may be why the water wasn’t as dazzling, but this time it was plenty sunny (and I had the lookout vantage from the 5th floor) and it’s just not super blue/green…it’s a little more grayish. Still super pretty but check your expectations depending on where you’re used to visiting.
The real standout about the beaches on Marco Island is the SHELLING. While Sanibel has the reputation for being the best shelling spot in Florida, I’m here to tell you that it’s actually Marco Island and the nearby Ten Thousand Islands. Tigertail Beach (about 1.5 miles north of the resort-you can walk…it’s all one continuous beach) is where the best shelling is but the beach surrounding the JW Marriott is still pretty good for shelling…especially first thing in the morning.
On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Florida vacation rentals for your trip.
There are a LOT of restaurants at the JW Marriott and honestly there’s something for everybody. Now I’ll be honest…I’m not usually one who likes to eat many meals at a resort. Resort restaurants aren’t always super great compared to what’s in the area, but we had a $100 credit PER day to spend so I ended up trying out most of the restaurants and here’s what I think:
Tesoro: Tesoro is a Spanish tapas style restaurant that sits on the 5th floor terrace next to the Sirene by Paradise pool (but anyone can go to this restaurant for dinner). The view is UNMATCHED. I seriously don’t think there can be a better spot on Marco Island. Here’s the deal…I don’t love tapas style spots (I like to own my dinner ; ) so we didn’t go here for dinner but they have a complimentary breakfast for Sirene guests in the restaurant every morning. We went there the first morning and…weren’t very impressed. They’ve got a continental style set up (including gluten free options) and a hot buffet with eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, etc. but it just wasn’t very good. The food quality was like the free breakfast you get at a Hampton Inn or something. If you’re just a light breakfast eater (toast, juice, coffee, etc) it might work out for you, but we only went once. Even though it was FREE.
Maia: Which brings me to Maia. This spot is only open for breakfast and after doing Tesoro once we decided to check it out. They have a lovely menu but they also have a fairly lavish buffet. Well once we sat down and our waitress took our room number, she told us that guests of Sirene could have the continental buffet (which was a LOT of things) for FREE and upgrade to the full buffet (including an omelet bar and made to order pancakes, waffles, and french toast) FOR JUST $10!!! What??? Seriously though we felt like that was a steal. The buffet is normally $35/person and it was sooooo good. So we ended up doing breakfast at Maia every morning after that.
Ario: We did our big fancy dinner at Ario instead of Tesoro (I mentioned above that I don’t love tapas style) and it was seriously so good. The restaurant is definitely a vibe, but there’s no view or anything (Tesoro wins hands down on that front) but everything I ate was SPECTACULAR. I had the filet, brussel sprouts, and truffle mac and cheese. Would get it all again. The bread was homemade and who doesn’t love a bread basket. We had the key lime pie and it was honestly kind of odd but still really good. Was not prepared to like this place as much as I did, but it was great. Not cheap…almost $200 for 2 people (1 glass of wine), but for a special occasion, I was pretty impressed.
Quinn’s by the Beach: Besides Maia for breakfast, this was our favorite spot. I love a casual beachside restaurant and you can’t get any closer to the beach than this. The grouper sandwich is probably one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Service was good and it was always easy to walk in and get a table.
Cafe Marco: This is their quick service grab and go market. It’s part coffee shop, part sandwich shop and part convenience store. It’s not earth shattering, but I do like it when a resort has a place where you can grab snacks and things quickly.
10K Alley: I think this is one of the JW Marriott’s most unique features. It’s basically an upscale arcade (with bowling) that’s adults only after 10PM. There’s a full bar and they serve light bar food. It’s definitely a fun place to hang out and great for a rainy day.
The Overall Vibe
I think the JW Marriott Marco Island is a real gem. There aren’t a ton of nice resorts on Florida’s gulf coast (things tend more to the condo-condotel side) and this is definitely one of my favorites.
I love that the resort is large and spread out and seems like it has enough pool and beach space for the size. I love the shelling on Marco Island and the fact that it’s close to the Everglades. And it’s just a really laid back place.
It’s a super family oriented resort. That seems to be the demographic and honestly I think that’s why they’ve invested in the Paradise by Sirene…to attract more couples and adults. If this is a honeymoon or couples trip, even though the main resort is amazing, I would highly recommend Paradise by Sirene. Just having access to that terrace pool is worth it. That was hands the big stand out feature for me.
And now I can’t wait to go back!
You can book the JW Marriott Marco Island here.
Want to Read More Posts about Florida? I’ve got plenty!
Check out these destinations: Miami (Things to Do Besides Party & Where to Stay) // Key Biscayne // Sanibel & Captiva // Longboat Key & Anna Maria Island // Marco Island // 30a // St Augustine // Amelia Island // St Pete Beach // St Petersburg // Fort Myers // Dunedin // Crystal River & Weeki Wachee Springs // Honeymoon Island & Caladesi Island State Parks // Tarpon Springs // Matlacha & Pine Island // Apalachicola
Trying to narrow it down? Siesta Key vs Anna Maria Island // St Pete Beach vs Clearwater Beach // Sanibel vs Marco Island // Destin vs Panama City Beach // Destin vs 30a // Key Biscayne vs South Beach // Seaside vs Rosemary Beach
P.S. If you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And share my account with your travel loving friends! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!