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.
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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, Florida
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.
RELATED: Where to Stay on Marco Island
See the graphics 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.
Boating & Water Sports
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.
Cruise on a Wave Runner: You can rent Wave Runners by the hour to ride around on your own, but I recommend doing a guided tour into the Ten Thousands Islands with Marco Island Water Sports. They have tours that depart from the JW Marriott (guests only) and ones that depart from the Hilton and Marriott Crystal Shores (open to the public)
Go Deep Sea Fishing: Book a full day fishing trip with Six Chuter Charters and bring in all the grouper and snapper you can manage. Most outifts will let you take your catch with you to cook up, and there are plenty of restaurants on the island that will cook it for you! Try Capri Fish House, Little Bar, Mango’s Dockside Bistro, The Snook Inn, and the SpeakEasy.
Other Must Dos
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, it’s high on my list to visit 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
Where to Stay on Marco Island
JW Marriot Marco Island Beach Resort: This is THE place to stay on Marco. This fabulous resort has multiple pools, a half dozen restaurants and bars, and everything you need for an absolutely fabulous vacation. Read reviews and check rates here.
Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort: If you’re looking for a great beach resort for a bit cheaper, check out the Hilton. It’s a beautiful resort. Read reviews and check rates here.
Marco Beach Ocean Resort: Great place to stay for the full resort experience. The beach and pool are both great here. Read reviews and check rates here.
Marriott’s Crystal Shores: A gorgeous and modern resort with all the amenities you expect from a Marriott Vacation Club property. Read reviews and check rates here.
Olde Marco Island Inn & Suites: This quaint little inn in the heart of old Marco Island is perfect if you want a more charming and local place to stay. Read reviews and check rates here.
My Favorite Marco Beach Vacation Rentals
I think the best place to find (and book) Marco Island vacation rentals is Vrbo. They’ve been around forever and are probably the most reputable booking platform online (with owners and vacationers alike), which means that you’ll find more quality properties listed on Vrbo than anywhere else online. I used to book more often with Airbnb, but I’ve begun to find that they often don’t have what I’m looking for (plus I had a less than great experience dealing with corporate last time I used them).
Overall on Vrbo you’re going to find properties listed by owners who take their rental business very seriously and are committed to providing you the best accommodations possible.
How does it work? By doing a simple search by specific area (in this case Marco Island), you’ll be able to find a wide (price and type) range of accommodations. You can refine your search to fit certain criteria (price, space, style, etc.) before you start weeding through specific properties.
The number of search results you’ll find can be extremely overwhelming, so I would suggest putting as many filters as possible (especially price and number of bedrooms) and then viewing the results on a map so you can get an idea for where everything is located.
I know what people are looking for specifically varies greatly, but I often get asked for the best (i.e. cheapest, nicest, cleanest) beachfront rentals, so I’ve rounded up a few specific properties that I like the looks of:
Luxurious Beachfront Condo! Amazing ocean views. Price starts at $156/night.
Stylish Beachfront Condo! Access to heated pool. Price starts at $126/night.
Two Bedroom Beachfront Condo! Newly remodeled. Price starts at $286/night.
These rates are STARTING rates, meaning that’s the cheapest rate you’ll find during the slow season (usually September through April) so if you’re putting in dates for high season (summer months and spring break), the rates may be higher.