Marco Island – not Disney, not wacky, not tacky, just civilized fun!
Marco Island is as far southwest as you can go in Florida without plunking into the Everglades. In the early 1960′s it was a virtually deserted, mosquito-infested, swampy lump of sand. In the intervening years the Mackle Brothers and their Deltona Corporation developed a vision of a Polynesian paradise. They then proceeded to implement it with a few glitches, such as the lawsuit about creating 100 miles of canals without proper government permission that was taken to (and lost in ) the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the lawsuits are over (if not forgotten), the mosquitoes were somehow conquered and a Polynesian paradise wasn’t created but a beautiful island with a massive network of canals and lovely, but rarely huge or vulgar homes, was built. (You are, however, expected to refer to Marco Island and the surrounding region as “Paradise” but you don’t have to mention the Polynesia part and you aren’t supposed to roll your eyes, as Blonde does. How can it be Paradise when George Clooney doesn’t live here and there isn’t a Whole Foods? Duh.)
Most people probably have their mental images of Florida for better or worse (Blonde sure does). There’s the fake world of Disney, the Redneck Riviera of the Panhandle, the sizzling sex of Miami, the walkers decorated with bagels in Fort Lauderdale, Daytona with the only fast drivers who can stay on track in Florida and everywhere else where people commit stupid criminal tricks, shoot each other and wrassle gators. And then there’s Marco Island.
Marco is very clean and quiet, has beautiful beaches, had 8 reported crimes last year (none of them violent) doesn’t have lots and lots of hotels or a casino and is mostly full of well behaved “snow birds” from the American mid-west and Canada. Western Europeans are allowed to come over the bridge to the island too and those three groups probably represent at least 90% of who is here. It isn’t a place people come on package tours so there aren’t tour buses or cruise ships or any of the other horrors of group travel. (Not that we’re biased and snobby.)
Now that Brunette is an official Marco Island snow bird and Blonde is a year-round resident we decided that we would trust you with knowing some of the charms of Marco as long as you are discreet in terms of who you tell! Your cousin who’s looking for a new place to build a meth lab should probably go elsewhere as should people who like to go out to dinner at 11:00 p.m.!
The easiest way to get to Marco Island is to fly into Fort Myers (RSW) and don’t stop – rent a car and drive straight to Marco Island (about 45 minutes). Fort Myers provides a lot of hysterical Florida dumb criminal news and it’s the Spring Training home of the Boston Red Sox, but unless one or both of things attract you, then skip it. (And if you want to see the Red Sox in Spring Training you can stay on Marco and be at JetBlue Park in less than an hour.)
Before you rent a car from the airport at Fort Myers spend some time looking for a good deal because prices can vary a lot. Brunette has found the best deals by using sites that consolidate rates from various companies or directly from Fox Rent a Car.
You will probably want a car when you’re on the island but if you don’t there are a couple car services that can get you there from RSW. Blonde has used Above All Airport Rides. You can bicycle your way fairly easily around the island when you get here. (But please wear a helmet so Blonde doesn’t yell a snarky comment at you from her car window about how her tax dollars aren’t going to pay to fix your head injury.) There’s also a Hertz office at the Marriott on the island and an Enterprise office that sometimes has good short-term rental deals.
Because we are tireless researchers (and were hoping someone would offer us something, anything, for free but alas no one did) we went around to check out four of the most popular lodging choices on Marco. Most places we contacted didn’t really know what travel bloggers meant and thought we were travel agents, INS agents or something other than what we are but were very nice to us anyway!
The Marriott Island Resort, Golf Club and Spa seems to us to be the “you can’t go wrong option”. (You could, however, potentially go broke as a quick check shows room prices in early February starting at $400 a night.) On our tour we learned that this is the Marriott U.S. property that has the most guests staying on points so if you’re a Marriott frequent-sleeper this would be a lovely place to spend those points you’ve been hoarding.
The Marriott is right on the beautiful beach and it has everything you can think of, 700+ rooms, a golf course, a spa, at least 6 restaurants, valet or self parking, internet for $9.95 a day, no resort fee (for which we give them kudos), three pools and very long-tenured sincerely friendly and caring staff. They have jet skis you can rent, kayaks, a sailboat they take guests out on for shelling, settings where you can have weddings (Blonde always strongly advises against this activity), conference rooms, tennis courts, gift shops and a large breeding area for Bengal Tigers. OK, that last part wasn’t true but sometimes we wonder who reads what. It is true that all of the rooms have refrigerators and coffee makers
If you can afford it we thought the lanai suites that are on the ground floor and you can walk right onto the beach from were really lovely. It also wouldn’t be a hardship to sip wine at sunset (they’re quite spectacular from this location) while lounging on the balcony of one of the Gulf-front rooms.
Truthfully, if you can’t be happy here then you may need a change in your meds.
Brilliant tip: If you plan to use your points to stay here book far in advance, this is a property with very high occupancy rates.
The Marco Beach Ocean Resort is a very short distance down the beach from the Marriott and is a smaller, and somewhat European-feeling property. Their website says they were rated #16 of the top resorts in the United States by Travel and Leisure for 2013 and that’s impressive. They’re a AAA 4 diamond rated property and try to differentiate themselves by their personalized, attentive service. Looking at rates for the same time period as we did for the Marriott the lowest room rate shown is $650.
Although it’s very much a family friendly property we saw it as more for a romantic getaway maybe because it’s in a slightly jungle-like setting, consists of only 98 suites, has a very European-seeming and lovely restaurant overlooking the beach and those great sunsets and a more refined dignity than is typical of most U.S. properties. They have all of the amenities you might need; internet included in the rate, spa services, kitchenettes in all rooms, robes, slippers and tarantulas in the bed linens. (OK, once again not true, just trying to be sure you’re paying attention.)
We have not had dinner at their restaurant, Sal y Pepe but have heard very good things about it so you may want to check it out for us. (Or better yet send us a generous gift card.)
Brilliant tip: This property is part of the Preferred Hotel Group which has gobs of fancy pants properties around the world. So if you’re already a member of their free loyalty club “iPrefer” then be sure to get points for your stay here. And if you aren’t a member yet then sign up and become one before your stay. You can sign up here.
If you live in a world without Marriott points or a big budget for your vacation there are two significantly more modest options on the island that are still fine and would be very good for families. One is the:
Marco Island Lakeside Inn This property is sometimes rated #1 on Trip Advisor for Marco Island and that intrigued us enough to spring ourselves on them and take a look around. As those of you who are astute readers may have noticed this is a lakeside, not a beach, property. It’s probably about a mile and a half at most from the ocean beaches. Instead this inn is on a lovely lake that is very peaceful and allows for some breeze. It also has free parking and internet, a heated pool and they bake you homemade oatmeal-cranberry cookies when you check in! (If you get a warm basket and it only has crumbs in it and two women, possibly a Blonde and a Brunette, are running away giggling we don’t know anything about that.)
Looking at rates for the same time period as we did for the others the lowest room rate shown is $232.
The Inn seems to get constant kudos on their friendly staff if you read the reviews written about them and our experience touring the property certainly made that seem authentic. They do not have a restaurant but do have kitchenettes and are near many restaurants within a couple miles at most. Brilliant tip: We liked the efficiency on the end nearest to the lake the best. It was close to the pool, the lake and a grill and gazebo and lots of privacy.
Our last (we were needing to stop and eat some ice cream by this point) property reviewed was The Boathouse Motel. This place brought back memories of coming to Florida on family vacations when we were kids (and no, we didn’t come here with Ponce de Leon, thanks!). It has an old Florida feel to it. Located in Olde Marco it’s on the Marco River, minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. Our sample prices for the same time period as the other properties is $207 a night. They have motel rooms, condos and a Gazebo House and we are assuming that price is for one of the motel rooms.
As is so often the case the less expensive properties give you more for free. The Boathouse has free internet and parking and, in a major departure from just about anywhere on Marco Island (including condominium or home rentals), they allow pets in certain rooms. The accommodations range in size from ones suitable for a couple to several large enough to accommodate a family of 4 to 6. There is a small pool right along the river and many rooms have lovely views and balconies. Brilliant tip: Our favorite room was B-1 as it was on the water, had a really nice kitchen and a patio.
Where to eat on Marco Island.
Truth be told the quality of the restaurants on Marco is not as high as the quality of the lodging options or, we suspect, as high as the level expected by the kind of people who can pay over $600 a night for a hotel room.
We have done extensive restaurant research (Blonde now belongs to Weight Watchers) and hereby offer you our favorites:
Best seafood we’ve had for dinner: Fin Bistro
Over the years we’ve been traveling we have learned (and had to repeatedly relearn) that the best food is rarely also where the best views are and this place proves that rule. It’s in an odd little strip mall across from the three miles of beaches on the island. You can’t get seated inside without a reservation which you would be very well advised to make as far in advance as your plans allow. (Their reservation-making process is by phone calls only and then you have to wait for a call back. They used their brilliance on the food, not the reservation process. There isn’t an online option. The number is 239.970.6064).
This husband (chef) and wife (everything else) owned place specializes in seafood prepared with imaginative but not weird flavor pairings and an excellent wine list. We each have the same favorite dish – the Florida Keys Dorado with crushed cauliflower, potatoes with onions, sun dried tomatoes, fresh goat cheese and white wine artichoke butter.
Brilliant tip: If you can’t get a reservation just show up as close to 5:30 as possible and you will probably be able to get an outside table. They do not reserve those. (Hey, it’s Florida, the 5:30 part comes with the territory!)
Best Italian we’ve had: Ristorante DaVinci
This is another place you would be well advised to make a reservation. They use OpenTable which makes it easy or you can just call 1.239.389.1888. They also do not reserve their very nice outdoor seating so you can show up and wait at the bar or do the get there early trick. They have a wide variety on the menu from pizza to more sophisticated offerings of meat, pasta and seafood. They also offer gluten-free pizza dough and have a kiddie menu.
Brilliant tip: Make a reservation for inside but grovel a lot about how you really really want to sit outside and they’ll at least make an effort to accommodate you. Oh, and strongly consider the nightly specials.
Best overall value: C.J’s on The Bay
This is a place with a fabulous setting along a canal where the sunsets are spectacular. The food is reliably good if not something you will be texting your friends about while you’re there. They also have a great happy hour from 4 to 7 daily with wine for $3.50 (or is it $3.75?). They have live music on Thursday nights, places to tie up your boat while you dine, free internet and for chilly days with big football games, suitably immense TVs inside.
Brilliant tip: Get there at happy hour and if you stay for dinner, get the crab cakes. Be sure to get there before sunset.
Two very different choices for best for breakfast:
Petit Soleil in the shops at Olde Marco ( a very short walk from the BoatHouse Motel) has fabulous omelets and chocolate croissants made on the premises.
The other is on the far side of the island (maybe a 10 minute drive if you follow the speed limits) and is the very non-French but super tasty, homemade fare of The Red Rooster. You may have said “goodbye” to quiche during the Reagan administration but it’s still in vogue here and so fluffy and yummy you’ll be glad you jumped in the time capsule and ordered some.
Best ice cream we’ve found (over-priced but really good) is near DaVinci’s (same plaza) - Beebe’s. They get long lines after dinners at the restaurants.
Things to do on Marco Island.
There are SO many things you can do on Marco, not to mention at the various nearby nature, bird and animal preserves and the lovely small city of Naples which is half an hour away. We don’t want to recommend things we haven’t tried so our list is small but both were an amazing amount of fun. The first is Captain Ron’s Everglades Jet Ski Tours.
We will admit that when we did this last year we were comped but it was so much fun and so interesting we are actually willing to pay to do it again (not that we’d turn down another freebie…) We wrote a post on it last year that will give you some of the scoop. This is not a bunch of idiots recklessly running around with jet skis and ‘tude. It’s a fun but respectful water experience of nature that is an almost 4 hour drive through The Everglades including plenty of dolphin sightings.
Brilliant Tips: Tell them we sent you so maybe we’ll get another freebie. Wear lots and lots of sunscreen or better yet SPF clothing, and a hat and shoes that can get wet. Stick a peanut butter sandwich or some other snack in your bag and take water (although they provide it you may want more). You can leave your camera behind because, included in the price, they give you an excellent DVD of the pictures from your trip. Have some cash in your pocket for a tip – they really earn it.
Another water-based way to have fun is to rent a catamaran from Cool Bean Cruises.
They are actually over the bridge and to the left onto the Isle of Capri about 15 minutes from Marco. Their captain will chat or not as you prefer, take you out for a private lovely sunset cruise for up to 6 people for between $300 and $350 depending on the coupons you find in local flyers and if you pay with cash. The boats are beautiful, the captains and first mates very knowledgable and the champagne they serve at sunset is even decent!
This post if longer than most guidebooks so thanks if you’ve read this far.
There’s much much more to do in this area – some of it is even free such as various nature and birdwatching tours. You can also parasail, go to the Botanical Gardens in Naples or to shop or eat there and you can take a ferry to Key West right from Rose Marina on Marco lsland.
Give Marco a try – it just might change your mind about Florida. We know at least one Blonde who is slowly converting…