Where is Marco Island and what’s it like?
Marco Island is as far southwest as you can go in Florida without plunking into the Everglades. It’s a beautiful island with a massive network of canals and a laid back vibe. The Ten Thousand Islands , small mangrove islands full of all types of native (and a few invasive) species, lie close to the beaches of Marco Island.
Marco itself is clean and quiet, and has beaches with sand that feels like flour under your feet. It’s a good place for people who like to relax, swim, enjoy nature and go boating or fishing. It’s probably living hell for people who want nightclubs, casinos or a “scene”.
The local joke is that “Marco midnight” is at 9:00 p.m. That’s a ridiculous joke though – it’s more like 9:15.
It is not a place people come on package tours so there aren’t tour buses, Disney characters, massive cruise ships or any of the other horrors (at least to us) of some (discreetly unnamed) places in Florida.
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 is the Spring Training home of the Boston Red Sox. But, unless one or both of things intrigues you, 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 of car services that can get you there from RSW. Blonde has had varying degrees of success with several of them and now only uses her tailor’s second wife’s very grown son Ray. (You can reach Ray at 1-239-206-6567.)
You can bicycle your way fairly easily around the island when you get here or take a local taxi that has a flat fee of $6 no matter where you want to go on the island. (If you bicycle, please wear a helmet, there are a lot of car and bike collisions and the cyclists never win.) There’s also a Hertz office at the Marriott on the island and an Enterprise office that sometimes (read: in the off-season) has good short-term rental deals.
Places to stay on Marco Island
Because we are tireless researchers 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 were and thought we were travel agents, INS agents or something other than what we are but were very nice to us anyway!
The JW Marriott Marco Island Resort and Spa seems to us to be the “you can’t go wrong if you have a lot of money option”. Before getting upgraded to a “JW” in January of 2017 this was the Marriott U.S. property that had the most guests staying on points. Now that it’s gone fancypants it probably takes a lot more points and planning to stay here. If you’re spending actual dollars and it’s in season this is not an inexpensive property so inhale deeply before checking rates. In addition to high prices the Marriott does something we, and everyone else we know, disapproves of; they charge a resort fee. Isn’t the name of the place partly “resort”? It’s always especially vexing that it’s the properties with the highest prices that add on these fees. Before they became a JW they listed online what you get for the resort fees but we can longer find that or anywhere that even tells you about the fees. They’re at least $30 a day.
The Marriott is on a beautiful beach and has everything you can think of, 700+ rooms, access to 2 golf courses, a newly renovated spa, at least 6 restaurants, valet ($25 a day) or self parking, three pools, a variety of watersports available on the beach and long-tenured 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.
There is construction going on at this property as they are building a new tower. They can’t do that silently so try to get a room as far away from the construction as possible.
Brilliant tip: If you plan to use your points to stay here book far in advance. This is the only oceanfront JW Marriott in the continental United States.
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. They’re a AAA 4 diamond rated property and work to differentiate themselves by their personalized, attentive service.
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 and consists of only 98 suites. It has a very European-seeming and lovely restaurant overlooking the beach and fabulous sunsets. In general the place has a more refined dignity than is typical of most U.S. properties (at least in Florida). 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, and truthfully have heard mixed things about it. People do tend to recommend going there for drinks and appetizers at sunset as an enjoyable safe bet. You might want to look at the latest reviews on Trip Advisor to decide if you want to dine there.
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 travel budget 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.)
The Inn gets 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 of 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 had 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. It has an old Florida feel to it. Located in Olde Marco it’s on the Marco River, minutes from the Gulf of Mexico.
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 and 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 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. Yes, it’s really annoying. 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 recently had 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. They also have fabulous scallops – actually everything is excellent.
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 and good on them – they don’t allow smoking at the outside tables. (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 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 on San Marco Road (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 quite a few 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 reliable. 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. 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!
The farmer’s market on Wednesdays November- mid April.
The entire island becomes a massive traffic jam on Wednesdays so it’s hard to miss the market. They have lots of good produce, prepared foods, handmade jewelry, soaps, carvings, baked goods and a whole lot of other stuff. It’s the major social event each week. Anyone can tell you how to get there from where you’re staying.
This post is longer than most guidebooks so thanks if you’ve read this far.
There’s much more to do in this area – such as a visit to Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Center. Some are free or low cost such as various nature and birdwatching tours. There are dolphin-watching, fishing and shelling boat tours from Rose Marina. You can also take a ferry to Key West from Rose Marina.
Give Marco a try – it just might change your mind about Florida. But don’t tell too many people – it’s already gotten more popular than a certain blonde year-round resident wants it to be!