The moneyed resort town features the showcase Tigertail Beach and acts as the developed anchor for Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades.
- A resort town with a small-town vibe.
- World-class, powdery sand coastline.
- No parties here. Maybe in winter.
- Expensive stay, food and play.
The southernmost beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast, six-mile-long Marco Island is an opulent getaway filled with luxury resorts and retirement homes. With the Everglades to the south and Naples to the north, it acts as a sort of bulwark between the last of wild Florida and its largely overdeveloped southwestern coastline.
The island recently weathered the landfall of Hurricane Irma, a Category 3 storm that made landfall here in September 2017. Although several structures were damaged, the well-to-do residents of the island managed to make repairs quickly, with few permanent effects.
Marco Island is the largest in a group of islands called the Ten Thousand Islands, although there’s not really 10,000 of them. It was the home of the Calusa tribe long before European explorers came, and has a long history of redevelopment.
The barrier island was once split into Key Marco to the north and the rest of Marco Island to the south. In 1896, an archeological dig yielded the Key Marco Cat, a 6-inch-tall statue that is half man, half cat. It’s considered one of the most complete examples of pre-Columbian art.
Key Marco was largely shell mounds, separate from Marco Island, and came to be called Olde Marco as clamming and fishing industries flourished in the 19th century.
Captain Bill Collier, who was not related to Collier County founder Barron Collier, settled Marco Island in 1870. He built the original Olde Marco Inn in 1883, and the hotel still stands today. The Olde Marco Ferry and railroad connected the island with the mainland in the 1920s, drawing tourists from Miami and beyond.
Development kicked into overdrive when the Deltona Corporation expanded the island’s building potential by creating manicured canals throughout the island to maximize homesites for residents. By 1962, Deltona’s owners — brothers Elliot, Robert and Frank Mackle — had begun creating a “Hawaii of the East,” dredging and filling mangroves and shorelines throughout the area until legal challenges in the ‘70s curbed further construction. Some of the undeveloped land was eventually turned into the nature preserves currently on the island.
Today, high-end resort chains and condominiums fill the oceanfront, resulting in a lavish vacation spot, but little room for a public beach. The waterways woven through much of the residential area still stand, creating a twisty network of canals that can make driving around the island a challenge in the city of Marco Island, which has about 18,000 residents. A community of about 300 called Goodland, which caters to vacationers and anglers, is on the southeastern side of the island, off San Marco Road.
Marco Island also boasts Tigertail Beach, a critical wildlife habitat and beach on the northeastern end. The public beach, which started as a sandbar and has grown over the years, is now a county park.
Wintertime marks Marco Island’s peak season, bringing moderately large crowds of snowbirds and tourists. Traffic is lighter in summer, and everyone and their mother tends to be in bed by 9 p.m., so don't be prepared for a party.
The closest major airport is Southwest Florida International Airport (CPA), which isn’t exactly close. East of Fort Myers, the regional airport is about 50 miles from Marco Island, with about a dozen airlines offering flights. Once on the ground, the usual range of shuttles, ride-sharing, buses and taxis are available, but you will need some sort of wheels to make it all the way to the island.
There’s also Naples Municipal Airport (APF), which is in the Naples city limits. This airport is focused on private planes and flight schools, plus charter flights to Miami, Key West and Marathon.
Taking the Tamiami Trail (U.S. Highway 41) south, you can either take Collier Boulevard from Naples, or San Marco Road (County Road 92) from Collier-Seminole State Park further south.
Which route you take depends on where you’re starting and where you’re going.
San Marco Road takes you past the waterfront community of Goodland, then directly to residences on the southern side of the Marco Island. Collier Boulevard takes you to the north end of the island before running along the high-end resorts along Marco Beach. San Marco Road meets up with Collier Boulevard at Residents’ Beach, a beach club for homeowners and long-term renters.
Collier Area Transit, the county’s public transit system, operates Route 21, the Marco Island Circulator. The circuit goes around the island, connecting Collier Boulevard resorts and housing with shopping and the Tamiami Trail, where riders can pick up other CAT routes into Naples and beyond.
There’s also Route 121, which runs much of the length of Collier Boulevard from South Marco Beach all the way up through Naples to the town of Immokalee. The morning and afternoon service coincides with the needs of shift workers headed to and from Marco Beach’s condos and hotels.
Parking is a tough one here. Most of the island is privately-owned, so it’s just plain hard to find public parking anywhere. Your best bet is to leave your car at your lodging and travel to the beach either on foot or via rideshare or taxi. (Parking permits are available to residents only.)
There are a couple of limited public parking options. The largest public lot is the South Beach Public Parking Lot at 930 Swallow Ave., at the end of Collier Boulevard on the south side of the island. The lot has a good amount of paid parking, but it’s the only option for the south side of Marco Island.
Moving north up the coast along Collier Boulevard, the next public beach access point is at Winterberry Drive. There’s no parking lot at the access point, but there is a paid lot a short walk south: Turtle Lot is at 721 S. Collier Blvd., across from the Sandcastle II condo building, and is open to the public during weekends. Several locals told us it’s far easier and cheaper to get a rideshare to the beach instead of trying your luck here.
The next public beach access is at Maple Avenue, but there’s no lot nearby, so you have to either walk or get a ride.
You’ll also see the large parking lot with the Residents’ Beach sign on it at the intersection of Collier Boulevard and San Marco Road, but it’s a members-only affair. You have to either own property or be renting a residence for one month or longer to apply to use Residents’ Beach.
The last public beach, Tigertail Beach, is a county park at the northeastern end of the island. There’s a paid lot for the park inside the entrance. The parking receipt is good at the South Beach lot, too, and vice versa.
Marco Beach is pretty consistent in atmosphere and quality along the public access points along Collier Boulevard. The powdery white sand and clear, warm water makes Marco Island the high-class resort beach it’s known to be (plus, the shelling here is legendary).
That means your preference between the northern, middle or southern ends depends largely on your preference and which access point may be easier to access. All the approaches are sandwiched by hotels and condominiums, so be sure to check what amenities you’re allowed to use once you’re on the sand.
Tourists can be from out of state or from out of the country, but there are some locals mixed in. This is a largely family and retiree affair, so there’s not much in the way of a nightlife scene.
Marco Island boasts its ritzy and manicured resort vibe, so things can cost a lot and sometimes be hard to access if you’re not staying at a particular property. Observe the universal rules of observing posted signs, or otherwise asking politely if you’re not sure.
Alcohol is permitted on the beaches as long as it isn't in a glass container, although it is not allowed on Tigertail Beach, as it is a county park (more on that beach in the next section).
Pets aren't allowed on the beaches, and no lifeguards protect the beaches.
At the north end of Marco Island is a sizable strip of beachfront that is partially fronted by Tigertail Beach, between Marco Bay and Collier Bay. That’s the Hideaway Beach Club, a private gated community with its own golf course.
If you manage to stroll all the way to Big Marco Pass on Tigertail Beach, or are perhaps on a boat and are heading through the pass, be mindful of Hideaway Beach’s private status. Contact the beach club office if you want to stop by for any reason.
Tigertail Beach is a secluded nature preserve with three miles of beachfront on the northeast side of Marco Island. It is completely different from the winding, overdeveloped fill fingers that make up much of the island.
Sand Dollar Island, as the beachfront spit is called, used to lie offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the years, especially following Hurricane Wilma in 2005, sand connected the southern end of the sandbar to Marco Island. Collier County created a park that is now a critical wildlife habitat.
You wouldn’t know it upon first reaching the park at the end of Hernando Drive. There’s a paid parking lot ($8 — the small lot at front hides the much larger spillover lot beyond), a playground, a restaurant, paddlecraft rentals, restrooms and showers. But then you head out to the main event.
Head down the boardwalk to the Tigertail sign and you’ll discover that there’s a tidal lagoon separating you from the beach, with two ways to get to the other side. You can either walk south, around the lagoon, or you can ford right across it, carrying your gear the whole way.
Wading is the method of choice here, because it’s not only faster, it serves to cool you down, too. It’s maybe 150 feet across, and comes up to about waist-high at most during high tide. Just keep in mind that the bottom of the lagoon is mud, not sand, and fish and other critters will likely streak past your tootsies while you’re carrying all your stuff.
If you don’t want to wade across, you could always rent a paddleboard, kayak or canoe at the rental shop and take it across. Those watercraft could also be useful if you’re carrying enough stuff to scale Everest.
Once you actually get to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s like paradise. There are hardly any visitors — it’s just the animals and you. Marco Island’s coastline is clear to the south, but a trek to the north and you can enjoy almost total isolation. If you manage to walk all the way to the preserve area at Big Marco Pass, you’ll almost certainly be alone.
This is a great stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail, but that means portions of the park, including the beach, can be closed during nesting season. Otherwise, a morning paddling through the mangroves is time well spent. Keep an eye out for a tree adorned with seashells bearing messages from prior visitors.
WHERE TO STAY
This historical hotel dates back to 1883, and is among the first lodgings built on the island. It’s been renovated since then, with the original hotel serving as a restaurant and registration area. It offers above-and-beyond amenities, like a full kitchen and a stocked fridge, and the location on the northern end of the island makes for a romantic stay away from resort crowds.
Located in the middle of Marco Beach, this Mediterranean-style resort offers more than just a room. A scenic room also grants access to spas, a heated pool, an arcade and several sports courts.
A high-end resort right on the water, with amenities and unique traditions, like afternoon smoothie service on the beach and a ring of a bell at sunset to alert your attention to the ocean. The room views and friendly service make this one of the top, non-chain hotels.
Each December, people gather along the island to watch the boat-floats go by. Bring the family to watch a one-of-a-kind holiday boat show, or enter your own boat to be a part of the festive parade.
This fun festival commences in late January. Taste all sorts of prepared mullet — the fish, not the haircut — rock to live music and join in a dance contest.
Another boat event, but this time it’s not holiday-themed. Boats line the water during mid-October at the beautiful Rose Marina, where you can come look at the nautical wares, and maybe even negotiate your own boat purchase.
THINGS TO DO
The ship offers a fun, interactive boat tour for the kids to learn how to be a pirate. But it doesn't just cater to kids, because you can take their sunset cruise for a romantic view of the Gulf of Mexico.
These tours take you around Marco Island, visiting some of the other nearby islands. The cool part is that you get to drive your own two-seater boat. The tour guide leads the way on another vessel.
This museum brings the island’s history alive with actual artifacts from long ago. It tells the story of the Calusa Indians up into modern day. There’s also a replica of the Key Marco Cat.
Set sail to the many tiny islands and mangrove estuaries south of Marco Island. The islands, which really only number in the hundreds, are the highpoints of a sunken coastline. To explore them in this National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll need to take a boat, canoe or kayak out on your own. If you really want an off-the-grid experience, try camping out here on a chickee, a raised platform right on the water.
Watersports and fitness
This company has many shops on Marco Island beachfront renting out kayaks, paddleboards, waverunners, parasailing and more. You’ll find dependable service and reasonable prices.
The selling point here is the Captain, Bill Jones. A longtime resident, he knows the water well and will make your chances of catching fish much higher. Snook, shark, snapper — he knows it all.
If you’re serious about jet-skiing, try this place. The tours leave out of Rose Marina, a great location with arguably the best views on the island.
When in Tigertail Park, this beach stand provides you with what you need to get across the lagoon or the ocean. Kayaks, paddleboards and even cabanas are rented out here. It’s located right after the boardwalk.
Even being as small as it is, Marco Island has its very own 18-hole golf course. Country club membership tiers allow you to get on the green, or tennis courts, or gym, or any other amenity.
Sweat and feel better than ever after a yoga or pilates session here. The knowledgeable instructors make the prices, which skew to the higher side, worth it.
Beyond the previously mentioned Rose Marina, this marina off Collier Boulevard offers transient slips and services.
There’s dock space for rent at this sheltered marina, but the real story is the varied shops and restaurants available here.
The public boat ramp in Goodland also offers tour and angling options, and is a best bet for launching for Ten Thousand Islands. There are also wet slips available, plus a fishing pier and station.
PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK
Located in Olde Marco, this waterfront restaurant is a locals’ favorite. The casual ambiance features a friendly staff and live music, plus one heck of a view. Expect better-than-average waterfront food fare.
This high-class eatery will blow you away with the traditional Italian food they serve. The Gnocchi DaVinci is to die for, and on certain nights the place turns into a legit club, that is seriously fun one on an island that lacks nighttime options.
The best breakfast in town. It’s a traditional diner-style breakfast joint serving eggs and pancakes every which way. On top of cooking finger-lickin food, they also manage to include healthy options.
Another high-end restaurant that amazes with their culinary creations, from oysters to pasta. The bar gets pretty full during the season, especially because it’s located next to Da Vinci's, so it’s a great stop for a night out.
Located in Olde Marco, this mall is the largest on the island with 30 shops and restaurants. High-end boutiques, chain clothing stores, Publix, banks and more are all situated here.
Come here for your clothing needs, vintage and boutique, plus a cool home decor store with unique products.
The only brewery actually on the island, this place is a relatively old hand on the microbrewery scene, dating all the way back to 2010. Most of their beers are guest taps, but they do brew their own, plus there's a full restaurant instead of the staple food truck rotation.