It doesn’t get much more secluded and natural than Marco Island, located on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This island treasure boasts abundant wildlife, bountiful shelling and miles of quiet beaches.
Marco Island has become one of my family’s favorite beach destinations. After all, you can’t beat escaping to an island oasis during a cold Indiana winter. But our love of Marco Island is about more than the warm December temperatures.
It’s not your typical beach town — busy boardwalks, crowded sands and amusement parks filled with tourists. Instead, Marco Island feels like a natural escape; it’s located as far south as you can go on the gulf side of Florida before venturing into the Everglades. And the town itself is quite sleepy, with just a handful of accommodations.
As a family that loves nothing more than discovering new travel adventures, we’ve enjoyed exploring Marco Island’s peaceful landscapes and wildlife. You don’t have to wander far to find yourself amidst the tropical coast’s most beautiful features, whether it’s a serene beach, a playful dolphin or an island of mangroves.
One of a handful of public beaches, Tigertail Beach is a 32-acre park teeming with wildlife. Visitors can wander over to the tidal lagoon to search for sea creatures like Florida fighting conchs, horseshoe crabs and needle fish. The area is also considered one of the most important habitats in the world for wintering shorebirds who are nesting. In fact, you may spot more than 175 different bird species in the area. Climb the ADA-accessible Wildlife Viewing Tower to search for Roseate Spoonbills, Red Knots, Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons.
The park also offers six boardwalks for viewing nature, plus a butterfly garden, restrooms and rental gear like kayaks, paddle boats and beach cabanas. It’s the perfect place to spend a lovely day at the beach.
For optimal viewing and pleasantly mild temperatures, birders may want to visit during spring and fall.
Located between Marco and upscale Naples, Keewaydin Island features an unspoiled natural beach with eight miles of white sand along the Gulf of Mexico’s deep blue waters.
To get there, you’ll need to rent a boat or hop the Hemingway Water Shuttle, which leaves from Rose Marina on Marco Island. Keewaydin Island is 80 percent undeveloped, providing plenty of beautiful scenery. It is also the only pet-friendly beach in the area, so bring Fido along for a romp, as well (he can ride the shuttle, too!).
Ten Thousand Islands
Immediately south of Marco Island are Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, a 35,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge. Mazes of mangrove trees shelter several threatened and endangered species like the Florida manatee, Atlantic loggerhead turtle and the peregrine falcon. Other wildlife living in the islands include Florida panthers, Florida black bears, bottlenose dolphin and river otters.
On calm days, visitors can take a guided Waverunner excursion and explore the area, stopping in the midst of pods of dolphins or within sight of a sunning bald eagle. Guides know the best spots to encounter wildlife and can give you the best shot at seeing the elusive manatee and other interesting creatures.
Dolphin Explorer Eco-Tour
For those who really want to be up close and personal with dolphins, the Dolphin Explorer Eco-Tour on Marco Island is a chance to help survey and catalogue these enchanting mammals. These cruises are part of a long-term study to document the lives of coastal bottlenose dolphins. Guests who spot a new dolphin get to name it, and guides will share the names of dolphins they see along the way. The tour also includes an opportunity to collect some of the area’s fantastic shells on a barrier island beach.
Shells are abundant on these islands; you may want to wear protection on your feet when wading into the water. And remember not to keep any shells with live creatures in them, or starfish or sand dollars that are still living. It’s against the law!
Where to Stay: