By D.H. Coburn
Just off the southwestern coast of Florida, Marco Island offers a treasure trove of unexpected delights for the visitor, from a rare glimpse of ancient civilizations to a chance to get away from civilization altogether.
There’s a little something for everybody packed into the barrier island’s 23 square miles, located just south of Naples and within easy reach of Fort Myers and the Everglades. It’s safe to say most visitors are drawn by the world-class sportfishing, water sports, and the prospects of being pampered at the luxury resorts sandwiched between palm-lined Collier Boulevard and the broad, beautiful sugar-sand beaches of the Gulf.
But like a jewel box, there are hidden gems to be discovered with just a little digging. For history and anthropology buffs, there’s no better time to plan a visit to Marco Island, the site of one of the most significant discoveries of Pre-Columbian Native American artifacts on the continent, with some dating back to just after the birth of Christ.
The only developed island in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands archipelago, Marco Island was originally inhabited by indigenous peoples some 6,000 years ago, most recently the Calusa, believed to have lived on the island dating from about 500 A.D. Part of the island is built on a mound of shells erected by the Calusa, a fierce and warlike people thought to have numbered around 10,000 along Florida’s Gulf coast.
An object discovered by early Marco Island settler Capt. W.D. “Bill” Collier while digging up tidal mud to fertilize his garden led to an archeological dig in 1896 that unearthed some 1,000 artifacts perfectly preserved in the oxygen-free muck. The find included painted wooden ceremonial masks, carved alligator and sea turtle figureheads, netting and cordage – all in nearly perfect condition.
The most famous of these, including the anthropomorphic Key Marco Cat figurine, have returned home to the island and are on display at the Marco Island Historical Museum through 2026 – on loan from their permanent homes at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. The six-inch-high Key Marco Cat, thought to have been modeled after the panthers and bobcats that still roam the region, has been called one of the finest examples of pre-Columbian Native American art ever discovered in North America.
The museum (180 S. Heathwood Dr., www.themihs.info) also provides a fascinating look at the development of the island from its early days as a hub of the region’s commercial clam harvesting and canning industry. The island remained mostly undeveloped and mosquito-ridden until the 1960s, when developers transformed it into modern-day Marco Island, with homes featuring a unique mid-century Polynesian aesthetic and ubiquitous waterways and canals lacing the island. The island instantly became a haven for folks seeking an affordable piece of waterfront paradise, and while real estate today is pricey, visitors looking for vacation rentals will find plenty of options.
If you’re a true history buff, pick up a copy of Marco Island magazine on your visit and use the self-guided tour map to check out points of historical interest identified by markers erected by the Marco Island Historical Society.
For nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts looking for something both cerebral and active, the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is just a few minutes across the Judge S.S. Jolley Bridge separating Marco Island from the mainland. The reserve, a 110,000-acre maze of waterways and mangrove forests stretching from Gordon Pass in Naples to the western Everglades, is a vital part of the southwest Florida ecosystem, cleansing water draining from the Rookery Bay watershed and providing nursery and habitat for 150 species of birds, fish, shellfish and mammals.
A kayak eco-tour of Rookery Bay led by marine biologists is a fascinating way to learn about the estuary’s critical role in nurturing the environment. For a few pleasant hours, you’ll forget how close you are to civilization as you glide through pristine water across shallow bays teeming with life and squeeze through shady mangrove tunnels barely wide enough for a single kayak.
Listen and watch as tour leaders point out clumps of oysters clinging to mangrove roots stretching into the water (each oyster plays a role in the bay’s health, filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day); fiddler crabs; and tulip and lightning whelks that you can reach down and pick up with your hand at low tide (put them back, please, they likely have a living organism in residence).
Occasionally, you’ll catch a glimpse of a swallow-tailed kite, or a white egret, or an osprey, or even a green heron swooping out of a mangrove tree to register its vocal objection to the intrusion of humans in its habitat. You might also see manatees, dolphins, and sharks.
Several kayak tours operate out of the Isle of Capri Paddlecraft Park (1295 Capri Blvd., Naples), and some, including Rising Tide Explorers, support nonprofit Friends of Rookery Bay with a donation from each kayak tour ticket sold (www.risingtidefl.com).
Of course, if you’re just looking to do absolutely nothing, the 3½ -mile-long crescent of white sand along the island’s western edge is a great place to do it in style. From Tigertail Beach to the north to South Beach on the southern tip of the island, Marco Island beaches are a beachcomber’s dream for shelling, swimming, and sun worship. For a fantastic place to watch the sun set over the Gulf, stroll down the beach to the Kane Tiki Bar & Grill at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort (400 South Collier Blvd.) and order up an Island Girl or one of the beachfront bar’s other tasty tropical concoctions.
Whether the experience you’re looking for is sybaritic, cerebral or sublime, Marco Island has the bases covered.
(Go Magazine Online Exclusive Sept. 2021)
(Photos: Smithsonian Institution, Marco Island Historical Society, Rookery Bay and Shutterstock)