Just south of swanky Naples on Florida's famed Paradise Coast, Marco Island ranks as the largest and northernmost of the Ten Thousand Islands, a chain of hundreds of tiny mangrove islets and sandbars that extend along Florida's southwest coast.
This central location, perched between an upscale resort town and miles upon miles of undeveloped coastal wilderness, is a good way to think of Marco Island, which itself effectively straddles the line between Old Florida and booming resort town. Though high-rise condo culture is prevalent along its shores and man-made canals and manicured golf courses now dot the landscape, the development that has shaped Marco Island since the 1960s hasn't robbed the area of its beach-town simplicity.
Luxury towers line the shores, but they don't overpower the way of life here, which still revolves around the island's natural offerings, such as fishing, beaches, and wildlife-spotting. The waters around these parts are positively teeming with game fish — which you can reel in from a boat in the backcountry mangroves, directly in the surf from the beaches, or offshore in the deeper Gulf waters. And if you're looking for an even wider expanse of wilderness to play around in, remember that the nearly 2,400-square-mile Everglades National Park is only a quick 30-mile drive west of here!
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Boat eco-tours abound on Sanibel and Captiva, but you can get an even closer look at the region's rich wildlife with a paddleboarding excursion through Endless Summer Adventures. Despite the company's name, perhaps the best time of year to hit the shore is early spring, when the Gulf's waters are still cool and calm, and you'll have an excellent chance of seeing a wide variety of marine wildlife.
Instead of trying to escape the rising summer temperatures, embrace the heat and head into the belly of the beast with a trip to nearby Everglades National Park. The Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City is a mere 30 miles southeast of Marco Island. During the balmy summer, opt for the air-conditioned Vantastic Tours, which provides an educational look at the alligators, pelicans, and other critters that live in this expansive marshland, before taking you out on an hour-long airboat ride through the saw grass.
Guided by expert naturalists and wildlife photographers, The Dolphin Explorer eco-tour runs dolphin-spotting cruises through Gulf waters year-round. Take the three-hour excursion during the fall for the best chance to spot baby dolphins, as birthing season generally lasts from September to November.
Browse the stalls at the Marco Island Farmers Market in Veterans Community Park for fresh flowers, local citrus and seafood, and one-of-a-kind finds like imported Ghanaian baskets and handcrafted palm-seed jewelry. Beginning in November, the market is held each Wednesday through April.