Marco Island is located about one hour south of Fort Myers and two hours west of Miami on Florida’s Southwest Gulf Coast. It is part of the Ten Thousand Islands on the southern tip of Florida’s Paradise coast and is a popular weekend getaway destination for Floridians and East Coasters. While the wide, white sand beach on the Gulf of Mexico attracts beach lovers, there are plenty of other fun things to do in Marco Island.
This vacation destination offers a mix of high-end resorts and vacation rentals, but doesn’t attract the same crowds as Naples, its neighbor 30 minutes to the north. Located just north of the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve, there is plenty of nature to explore beyond the hotels.
Fun Things to do in Marco Island, Florida
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Sure the beach isn’t that sugar soft white sand of Clearwater, but looking out at that wide stretch of white sand lined with palm trees and beach cabanas made it feel that we traveled much further than a three-hour direct flight from Providence to Fort Myers.
These are some of the best things to do in Marco Island:
Go for a Dolphin Watch
The Dolphin Explorer eco-tour was the first activity I booked when planning my trip to Marco Island. Unfortunately the rain and a small craft advisory put a damper on my plans, but I’ll have to try again when I return.
This three-hour eco-tour introduces visitors to the dolphins of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The tour also includes a stop on a Barrier Beach for some shelling.
Shell and Sunbathe on South Marco Island Beach
Tigertail Beach and South Marco Island Beach are the best on the island. There are multiple access points and public parking along the beach, plus this is where you will find many of the hotels and resorts.
You may want to bring along water shoes to avoid the sharper shells and plan to get the shelling stoop as you bend over selecting some of the best shells to take home.
You can rent a kayak or paddle board from Parco Marco to paddle through mangroves or explore the outer barrier islands and sand bars.
If you don’t want to explore on your own, Marco Island Boat Tours also run boat-assisted eco-kayak tours that include a walking tour with a naturalist.
Make a Splash with Marco Island Watersports
If you are ready for some adventure and excitement, Marco Island Watersports offers wave runner rentals, parasailing, and banana boat rides. You can find Marco Island Watersports at the JW Marriott Marco Island.
Eat Stone Crab Claws
If you visit between mid-October and May, you must make it a point to try some local stone crab claws. You will find them on many menus, but if you want them fresh, head down to Goodland or Everglades City. City Seafood is one of the many establishments in Everglades City to offer fresh seafood to go or eat in at its waterfront restaurant and tiki bar.
Take a Sunset Cruise
The Gulf Coast of Florida is known for its spectacular sunsets. While you can appreciate the sunset from a beach, you can also take a sunset cruise to see the beauty from every angle. There are many options, but if you want to combine dinner with a sunset cruise, the Marco Island Princess offers sunset dinner cruises from Rose Marina.
Visit the Marco Island Historical Museum
If you need a rainy day activity, the Marco Island Historical Museum offers insight into Southwest Florida’s Calusa Indians. The museum includes artifacts dating back as far as the late 1800s.
Take an Airboat Tour
In Marco Island you are less than an hour away from the Everglades and it is a perfect opportunity to take an airboat tour. There are many options, but we chose to go with Wootens Airboat tours. They offer both 30-minute airboat tours through the mangroves and grasslands, as well as a 30-minute Swamp Buggy Tour that brings you through the river of grass of the Everglades.
You will get to see alligators, birds, and other wildlife. Wootens also has an animal sanctuary with rescued alligators and offers kayaking as well.
Visit Big Cypress Nature Reserve
Big Cypress Swamp is a freshwater swamp that supports the marine estuaries along Florida’s southwest coast. Big Cypress National Preserve covers 729,000 acres and is home to a diversity of plant and wildlife, including the Florida panther.
The Big Cypress Welcome Center is open in the winter and offers regularly scheduled Ranger-led swamp walks, canoe/kayak trips, bike rides and other special activities and events.
Explore Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Southwest of Marco Island you will find the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, the largest state park in Florida. The park is home to bald cypress forests, native royal palms, and orchids. Visitors can walk the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk to a virgin cypress strand or take guided swamp walks or tram tours from November through April. This park is perfect for nature lovers, kayakers, and bird watchers.
See Everglades National Park
Located on the edge of the Everglades, you would be remiss to skip exploring a bit of this massive wetland that covers 1.5 million acres. There are three entrances, including one in Everglades City just 40 minutes south of Marco Island.
From this location, you can take a 90-minute Ten Thousand Islands Cruise, rent canoes or kayaks, or take a guided canoe or kayak excursion.
Marco Island is one of the best destinations for year round sport fishing. You will find Tarpon, Snook, Redfish and Sea Trout around the Ten Thousand Islands. If you choose to go out deeper into the Gulf of Mexico, you can catch Grouper, Snapper, King Mackeral, Little Tuni, shark and Cobia.
Visit Miccosukee Indian Village
If you are willing to go a little further afield or you are driving across Alligator Alley to Miami, you can visit the Miccosukee Indian Village in the Everglades. Here you can see alligator demonstrations, take an airboat tour, and learn about the Miccosukee way of life.
Where to Stay on Marco Island
We really loved our stay at the JW Marriott Marco Island. The lobby is styled a bit like a Polynesian resort, putting you in the vacation mood. The resort offers two pools, one with a zero-entry, small waterslide, and splash area for small children. Your resort fee includes beach chairs and service on the resort’s section of the public beach, which stretches wide with white sand.
However, unlike Clearwater, this sand is coarse with crushed shells, part of what makes Sanibel and Captiva to the north so great for shelling. The water is the typical blue-green of the Gulf Coast, with small waves making it very family friendly. I would just recommend bringing water shoes and a string bag for shell collecting.
Each night at sunset, Quinn’s by the beach puts on a daily sunset celebration with flame torch juggling. Families gather around to watch this fun tradition. The JW Marriott Marco Island has 12 dining options, including a frozen yogurt shop and coffee shop serving up Illy coffee.
One of our favorite features was the 10K Alley, which is a gastro pub with over 60 craft beers and gaming arcade. The arcade is open to kids until 10pm and includes mini-golf, bowling, skeeball, virtual reality games, and tons of fun arcade games. You need to purchase a game card to play, but it was a very fun way to spend an evening or rainy afternoon.
I booked our stay using American Express points, which was a much better deal than using Marriott points. Plus by booking through AmEx Travel, we got the Fine Hotels & Resorts benefits including a $100 resort credit, free continental breakfast for two, late check out, early check in upon availability, and upgrades upon availability (nothing was available for us since we were visiting right before Christmas.)
Have you visited Marco Island? I would love to hear about your experience the comments below.
Looking for more Florida vacation ideas?
- Best Florida Gulf Coast Vacations
- Planning a Family Trip to Florida on a Budget
- Shelling in Sanibel and Captiva
- Planning a Florida Keys road trip
- Best family-friendly resorts in Clearwater, Florida