Marco Island Is Florida's Secret

Follow Savvy Floridians to Marco Island for sun, shells


By James Davis / The Dallas Morning News

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. - As the sun sets on the emerald waters and white sands, seashell lovers take delight in another bountiful catch.

During the day, people of all ages walk the sandy Marco Island beaches and stroll out into clear waters looking for shells in all shapes, sizes and colors. Early risers scan the seashore for exotic treasures left by the sea overnight. In the evening, others walk along the surf's edge, using flashlights to find special shapes overlooked by day bathers.

"This is the only place to be for seashell enthusiasts," says Sam Morris, a valet at a beach resort. "It's where the locals come, and nothing beats word-of-mouth."

This tiny island off southwest Florida offers visitors a laid-back style that seems out of step with busy America. The speed limit is 35 mph, bicyclists and walkers are everywhere, and there are no fast-food signs.

Miles of clean, family-style beaches (no nudity) attract visitors and locals from sunup to sundown, and water sports are abundant at most resorts and condominiums. With banana-boat rides, personal watercraft rentals and parasailing, it's almost more fun in the sun than time allows.

There's also a special pick-up boat service that arrives behind the resorts and carries seashell lovers to a secluded stretch of the Gulf Coast. Visitors also can take a two-hour morning or afternoon catamaran excursion to remote barrier islands. There they may collect an array of shells and sand dollars while bald eagles soar overhead.

"This is an incredible place to relax," says Linda Hall of Green Bay, Wis. "My friends were giving me a hard time for coming this time of year, but the beautiful seashells and warm waters are terrific. No crowds, no cell phones beeping; it's wonderful."

What would a Florida vacation be without a seafood diet? That's shrimp for breakfast, lunch and dinner, for those who wish. Restaurants offer expert cuisine, and fresh seafood is prominent on most menus. Early-bird specials from 5 to 6:30 p.m. always draw a crowd.

One special attraction is the Voyager Restaurant at the Marriott Resort and Golf Club. Stone crab claws, shrimp scampi, fried Gulf shrimp, blackened trout, grouper, prime rib and lobster fettuccine are featured, along with homemade bread and dessert. The salad bar also is laden with seafood, and prices are discounted for early diners.

Night life on Marco Island is slow and romantic. Visitors to Pelican Pete's at the Radisson Resort can sip cool drinks while watching the sun set over the water. Others stroll through the numerous shops, treat themselves to late-night ice cream or take in a movie.

In the region

Fort Lauderdale is 105 miles to the east via Interstate 75, commonly know as Alligator Alley. The Florida State Highway Department has installed cyclone fences along both sides of the divided four-lane toll road to keep the gators away. In earlier times, traffic accidents were numerous along the Everglades roadway when the swamp critters decided to sun themselves on the pavement.

Along I-75, visitors are confronted with an array of offers. They may take a swamp buggy tour or an airboat ride to view alligator farms and exotic birds. Big Cypress National Preserve, with 712,000 acres, is only 30 miles from Marco Island.

And the Everglades can be explored via U.S. 41. Dolphins, manatees and 500 varieties of fish inhabit the waters of the Ten Thousand Islands.

Fishing boats go out for half-day and full-day deep-sea excursions out of Marco Island, and scenic dinner cruises are offered at nearby Naples Bay.

Sanibel Island, an hour's drive north, offers 18 public beaches, more than 20 miles of off-street bike paths and its own fabulous shelling. One-day sightseeing trips to the Florida Keys leave from the Naples airport.

Out-of-state license plates are common at most Florida tourist attractions, but not on Marco Island. Marco is where Floridians come to relax.

Florida still has a few well-kept secrets.

For more information, contact the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce, 1102 N. Collier Blvd., Marco Island, Fla. 33937; (941) 394- 7549.

Published in The Dallas Morning News: 09.20.98

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