An Otherworldly Vacation in Southwest Florida
Experience the unexpected in Florida with this six-day Gulf-coast itinerary that takes you on airboat rides through the Everglades and boat tours to abandoned dome houses out at sea. Spend a few days on peaceful Marco Island to enjoy its seashell-covered beaches, waterfront restaurants, and sunset boat rides. Head down to Everglades City for a day to enjoy fresh stone crab, pass the country’s smallest post office, and pay a visit to the utterly bizarre Skunk Ape Headquarters. End your vacation in charming Naples, where you can visit the botanical gardens and wander around the Tin City’s shops and eateries.
The Everglades Up Close
The Everglades is one of the wildest places on Earth and an airboat tour here is about as otherworldly as it gets. Put on your ear protection and prepare to speed through mangrove tunnels and zip around cypress groves. Once you slow down, you’ll have the chance to spot wildlife (including alligators, of course) while your guide teaches you all there is to know about this unique habitat.
The official source for planning Florida travel, VISIT FLORIDA is a nonprofit dedicated to sharing all the state has to offer, from the most romantic dining spots in Tampa to the best biking trails in Tallahassee. Discover how the distinctive regions of the state, filled with natural beauty, fascinating culture and history, and delicious cuisine, offer destinations for all types of travelers.
Marco Island Beach
Photo By Darron Silva
The JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, just 45 minutes from the Fort Myers airport, has an extensive adults-only wing as well as plenty of family-friendly amenities. With three miles of private beaches and options to rent kayaks and Jet Skis, play beach volleyball, or go sailing, the JW Marriott makes an ideal home base on Marco Island.
Seashells blanket many of the area beaches, one of the most beloved details about this little island. A short drive from the Marriott, Tigertail Beach is a good place to start your adventure by combing the beaches for sand dollars, calico scallops, or horse conchs. When you leave, take a drive through the nearby streets, keeping a lookout for the areas of sectioned-off grass, the protected turf of teeny-tiny burrowing owls who make their home underground. Alternatively, a shelling tour will take you out by boat, teaching you about the local ecosystem while showing you hidden shelling spots and helping you to identify the different shells.
To celebrate your first night on Marco Island, head over to Old Marco’s popular waterside eatery, Snook Inn. Nightly live music fills the dockside dining area while patrons feast on fresh seafood such as oysters, delicious local grouper, and calamari.
The abandoned dome house on the edge of Cape Romano was built on land in the early 1980s, but the island has since eroded.
Photo By Darron Silva
Cape Romano Dome Houses
Start your morning at Doreen’s Cup of Joe, a local favorite on Marco Island. Whether you want sweet or savory, Doreen’s extensive menu ranges from Crab Cake Benedict to Key Lime pancakes.
To experience the beautiful and bizarre, take a boat tour of the Ten Thousand Islands and Cape Romano Dome Houses. The Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge is a 35,000-acre maze of waterways and mangrove islands. Depending on the tour you choose, you’re in for a lesson on the regional ecology, wildlife-spotting opportunities, and a glimpse at the Dome Houses. Protruding from Gulf waters on stilts, these igloo-shaped structures were originally built as a self-sustainable vacation home. Abandoned for decades, they’re now an architectural oddity within Southwest Florida’s seascape.
In the afternoon, enjoy Marco Golf and Garden, 18 holes of mini-golf surrounded by lovely gardens and populated by lizards darting across the greens. In the evening, enjoy fine dining at Fin Bistro, the go-to spot on Marco Island for high-end seafood dishes with fresh fish caught and cooked daily.
Tarpon Bay in Everglades National Park, looking southwest towards Florida Bay
A funky little town all its own, Everglades City is the optimal place to start a day full of unexpected adventures. One of the largest wetlands in the world, the Everglades is full of mangrove forests and rare species such as Florida panthers, manatees, and American crocodiles. This is one of the special places in the United States where nature reigns supreme and the best way to understand this swampy world is by airboat.
Instead of turning back towards Marco Island when you leave, head slightly farther East toward Miami. You’ll feel like Gulliver when you pass the Ochopee Post Office, the smallest in the United States. It measures 56 square feet and is how more than 900 rural residents of the Everglades region send and receive mail. A minute down the road is the massive “COLD BEER” sign out front of Joanie’s Blue Crab Cafe. Inside, you’ll find walls overflowing with southwest Florida trinkets and fridges full of beer for patrons to help themselves as part of an honor system. On the menu, fried green tomatoes, gator bites, frog legs, and of course fried blue crab are all prepared with love.
Now that you’ve refueled with the finest Everglades grub and cold beer, you are ready to absorb Everglades mythology at the Skunk Ape Headquarters. What’s a Skunk Ape? According to local legends that date thousands of years, the Skunk Ape is a Bigfoot-like creature, akin to a man covered in fur walking on two legs. Dave Shealy’s Skunk Ape Headquarters offers souvenirs, eerie details on the legend, and live animals including a 25-foot python named Goldie. You can also book pole boat tours, rent kayaks, and camp in the surrounding nature.
Big Cypress National Preserve.
Photo By Photo by VISIT FLORIDA
Fakahatchee Strand Swamp
Take it easy today, enjoying the facilities at the JW Marriott Marco Island, including a Caribbean-style lunch at their oceanside restaurant, Quinn’s on the Beach. When you’re ready for an activity, drive toward the Everglades, stopping at Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk where you can walk a 2,500-foot elevated wooden trail that winds through the Fakahatchee Strand Swamp. At the end, an observation platform overlooks an alligator pond. Bring binoculars if you have them as the boardwalk is a favorite place of bird enthusiasts to spot barred owls and green herons among the bald cypress trees.
Treat yourself to one of the best seafood dining experiences on Marco Island tonight at The Oyster Society. Live music from the Jazz Age accompanies their Roaring ’20s, Art Deco-inspired interior while you enjoy daily oyster and raw bar selections.
Naples’ Fifth Avenue is a lively shopping and dining destination.
Photo By Hayworth Creative Public Relations
Drive to Naples first thing in the morning so you can grab a hearty breakfast at The Rooster (try their pink shrimp and grits in a pepper pan sauce) before checking into your room at Naples Bay Resort. This modern, waterfront hotel has guest suites and vacation rental cottages in addition to its own marina with boat rentals. You’re also within walking distance of Tin City and its assortment of eclectic shops and restaurants; and posh Fifth Avenue brims with high-end bars and eateries.
For a multicultural experience, hop in the car and head to Celebration Park, only 10 minutes away, for lunch. This collection of food trucks—from gyros to Indian street food, with an outdoor bar and big-screen TVs by the water—is a great place to spend a laid-back lunch hour.
Keep the easygoing vibe going by grabbing a pre-dinner drink at local favorites Bar Tulia or The Bevy before a wander around Naples’ busiest block, Fifth Avenue. You’ll enjoy dinner tonight at high-end Truluck’s or at the more relaxed Hobnob Kitchen + Bar.
A large lily pond at Naples Botanical Gardens
Photo By Darron Silva
Naples Botanical Garden
If you have time on your last day in Naples, visit the Botanical Gardens or head to Rookery Bay for an Eco Tour or Geocaching experience. Otherwise, in less than 20 minutes, you’ll be back at the Fort Myers Airport with plenty of time to contemplate all that you discovered in Southwest Florida.
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