Marco Island-Mangrove Magic

On the map, the southern Gulf Coast of Florida almost looks like it’s dissolving into the sea, with a maze of inlets and channels shattering the land into thousands of tiny islands. The largest mass, Marco Island is anchored to the mainland by an extension of Naples’s Collier Boulevard, arcing over the water just enough to let boats skim underneath. Even Marco looks half-waterlogged because it’s bisected by so many man-made canals.
Marco Island is the gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands, many of them wildlife
preserves teeming with dolphins, manatees, shorebirds, alligators, and the elusive Florida panther. Runaway real-estate development in the 1960s turned Marco itself into a condo-packed haven for snowbirds from the Northeast, but what it lacks in historic charm, Marco makes up for in sports options. Granted, most Marco-ites—residents as well as visitors—seem content to lounge in front of the high-rise resorts that line the island’s 3,5-mile-long (5.6km) crescent of sugar-sand beach, waiting for spectacular sunset views. But boaters and fishermen know that with just a little exploring, you can rediscover what made this island such a draw in the first place.
Game fishing is one of Marco’s strong points, whether you go for tarpon, redfish, pompano, and snapper in the islands’ calm backwaters, or head out into the Gulf for deep-water prey like grouper, king mackerel, barracuda, and cobia. Show up at the Marco River Marina, to rent boats or charter fishing tours; or reserve ahead of time with sunshine Tours, Six Chuter Charters , or Marco Island Sea Excursions .
To penetrate into the heart of the Ten Thousands Islands, however, kayaking or canoeing is your best bet. Just north of Marco Island, there’s a self-guided canoe trail around Rookery Bay at the Southwest Florida Conservancy’s excellent Briggs Nature center, on Shell Island Road, off Fla. 951 between U.S. 41 and Marco Island , which also has a half-mile boardwalk trail through a pristine example of Florida’s disappearing scrublands. At collier-seminole state Park, east of Marco Island off U.S. 41 , you can rent canoes to explore a 13’/2-mile (22km) canoe trail along the twisting mangrove-lined Blackwater River. For more experienced canoers and kayakers, there’s the Paradise Coast Blueway, a network of paddling routes marked via GPS waypoints from Everglades City, at the tip of Everglades National Park, up the coast to the fishing village of Goodland, just southeast of Marco Island. Along the route, you’ll pass through the mangrove estuary of the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the orchid-draped cypress slough of Fakahatchee strand State Preserve , where rangers occasionally lead guided canoe trips. This is what Florida looked like before the condos sprouted, and you’ll have it all to yourself.