Fish House Restaurant is one of the dining
experiences on the Isle of Capri, just north of Marco
ISLAND, Fla. — As we sail away from the Marco Island
marina on a sticky morning in search of dolphins, James
Livaccari, biologist on board the Dolphin Explorer, points
out a bald eagle chasing an osprey, a great white egret
catching fish on the point of the Isle of Capri. We see
terns, a flock of brown pelicans and giant frigatebirds.
we see dolphins. And a baby dolphin — a newborn, in
fact, its skin still wrinkled from being folded in its
mother’s womb. The mother is teaching the baby how to
swim. The paying passengers, children and adults, are
excited, but Livaccari is the most excited of all. He
recognizes the mother and can’t wait to get back to his
logs to see who Mom was spotted hanging out with at this
time last year. That will almost certainly be the father,
Island is a drive of about 105 miles straight west from
downtown Miami, mostly along Tamiami Trail. It is the
largest and northernmost of the Ten Thousand Islands, and
a fine spot for an overnight getaway — or even a long
people come here for the beaches, a sweet crescent of sand
on the Gulf fronted by hotels and condos. Some come for
the shelling — there are islands and sandbars aplenty
— or the backcountry fishing and paddling. Some like to
go to the shops and restaurants in Naples, 15 miles to the
north, then retreat to Marco Island’s casual ambience.
like it for its wildlife spotting. Both the setting and
the wildlife are different from what we see on Florida’s
Island — and the drive there — offer plenty of
wildlife-related opportunities, both guided and unguided:
Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve
have entrances along the Tamiami Trail; Fakahatchee Strand
Preserve State Park and Collier-Seminole State Park are
nearby; and there’s paddling in kayak or canoe through
the Ten Thousand Islands.
me, the ideal one-night staycation on Marco Island would
include a cruise on the Dolphin Explorer, sunset cocktails
and dinner at one of the area’s casual waterfront
restaurants, and on the way home, a detour to Chokoloskee
for a taste of local history. Add another day, and I’d
throw in a kayak tour or a swamp walk at Fakahatchee and a
stop at the new Marco Island Historical Museum.
many of Florida’s coastal cities and towns, Marco Island
and Naples have recreational cruises, an hour or two
aboard a boat, maybe to celebrate the sunset or look for
dolphins with cocktail in hand.
Dolphin Explorer is something different, though — it’s
a three-hour boat ride with an educational component that
has been recognized by the National Geographic book, 100
Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life. The Explorer
crew has cataloged more than 200 local dolphins,
identifying them by notches in their dorsal fins, naming
and photographing them.
its twice-daily tours, the crew and passengers of the
Dolphin Explorer watch for dolphins, identify them from
the book of photographs on board, then log the sightings,
the animals’ behavior and who they were with. There’s
also a stop on a barrier island for shelling, sunbathing
or a walk on the white sand.
boat tours run year round but may slow in summer, when
fewer people sign up. September, dolphins’ birthing
season, is the slowest time of all due to the weather, but
could be the most exciting time for passengers, who might
see newborns like we did on our venture late last summer.
Summer is also when the chances of spotting a manatee are
ON THE WAY HOME
25 miles east of Marco Island and a few miles south of
Tamiami Trail is Everglades City, a town of about 400
people that is often called the Gateway to the Ten
Thousand Islands, where many fishing and paddling trips
City has a number of restaurants known for their seafood,
including Triad Seafood Market & Café, City Seafood
Restaurant and Camellia Street Grill. The town’s
specialty is stone crabs, but with the season ending May
15, you’ll need to pick something else — there are
still plenty of seafood options. Caution: Some restaurants
curtail their hours over the summer, so check whether they’re
open before you go.
destination is the ghost town of Chokoloskee, a small
island a few miles south of Everglades City connected by
causeway to the mainland. White settlers came here in the
late 1800s and hunted wildlife for plumes, hides and fur;
some established farms, where they grew sugarcane and
vegetables. One of them, Ted Smallwood, opened a trading
post and post office on his farm in 1906.
changed for the little community soon after that. Into
their midst moved Edgar J. Watson, a farmer and
businessman who was violent, bullying, sometimes
psychopathic. He frightened his neighbors, until one day
in 1910 they confronted him at Smallwood’s store and
shot and killed him. Peter Matthiessen turned the
real-life story into a novel, "Killing Mr.
Watson," capturing for popular culture a Chokoloskee
that is long gone.
built a new, larger trading post in 1917. It stands there
today, not far from the original, on stilts above the high
tides and surges of Chokoloskee Bay. Its shelves are
stocked with goods from the early and mid-20th century,
but now it’s a private museum, still owned by the
Smallwood family and a nonproft organization they formed.
can learn about Edgar Watson here, as well as about the
hunters and farmers who made a living on the island. On
display are pelts, Indian handicrafts, old machinery,
classic soda pop bottles, old glassware, canoes, the post
office window and much more that is reminiscent of the
first half of the 20th century.
you want to continue the wildlife theme of this staycation,
you can arrange a boat tour through the Smallwood store
and customize it — mangrove exploration, birds, history.
It’s a fitting end to a trip through a unique corner of
TO STAY: Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa, 560 S.
Collier Blvd., Marco Island; 239-394-5000; .
With 297 guestrooms, spa, on the beach. Summer rates from
$179 weekdays, $246 weekends.
Idle Hour: 221 Goodland Dr., Goodland; 239-394-3041;
stansidlehour.net. Restaurant + chickee hut patio on
marina; often has live music. Reduced hours May-October.
Specialties fish sandwiches and fried-seafood baskets;
sandwiches $5.95-$14.95, entrees $9.95-$18.95.
Fish House Restaurant: 203 Capri Blvd, Naples;
239-389-5555; caprifishhouse.com. About midway between
Marco Island and Naples, with marina, kayak rentals, boat
tours. Seafood, steak, pasta; dinners $22.99-$39.99.
Explorer: dolphin-study.com. Tours leave from Marco Island
Marina; most days at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Advance
reservations and tickets through Zerve, 800-979-3370, $59.
Smallwood’s store: 360 Mamie St., Chokoloskee;
239-695-2989; smallwoodstore.com. Open daily 11 a.m.-4
p.m.; admission $5. Boat tours: 239-695-0016,
Island Historical Museum: 180 S. Heathwood Dr., Marco
Island; 239-642-1440; colliermuseums.com. Open
Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
Strand State Park: 137 Coastline Dr., Copeland;