Women in feathers danced some sort of crazy mating ritual to Southern tunes — vying, I was told, for the honored title of Buzzard Queen. Then there was the 70-something-year-old man in the loin cloth and tails wearing a Buzzard Queen Inspector button and, around his neck, a Perfect Woman Meter.
Just when I’d figured out that Marco Island was not all about the plush, high-rise resorts along its extravagant crescent beach — that fishing and boating also figure importantly into the equation — here I was plunged into the old-island fishing village character of Marco’s Goodland during its annual go-crazy tradition known as Mullet Festival. On a weekly basis, Sunday Bash convenes as a mini version of the tomfoolery at the opposite end of Marco’s more refined side.
The steep contrasts on Marco Island begin with an ancient past juxtaposed with the most modern vacation scene.
A short drive from the beach, I explored the former at the Marco Island Historical Museum, where the emphasis is on the island’s Calusa Indian bygones as an important tribal headquarters and later archaeological dig site. Calusa shell mounds still add height to the otherwise flat island.
En route to Goodland, east on San Marco Road, check out Otter Mound Preserve and mountainous (for Southwest Florida, anyway) Indian Hill.
At the other, northern end of the island, Old Marco preserves a more current slice of island heritage at the Olde Marco Inn. Since the 1880s and pioneer Bill Collier, the inn has fed and boarded pilgrims to this part of the world. Back in Collier’s day, he advertised rooms for $1 a night, bring your own meat. Through the decades, the inn’s dining room has evolved into a gracious Victorian setting with a cranberry glass chandelier and Audubon prints.
Marco Island’s beachfront, however, remained largely undeveloped until the 1960s, when the beach got augmentation surgery and resorts slowly began to appear.
Built in 1971, Marco Beach Hotel & Villas became the Marriott Marco Island in 1979. It attracted South Floridians in its early days, said Jada Shigley, director of reservations. “Miamians came for generations and generations,” she added. “They just found it so different over here from the East Coast.”
The resort recently made a determined effort to reprise the nostalgia of that era with a Facebook photo promotion targeted largely at South Florida. And now, from April 1 to May 15, 2013, management hopes to entice Floridians to stay longer with discounts on extra days, when booked by May 1.
A Hilton and the Marco Beach Ocean Resort have also joined the roll call of fine Marco beach resorts. The expanded Olde Marco Inn now holds polished Bistro Soleil with its trappings of yesteryear. Here, Chef Denis Meurgue does fine French cuisine with a Florida kiss.
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Bistro Soleil is but one of a string of worth-a-stop restaurants that stretch from north to south and vary from refined to flip-flop casual.
Steps away from Bistro Soleil, kitschy bands play beneath a thatched chickee roof at Snook Inn, while diners line up at the salad bar and seafood buffet (starting in May). Patrons arrive at the restaurant’s perch on the Marco River by car or boat, for here in Old Marco beats the salty heart that infuses Marco Island with its water-bound heritage.
As the largest and northernmost of the Ten Thousand Islands, Marco Island clings like a barnacle to its fishing roots. Marinas on the north end offer everything from fishing charters and boat rentals to sailing excursions and luncheon cruises.
Like a bookend, Goodland too stays rooted to fishing, and many of the locals still make their living from the sea. It shows in the village’s funky waterfront restaurants: Stan’s Idle Hour, Little Bar Restaurant, and Olde Marco Lodge Crab House. Most times you’ll hear live music dockside. From here you can also catch an airboat ride into the labyrinthine Ten Thousand Islands.
Sandwiched between its more rough-and-humble extremes stretch Collier Boulevard’s gulf-front condo complexes, resorts, restaurants, bars, and strip malls. Two beach access points permit the public to cross into this world of luxuriously wide sands and manicured landscape.
Nature-lovers head off Collier Boulevard (named for Barron Collier, not Bill) to Tigertail Beach, where a protected lagoon attracts birds by the flock. Across the lagoon, Sand Dollar Spit is accessible by boat or a long walk south down Tigertail. Sand Dollar Spit’s north end is known for its wealth of seashells and fish.
Collier Boulevard’s South Beach access requires a bit of a walk from parking, but is easier to find. Many stop in next door at the Sunset Grille for a burger, cold beer, and view of beach or sports TV.
Other dining hot spots along Collier Boulevard include Verdi’s, with its new American fare, and Sale e Pepe, part of the Marco Beach Ocean Resort, with Tuscan-inspired cuisine.
Marco Beach Ocean Resort, with 98 rooms, is a smaller and more boutique style resort than the Marriott — a 727-room destination resort complete with a stand-alone spa, golfing, restaurants, watersports, a kids club, and upscale shops.
By day, resort guests walk or drive along the candy shops, clothing and jewelry stores, bookstore, day spas, and delis across the street. By night they hit the Marco Theatre for dinner and a movie in one spot or Captain Brien’s Seafood & Raw Bar for entertainment of a different sort in the Off the Hook Comedy Club.
Those looking for a wayback night out head to Goodland, however. Things again reach their peak of wacky in late June when Little Bar hosts Spammy Jammy — an offering of Spam creations and nighttime apparel to the hurricane gods.