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Magical Marco Island

Off the southern tip of Marco Island sits the mysterious Star Wars-style, igloo-like Cape Romano Dome House. Some locals suggest it was the community home of a secret cult, while others claim the structures had been left behind by extra-terrestrials. Retired oil producing magnate and inventor, Bob Lee built it in 1981. His idea was a completely self-sufficient and eco-friendly home. For many years the rounded, concrete domes were able to sustain hurricane winds, having taken little damage from a series of powerful storms. Not anymore. Last September Hurricane Irma caused two of the original six domes to collapse. A Naples, Fla.-based nonprofit Oceans for Youth is seeking to raise funds to load the structures onto barges and sink them further off the coast, creating a unique reef which would be home to thousands of sea creatures. Irma made its second Florida landfall as a Cat-3 storm at Marco Island, a picture perfect resort community with a five mile sugary white beach. It was turned into a mess— uprooted trees, downed power lines and debris as far as the eye could see. The good news was that physical damage to the tourism infrastructure was not as bad as it might have been. Within a month or so utilities were back up and running and the county was collecting debris, post-haste. The message trumpeted to visitors: “We’re open for business.” At 6,800 acres Marco Island is the largest of the Ten Thousand Islands, located ten miles south of Naples and just north of the Gulf Coast entrance to Everglades National Park. The spectacular jigsaw puzzle of land and water stretches from Marco Island’s southern border, winding past Everglades City all the way down to Flamingo and provides a haven for scores of rare birds and endangered animals like the Florida panther. Some of the islands are landmasses called keys but many are simply clumps of mangrove trees rising out of coral reefs, oyster beds, and sandy shoals. Mangrove islands and shallow creeks form a wondrous wilderness maze. Fishermen and farmers established a permanent settlement on Marco in the late 1800s, but modern development did not really take off here until the 1960s when the Marco Island community was created, crisscrossed with more than 100 miles of natural and man-made canals. That’s good news for visiting boaters. Entering Capri Pass they will likely be treated to the sight of dolphins displaying their playfulness and agility in the boat’s wake. But keep a keen eye on the marks, as the channel shoals and splits in the middle. The sea floor drops off from Marco Island gradually, so the bottom is almost flat and rarely more than 100 feet deep even miles out to sea. For much of this relatively shallow area, visibility is in the 25-foot to 50-foot range. The inshore waters of Everglades National Park offer snorkelers the opportunity to explore the brackish environment where the wetlands meet the sea. Fly fishing, spin casting, plug fishing and offshore wreck and reef fishing await eager anglers. The shallow waters surrounding the islands provide a bounty of tarpon, snook, redfish, pompano and sea trout. For those that prefer the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the catch includes grouper, snapper, king mackerel, little tuna, shark and cobia. Bring a filet of that fish you caught and the chef will cook it up for you at the Snook Inn near Tigertail Beach. Originally the “Snook Hole,” it was named for the abundance of snook pooling right off the dock. A landmark for more than three decades, it’s a great place to go for some Marco Island history. Outside at the thatched roof “chickee bar” specialty items include gator sausage sliders, shrimp and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, pot roast sandwich, spicy Cobb salad and blackened fish. Local musicians perform seven days a week. Try one of the inn’s superb frozen concoctions along with one of the finest water views in southwest Florida. Fin Bistro lives up to its name by carrying and preparing fresh, fresh fin fish in a nice variety, along with local shellfish. In most cases, the fish comes simply prepared but superbly complemented with seasonal vegetables and original side dishes such as the bacon wrapped arugula potato cake with the Key West swordfish with Calvados stone ground mustard jus. Town’s best breakfast nook—Petit Soleil in the shops at Olde Marco. Try the fabulous omelets or chocolate croissants. The Little Bar is a must-do. Besides the usual frog legs and Everglades seafood fare, its dry-erase board menu lists entrees such as crab cakes with lobster cream sauce and blackened shrimp. The setting is every bit as quirky. Outside, patrons gaze out on the bay waters, fishing docks and a stream of crab traps. The interior is cobbled together with salvaged wood from a historic boat, pieces of a pipe organ, stained glass and various other components with a southwestern Florida past. French doors, private decks, lake views, tropical breezes and blue skies—they are all here at the Marco Island Lakeside Inn. Offering 19 spacious and comfortable suites, the inn is decorated with a cottage chic décor— a fresh, clean white and beige palette with select floral accents and wicker cottage-style furniture— reminiscent of Old Florida and Key West. The Lakeside Inn backs up to the only freshwater lake on the island. There is a sandy beach along the lakefront designated a natural habitat for local birds, ducks and turtles. It’s a perfect spot to sit and enjoy a cocktail before dinner. The Esplanade Shoppes feature an array of retail shops and boutiques, while the Art League of Marco Island Center for the Arts showcases works by local and regional artists, artist talks and rotating exhibits throughout the year. A pair of gallery spaces presents collections of contemporary, Oriental, abstract and impressionist works as well as the Ten Thousand Islands natural world. Collier Seminole State Park, just a few miles from Marco Island, has primitive camping, canoeing, fishing, boating, picnic grounds, and a mile-long nature walk. Briggs Nature Center features a half-mile boardwalk where Marco Island visitors can observe wildlife in its natural habitat. Also available: shelling excursions and self-guided canoe trips. With its gentle pace and a tropical ambience, natural beauty and outdoor adventurers, Marco Island is still one of the Sunshine State’s most captivating destinations.

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