07/04/2012 07:15 am ET Updated Sep 03, 2012

Marco Island, Where Miami Goes On Vacation

Though they are blessed with tropical weather, wide beaches and trendy nightlife, the residents of Miami forsake their city on weekends and drive an hour and a half across the state to spend their leisure time on Marco Island. This behavior would seem bizarre if it weren't for the powdery sand and relaxed pace of the gulf coast.

24-square-miles of reclaimed swamp, with a modest fringe of high rise residences, picturesque mini-mansions and tidy bungalows interspersed around 100 miles of waterway canals, Marco Island has been developed into a vacation spot of charm and restraint.

Some of the homes and condos here are for rent, but an all-purpose year-round alternative is to check into one of its half dozen hotels. A cascading fountain welcomes visitors to the Balinese-inspired Marco Island Marriott Resort, 720 rooms in twin ten-story towers and a row of bungalows, each with its own balcony or walk-out access to the block-wide expanse of talcum powder beach. Lounging under thatched beach huts or sunning beside two free-form swimming pools, many guests feel no urge to leave the premises which incorporates two boutiques, six eateries, a game arcade, and a full-service spa offering sea salt scrubs, Bamboo Therapy massages, and soaks in its mineral pool.

More active options include golf at the Rookery course set within a nearby nature preserve or booking a half-day sail around the north side of the island in a custom catamaran, pausing at a sandbar along the way to collect conchs, spiny jewel boxes, and other shells left behind by the tide. Beach rentals include gear for parasailing, kayaking, and jet ski tours that put visitors at the throttles of rented Yamaha Waverunners to skim among the Ten Thousand Islands south of Marco spotting bottle nose dolphins, manatees, and nurse sharks in their native waters. Knowledgeable guides of Everglades Excursions take groups out for alligator sightings in full or half-day adventures that voyage through the mangrove tangles on shallow keel airboats powered and steered by giant fans.

Bicyclists pedal around the island, stopping at shops and checking out the restored original charming white frame buildings of nautical Old Marco. In various spots, orange traffic tape marks patches of ground set aside for the adorable burrowing owls who stand sentry on waist-high perches, guarding their domains. At the island's east end, just before the bridge to the mainland, a branch of the road veers right to the original settlement of Goodlands, now a trendy watering hole which calls itself a "drinking town with a fishing problem."

Day-trippers drive off island to sample the region's 90 golf courses, to shop at the Miromar Outlets, to visit the Ford and Edison Museums in Fort Myers, or to browse the wares in one-of-a-kind fashionable boutiques in the fancy Third Street South district of nearby Naples.

With almost a hundred local restaurants, diners order grouper served with plantains in a rum sauce on the sunset balcony at CJ's On the Bay or sample shrimp or lobster curry seafood prepared in best British style at Marek's Collier House, one of the island's historic residences. Back at the Marriott, vodka-spiked blackberry lemonade and pina coladas as thick as milk shakes accompany multi-layered Baja burgers served with piles of sweet potato fries at Quinn's beachside outdoor cafe. In Kurrents, under quirky overhead light fixtures, chef Jose Medina oversees elegant fare: orange mojitos followed by savory grilled grouper with pumpkin ravioli, potato crusted snapper, or steak with carmelized shallot sauce. And every dining establishment rounds out each meal with its signature key lime pie.

Island activity starts winding down at dusk with 9 pm dubbed "Marco Island Midnight." Sitting calmly at the beach or a waterfront cafe sipping a tropical cocktail as the golden orange sun sinks into the gulf typifies Marco's placid alternative to the hectic disco lifestyle.

Marco Island