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.
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.