A Florida Family Vacation On Marco Island

By Lisa McElroy

Florida family vacations are wonderful – especially when they combine sun, sand, wildlife and adventure. That kind of family travel experience goes straight to the top of my daughter’s family vacation wish list.

Abby’s nine now, but she’s remembering way back to when she was in pre-K and her class “adopted” a manatee named Crazy Nick. Why? Well, because we’re on a family vacation in Florida, visiting Marco Island and the Florida Everglades, and today’s the day for our manatee sighting outing. Because our tour guide instructed us to look for the “baked potatoes in the water,” we’ve already spotted six or seven, including a nursing manatee calf and its mom. Abby’s steering the boat, I’ve got my eyes peeled for more manatees, and the other kids on the boat are taking photos.

But visiting the manatees is only one of the fun activities on our trip to Marco Island, Florida. We’re staying at the lovely Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa, a AAA 4-diamond resort right on the white sand beach. Our hotel room looks out over the pool and beach, and Abby takes full advantage of both, building sand castles and doing silly jumps into the pool while I “judge” her score. What’s especially great about the pool is that I can see her wherever she is, even as I kick back in my beach chair with a fruity drink. . . . not that I don’t love swimming with my kid, but still . . .

When we’re not swimming, Abby’s anxious to try the activities in the area. First stop? Speedy Johnson’s airboat rides, a ride through the Everglades in a special boat equipped with stadium-style seating. Abby loves looking through binoculars at the birds that live in the mangrove trees, and the wind feels great on my face as we zip along the water. Next up? A parasailing adventure with Marco Island Water Sports, right out the back door of the hotel. It’s hard to believe, but Abby, who’s the littlest kid on the boat, loves parachuting 350 feet above the ocean more than anyone. It’s so peaceful up that high that we have a real mother-daughter bonding moment. Last, but not least? Our manatee tour with Captain Barry, something Abby will remember always (and not just because she thinks she spots Crazy Nick).

Because it’s just the two of us on this vacation, we decide that we have to have some spa time. Luckily, at the Hilton, kids are welcome in the spa, something that isn’t true at many resorts. Abby decides on a mani-pedi; at first I’m worried that the manicurist will be upset that she has to watch a kid while I get a massage, but she seems to delight in making my little one feel like a princess, and she gives her an extra coat of sparkly polish on her tiny nails. As for me, I can really kick back knowing that Abby’s in good hands, and the massage serves to work out all of those tense parasailing muscles.

Abby and I decide to celebrate a great spa day with a great meal, and luckily there are plenty of casual but good restaurants to choose from right on Marco Island. We head to Joey’s Pizzeria and Pasta House for a huge but cheap thin crust pizza, then to Cold Stone Creamery across the street for a sundae to cap things off. On other evenings, we try out The Crazy Flamingo, a casual seafood joint, and Cocomo’s Grill, a big hit with Abby because of its back room arcade. And for breakfast each morning, we hit the Paradise Café, where Abby devours the homemade waffles.

After our trip, when we get prints of the photos we took, Abby hugs the ones of “her” manatees and our parasailing adventures. “Remember, Mom?” she says. “Remember when we were up high together? It felt like we were flying. And I think I could see baked potatoes in the water.” Wonderful memories ... of a wonderful family vacation on Marco Island.

If You Go:

* Rent a car. To get to Marco Island, you can fly to Ft. Myers or Ft. Lauderdale. Either way, you’re looking at at least an hour’s drive. Luckily, you’ll be routed through scenic Naples and over a lovely causeway.

* Pack the sunscreen. The sun’s quite direct here – you’ll need to grease up the kids several times a day.

* Keep the kids hydrated. We ended up in the emergency room with a dehydrated nine-year-old in the middle of our family vacation. While she was fine after a day or two, it was pretty lousy for a while there. Luckily, Naples Health Center has an excellent urgent care center right on the island.

* Don’t forget the buckets. And they’re not only for sand . . . because of the currents, Marco Island is one of the best shell collecting beaches in Florida. We found several beautiful whole conch shells, among many others.

* Turn in early. Or at least, close your blackout blinds. In early summer, sea turtles come onto the Marco Island beaches to make their nests and lay their eggs. If they see lights, they are scared away. Many of the hotels have after-9:00 p.m. blackout policies during the nesting season.

* Walk the beach at dawn. Because the beaches face east, an early morning stroll along the beach is as pretty as you can imagine.

* Budget for shopping. Marco Island is home to lots of cute boutiques; we shopped our cares away after our ER visit.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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