Are you looking for off the beaten path travel ideas in the state of Florida? Do you know about Ten Thousand Islands?
Deep in the Florida everglades, you’ll encounter countless marine species, mangrove islands, and untold species of fish. Guest writer and Florida resident, Cheryl Rodewig, shares her tips for how to visit this wilderness waterway. Disclosure: Some Collier County businesses assisted with Cheryl’s visit.
Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands are a chain of uninhabited islands and mangrove islets in Southwest Florida just south of Naples. There are actually over 10,000 islands, as Captain Dakotah, a tour guide who was born and raised in the area, informed us, but some are as small as a mangrove or two.
With plenty of deserted sandy beaches and fascinating wildlife, this area in the Gulf of Mexico is one of the best places to visit on the Florida coast for outdoor enthusiasts, and the best way to explore it is on a boat ride. Luckily, you don’t need to bring your own boat.
Here’s how to visit the famous Ten Thousand Islands of Florida.
Plan for a longer stay on the coast of Southwest Florida
If I had one thing to do over again, this would be it. I planned for an overnight trip to allow enough time for early morning tours, but ideally, you’ll want to allow 3-4 days to take in the sights.
For us, the GreenLinks Golf Villas at Lely Resort was perfect. For about the price of a hotel room, you can have your very own villa.
The resort offers two- and three-bedroom floor plans with plenty of room to spread out. It’s especially convenient for boomer roadtrippers, since you have all the comforts of home, from a washer and dryer to a full kitchen.
Unlike home, you’ll have access to a resort pool, hot tub, fitness center and tennis courts. You can check out board games, rent bikes or tee up at one of the two championship golf courses. And there’s an on-site restaurant and spa.
Our favorite part? You can enjoy breakfast on the lanai (your private screened-in porch with a beautiful view). It’s a very “Florida” experience.
The Lely Resort location is perfect, too. There’s a Publix nearby for groceries, and Marco Island is less than 20 minutes away.
Be sure to save a day for the beach. Tigertail Beach Park (website here) is popular for its shelling, birdwatching tower, concessions and plentiful parking. You can check out complimentary beach toys, chairs and umbrellas from the GreenLinks Golf Villas front desk.
Boomer Travel Tip
Most parks in Collier County, which includes Marco Island and Naples, have a parking lot fee, so be prepared.
Take a dolphin boat tour in the 10,000 islands
Dolphins seem to love the Ten Thousand Islands, and local tour guides know just where to find them. An eco tour is a must while you’re in the area.
After resting up in our villa, we headed out for a morning excursion with Dreamlander Tours. They do all kinds of boat tours, from fishing to sunset.
Even though we came for the dolphins, our three-hour tour also included much more. Here’s what we loved.
● Dome Houses: The alien-looking white houses are now half-submerged by water. Our guide, Captain Dakotah, regaled us with stories of picnicking out there when he was growing up. They’re slowly disappearing so don’t wait on this one!
● Nature: You’ll explore the heart of the Ten Thousand Islands as your guide points out the abundance of wildlife and tells you all about the mangrove forests that grow here. It’s pretty, but it turns out, it’s a pretty complex ecosystem.
● Shelling: The hour on our secluded island flew by. Serious beachcombers came back laden with treasures. I got sucked into the hobby, too, and found patterned shells, a whole sand dollar, plus conchs galore, just a few steps from where we docked.
● Dolphins: Seeing wild dolphins jump in the wake of our boat was incredible. Apparently, they enjoy it. Sightings are guaranteed (at least with the tour we took), and the photos are incredible.
They provide chilled bottled water. Bring sunscreen and maybe snacks for the beach in case anyone gets hungry.
Boomer Travel Tip
Get to Goodland Boat Park early since parking can go quickly, especially on the weekend. There’s no fee for parking here, and there are restrooms on-site.
See Everglades National Park
Spanning 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park (website here) is more than a day trip. The park has three entrances in different cities, and each one offers something unique. You’ll definitely want to add a trip to the Everglades to your national park adventures list.
The Gulf Coast entrance is located in Everglades City about a half hour from Marco Island. The best, and only, way to see the Everglades is to get out on the water.
The easiest way to do this is through the narrated boat tour provided by the park concessionaire, Everglades Florida Adventures. They’ll take you deep into the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge that’s located inside the Everglades National Park.
This 90-minute tour is one of the most accessible ways to explore this world-famous national park, especially if you have younger grandkids or others with limited mobility traveling with you. The boat is spacious and the ride is fairly peaceful.
Unlike Marco Island, you won’t pass many other boaters in the confines of the park. But you will spot lots of wildlife. We saw an osprey feeding her young and several dolphins leaping playfully as they followed us.
Want to hike? You can ask the rangers for suggestions for short trails nearby, including some outside the park. We took a short boardwalk on our way back to Naples. Don’t forget bug spray if you’re venturing into the swamp!
Boomer Travel Tip
To take the boat tour, you’ll need to pay for parking ($30), so it’s worth getting the annual Senior Pass, available for those 62 and up and good for all national park sites.
More to See and Do in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands
A morning boat tour and an afternoon visit to the Everglades is about all you can fit into a day. If you have longer, you can rent a canoe or kayak to explore the coastal waterways or Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge (website here), on your own.
You can also drive your own two-seater catamaran with Marco Island Eco Tours, an experience I highly recommend. It’s a good combination of a guided tour, since you have a pro leading the way, pointing out wildlife and sharing history, but you’re behind the wheel.
Those of us born before 1988 don’t need anything beyond our driver’s license to operate the boat, and your guide will show you how it works. Expect to see dolphins, enjoy shelling and feel the thrill of wind and water as you zip along at up to 20-25 MPH.
It’s also worth making time for a visit to one or two of Collier County’s five free museums: Museum of the Everglades, Naples Depot Museum, Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch, Marco Island Historical Museum, and Collier Museum at Government Center. They’re very well done and provide a break from the water — and air conditioning!
The two that fit best with this trip are the Museum of the Everglades, a 1920s building filled with history, art and artifacts less than a mile from the national park visitors center, and the Marco Island Historical Museum, which covers the island’s history from the Calusa Indians to pioneer days and beyond. The historical museum also has gazebos and pond outside, a pleasant spot to picnic for lunch between boat tours.
Where to eat
● Sam Snead’s Oak Grill & Tavern: Located near your villa in Lely Resort, this restaurant serves all-American eats with golf decor and golf course views. Enjoy happy hour and homemade desserts.
● Triad Seafood Market & Cafe: Chill out on their riverfront patio and chow down on stone crabs, which Everglades City is famous for. They’re open for stone crab season, around October to May.
● Grimm’s Stone Crab: This is the market to buy stone crab claws, sold in season fresh from the boats, so you can prepare your own feast. They’ll even crack the claws for you.
● The Crazy Flamingo: Open daily till 2 a.m., this casual seafood joint and raw bar serves everything from conch fritters and oysters on the half shell to buckets of wings.
We also loved how well a visit to the Ten Thousand Islands fits into a Florida road trip. Marco Island is just two hours from Homestead, gateway to the Florida Keys and another entrance to Everglades National Park — where the landscape is completely different from that of the Ten Thousand Islands. It’s worth doing both!
Disclosure: Some Collier County businesses assisted with my visit, but as always, all opinions are my own.