I am in search of a cat. And no, it’s not a “cat” sailboat, as that would be easy to find (there are plenty of catamarans prancing around its seven or so miles of perfect-white-sand beach). It is a wooden cat sculpture; a six-inch-high figurine dating from about 800 A.D. that was found in 1896.
The Key Marco Cat was preserved in a bog at the north end of the island, and it’s likely a Calusa artifact, made by a vanished tribe of sea-faring natives known for building inlet canals and giant shell mounds that dot the coast. The actual Charlemagne-era cat is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but Marco Islanders have built a museum and hope to bring Marco Cat home.
I think I’m on to something, as road signs warn of “panther traffic” amidst the manicured golf communities. I even find more hope as the Collier Area Transit bus signs (nicknamed “CAT”) have a snazzy pouncing panther as their logo.
Just before I cross the bridge to Marco, I check in at the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Its Environmental Learning Center is a two-story introduction to the 110,000-acre reserve that surrounds Marco Island.
Just inside the entrance is a huge replica of a polka-dot batfish. It looks like it could walk on the water with its pectoral fins and has a fishing “lure” dangling on the top of its head to attract prey. I also learn of a foot-long parchment worm that inhabits the mud flat, and I see photos of a sea-serpent-like oarfish that looks like an animal from The Flintstones.
Marco sits atop Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands. It’s an island and a city, and I see all of it as I cross the Jolley Bridge above the Marco River.
I can’t resist – what about cat burglars?
A short film tells the story of a nearby dig, where archaeologist Frank Cushing found the perfectly preserved statuette. Because the Smithsonian was one of the sponsors of the dig, they kept the cat in D.C., which I learn has been back to visit twice since 1896. While I haven’t seen a wooden cat in the cases, I can now get a drink under the chickee bar at Snook Inn, a classic with a view of dolphins and manatees. Just a few yards down is the gourmet Marek’s Collier House Restaurant, built in the historic Capt. Collier house.
I won’t catch any sort of cat at Tigertail Beach, but it is toddler-friendly. The protected water is flat and shallow, and the shore is wide – ideal for adults parking beach chairs (feet wet, bottoms dry) while kids play. And the water’s so calm, they rent out electric boats. A cafe and playground, along with paddleboats and kayaks, round out the amenities. While all beaches can be walked, the only other beach with public parking lots is at the south end.
The main beach feels Polynesian, an echo from the 1970s, when the Mackle brothers created the island’s bridges, roads and boat canals (the weirdly spelled Elkcam Street is Mackle backward). The Bali feel is most noticeable in the mosaic-decorated Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa, developed in the same decade as the centerpiece of the island and recently renovated to the tune of $225 million.
Nearby are the four-diamond Marco Beach Ocean Resortand the equally snazzy Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa. The pink Surf Club on Collier Boulevard has two-bedroom, fully-equipped balcony units. (Smaller places include The Boat House Motel and the Marco Island Lakeside Inn.)
At Mackle Park, I find an exceptional (free) playground with a lake where a members-only club comes to race radio-controlled sailboats. There is a basketball court with low hoops for kids. I find waterfront glitz at The Esplanade marina, which includes boutiques as well as Tara Steak and Lobster House, CJ's and Mango's.
An Ancient Discovery
I make my way to the rest of the Marco Island Historical Museum. There, I see the copy of the statuette, and a small diorama of a ceremonial Calusa shell mound. This mental picture comes in handy when I finish my tour at the south end of the island atop a shell mound on Indian Hill. I take in the view from the tallest hill in this part of Florida. From there, and just for a second, I can get a sense of the home of the Key Marco Cat.
Goodland, at the End
At the southeast end of the island, Goodland’s obligatory Buzzard Lope dance is at Stan’s Idle Hour Restaurant. Find Florida fusion at the Little Bar Restaurant and the Old Marco Lodge Crab House; all are on the water and open for the season each October. If you have a kitchen, get some local stone crab from Capri Fisheries. Starting at $12.50 a pound, it’s plentiful from Oct. 15 - May 15.