Exploring Florida’s unexpected wild side on family vacation

As our captain handed out earbuds to drown out the roar of the engine, I knew I was in for a wild ride. Yes, we were in South Florida, but after driving along the highway known as Alligator Alley, we were far removed from the famous beaches. We wanted to experience Florida’s wild side, and gliding through Everglades National Park on a fun, although loud, airboat tour of the swamps was a great way to do it.

If you go

Marco Island Marriott

Dolphin Explorer

Billie Swamp Safari Airboat Ride

Airboat rides bring you face-to-face with the animals who call the Everglades home, including alligators, crocodiles, turtles, herons and egrets. Billie Swamp Safari is a popular Everglades tour operator, introducing visitors not only to the wildlife, but also the native Seminole Indians. For truly adventurous families, they even have rustic cabins in the swamps you can rent.

We decided to make the Gulf Coast’s Marco Island Marriott our home base. It’s just over an hour away from the Everglades, but feels like another world. Here you’ll find wide stretches of shell rich, powder soft sand boasting magnificent sunsets.

Marco Island is an hour south of Fort Meyers, two hours west of Fort Lauderdale. Off Marco Island’s coast lies the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, named after the many small uninhabited mangrove islets. Although there really are only a few hundred of them, these mangroves are home to an abundance of wildlife. Most importantly for my kids, they are bountiful in bottlenose dolphins.

We learned plenty about the bottlenose dolphin during our three-hour tour as citizen scientists aboard the Dolphin Explorer. Our energetic naturalist guide, James Livaccari, enlisted our help in the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Research Project. Dolphins are identified through their dorsal fins. During our boat ride we were asked to try and photograph the fins. “Dolphin jumping at 2 o’clock!” yells a passenger, and we all quickly point our cameras. Photos are shared with local agencies that use the images to track the animals. It’s a fun, kid-friendly way to learn about the dolphins and their habitat.

There’s also plenty to do on land in Marco Island. An al-fresco lunch on the patio of the Old Marco Lodge, in the historic fishing village of Goodland, is a great catch. At night, head over to the kitschy nautically themed Capt. Brien’s Seafood and Raw Bar.

Just two blocks from the Marco Island Marriott, I had a world-class lobster bisque and sesame seared ahi tuna salad. Not only is the food phenomenal, this charming restaurant has fun decor and at night turns into a comedy club. The day we were there, Louie Anderson was performing. Other nights you’ll find SNL’s Kevin Nealon, Pauly Shore and Drew Carey reeling them in at Off the Hook Comedy Club.

Southwest Florida provides plenty to entertain the whole family, from shell collecting to dolphin and gator spotting and even a few laughs for the grownups. Next time you’re planning a Florida vacation, consider taking a walk on the Gulf Coast’s wild side.

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