Ever sailed and cruised in the Florida Everglades? While not on the typical sailors’ path, we found many great opportunities to enjoy the area. This area is known as a fishing paradise with plenty of eco tours and wildlife viewing – especially manatees, alligators, panthers, coyotes and black bears. A bit north, there are plenty of beaches for walking and seashells for collectors.
Part One – Port of the Islands Marina, Adventure Resort, Cape Romano Dome Houses, Second Chance Island, Shell Island
Port of the Islands Marina, lies at the northern edge of the Everglades, a short distance from Naples and Marco Island, and where we have our boat slip.
Adjacent to the marina is the Port of the Islands Adventure Resort, a favorite for fishing and wildlife seekers, with the wonderful Angler’s Cove restaurant.
INTERESTING HISTORICAL FACTS ABOUT PORT OF THE ISLANDS AREA
Interestingly enough, on the other side of the marina, lies the abandoned Port of the Island Hotel site, which was part of the infamous Golden Gate Estates resort “I have some swamp land in Florida to sell you” story which is now defunct. In In the 1970s, Golden Gate Estates’ abandoned roads were used as landing strips for DC-3s landed with South American drugs. More on the hotel and Golden Gate Estates sorted past here.
SAILING TO PORT OF THE ISLANDS
To get to Port of the Islands Marina, use the Fakahatchee Pass, which takes you through Rookery Bay Estuarine Research Reserve and connects up with the Faka Union River and the man-made Faka Union canal. The canal was created back in the 1960s and 70s, to extend the Fake Union River further inland for Golden Gate Estates. A federal grant in 1997, allowed the state of FL to reclaim part of the land, which is now being restored to correct the ecological mistakes made in the past.
CAPE ROMANO DOME HOUSES
The Cape Romano Dome House just south of Marco Island Florida, is the abandoned home of retired oil producing businessman Bob Lee and his family. Built in 1979, it had 6 dome shaped “rooms” on stilts originally built on the beach. The house was completed in 1982 and was totally self sustaining.
- It ran on solar power.
- Gutters were installed which collected rainwater which was then purified for household use.
- It had a heat source under the floors.
- It had an invention that would bring logs in and drop them on the fireplace that came through the wall of our den.
- The floors were tile and carpet, the walls painted white, and the rooms had large windows on all sides.
- It was 2,400 square feet and featured three bedrooms and three bathrooms.
- The concrete walls were made out of sand from the island.
The surrounding land upon which it was originally built eroded away due to hurricanes and the natural movement of the ocean. It was abandoned in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew destroyed the interior due to windows breaking – without hurting the exterior at all.
The house was sold in 2005 to John Tosto, even though water levels were already meeting the concrete pillars. He planned on moving it but was delayed when Hurricane Wilma struck, and the necessary permits were denied due to protected bird nesting seasons.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma hit destroying 2 of the domes and in 2018 ownership transferred to the state of FL. Now it is over 320 feet offshore from Cape Romano – Ten Thousand Islands Aquatic Preserve , is the subject of boat tours and reportedly a great snorkeling location.
In 2022, Hurricane Ian struck, and destroyed the remaining dome home ruins forever.
SECOND CHANCE ISLAND AND SHELL ISLAND
Designated as a Critical Wildlife Area, the island, just inside the Cape Romano larger shoal complex, is an important nesting site for Wilson’s plovers and state-listed least terns and black skimmers.
For protection of these birds, the sandbar, which has ranged from half an acre to 5 acres in size, will be closed to public access during the least tern, Wilson’s plover and black skimmer nesting season from March 1 through Aug. 31. Second Chance hosted the largest least tern ground colony in the region for four of the last five years and is an important site for Wilson’s plovers and black skimmers. We visited in the office season, but there was still plenty to see. Nearby, another sandbar known as Shell Island offers an abundance of shells for collectors. Check with Rookery Bay for the latest regulations.
FAKAHATCHEE PASS ISLANDS
PANTHER KEY is right by the pass and a popular spot for locals to hang out, enjoying the white sands, fish , sea birds. Calmer waters on one side and ocean currents on the other give you plenty of choice for swimming.
WHITE HORSE KEY is another great place to visit for swimming and beach walks.
Sailing to the Florida Keys from Southwest Florida
(video release on Nov 12)
A popular destination from Port of the Islands is the Keys. The marina favorite is Islamarado. Anchoring on the gulf side (we recommend Ocean View Resort & Sports Pub – best Karaoke on the island) , you still have easy access to all the island offers. If you like fossils, it’s an easy walk to the Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, where you can view and learn about fossil mining. It was a former quarry used by Henry Flagler in the early 1900s to help his building of the Overseas Railroad.
Of course, we paid a visit to the Bass Pro Shop, explored the Hemingway PILAR replica, fished along the way, and explored the various mangroves and creeks.
One calm day, we even dinghied over to the ocean side for some snorkeling at Cheeca Rocks, a shallow 6-12 feet coral reef located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It lies approximately one mile to the southeast of Upper Matecumbe Key within a Sanctuary Preservation Area.
And of course, since we were in crystal clear water, we fit in some diving on the boat to do some repairs and check the keel damage, as well as some helm work replacing an incorrectly sized clutch block.
Destination: The “Nightmare”
On our return to Port of the Islands, we just had to stop at a place called “The Nightmare”, on Shark River. An extremely remote area within the Everglades, it is known as a fishing adventure destination. Exploring the rivers, you will notice navigational signs which you can reference on the Everglades National Park website. Chickee cabins and campsite platforms in the glades are the only “lodging” available if you not on a boat. So many species of birds and wildlife living in the mangroves made for a back to nature experience that’s hard to beat. Just be inside by sundown or the mosquitoes will eat you alive. This is where they must have coined the term “Purple Moon”.
On our return to Port of the Islands Marina, we decided to implement some more bird deterrents. The bird droppings and seeds they leave behind are an issue on the docks. So, Stephen fabricated a medieval spike device and we placed it on the top of our mast. It helped somewhat, but then they decided to land on the spinnaker sheet and the rigging. Recently Stephen read a book called “The Fuzz”, which discusses all of the ways that park ranges deal with wildlife and the bottom line is – nothing will work. It may work for a couple of hours, but they always figure it out and move to their next favorite spot. So, we had to focus on Christmas decorations to distract us from the bird problem.
Sanibel Island, Fort Myers
GOING FURTHER NORTH – It’s easy to slowly make your way up with plenty of shallower waters for anchoring and relaxing.
MARCO ISLAND is a favorite of many, and is the closest city to the Port of the Islands. If you head in towards the Marco Island Marina, be watchful of shallow waters. While generally sandy, it shifts extensively and makes navigating the channel tricky, especially with other boaters around. Plenty of anchoring room in protected waters, many restaurants and spots to provision. When waters were calm, we actually anchored right in front of the Marco Island Marriott resort – on the ocean side, and enjoyed an evening enjoying a moonset over the resort.
KEEWAYDIN ISLAND – Locally known as Key Island, it serves as a wildlife sanctuary and a recreational destination for locals and tourists. The 8-mile-long island is one of southwest Florida’s largest unbridged barrier islands. Terns and loggerhead sea turtles use the island’s pristine beach as a vital nesting ground.
NAPLES is the next area north, followed by FORT MYERS. Enough written about those areas, so we will move along.
SANIBEL AND CAPTIVA ISLANDS
Sanibel Island is a nice day sail from Marco Island. On Sanibel, the easiest way to get around is on bikes, a stop at the Shell museum is a must, as well as allowing time for snook fishing.
THINGS TO DO NEARBY MARCO ISLAND:
A barrier island just off the shore of Marco Island, to the east, Snook Hole Channel flows into Rookery Bay. In the waters just off its southern shore are Cape Romano and the other worldly, and often photographed, dome homes. Because Kice Island can only be accessed by boat and adjacent to Second Chance island.
In 1915, the well-to-do Kice family purchased the island for development, but Mother Nature had other plans. The area was hit with a series of hurricanes and the family abandoned their dream. But in 1930, Murray Kice Sr. met Joe Dickman, who was headed to China in hopes of becoming rich. Kice convinced Dickman to instead head to Florida and “get in on the ground floor” of an island that the family would soon develop.
Dickman settled on the island alone, but the Kice family never came. For three decades he lived a modest life with little to no contact with the outside world—not even his family knew his whereabouts. He became an ace seashell collector, selling his finds to jewelry stores to purchase simple comforts like burgundy wine and ginger snaps.
The Reserve encompasses 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters, providing habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals. From barrier island beach and mangrove forest to freshwater marsh and pine flatwoods, these habitats enable animals big and small to fill a niche on land, in the air or underwater.
TEN THOUSAND ISLANDS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
A maze of mangrove islands and narrow waterways that serve as nursery grounds for countless plants, animals, and fish. The refuge protects 35,000 acres of important mangrove habitats and a rich diversity of native wildlife, including several endangered species. Notable threatened and endangered species include the Florida manatee, peregrine falcon, wood stork, as well as the green, Atlantic loggerhead, and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.
Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1996 under provisions of the Arizona-Florida Land Exchange Act of 1988. The Department of the Interior conveyed 68 acres of Indian School property in Phoenix, Arizona to Collier family interests in exchange for 108,000 acres in Collier County, Florida. In addition, the Department received $34.9 million to establish Indian education trust funds. Approximately 35,000 acres were conveyed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the refuge. The remaining acreage was added largely to Big Cypress National Preserve and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
The abundance of seafood in the Ten Thousand Islands area has attracted humans for thousands of years. Prehistoric indigenous human populations utilized the area extensively, constructing large shell midden complexes on several islands. Early Spanish explorers traded with the native inhabitants, but European diseases decimated the coastal Indian populations. During the late 1880’s, white settlers began occupying several of the larger islands. Commercial fishing was the primary source of income for these families. By the 1940’s, only a few hermits remained on islands within the Ten Thousand Islands area. Improved amenities on the mainland encouraged pioneer families to move to Everglades City, Marco Island, or Naples. Consequently, today the refuge is uninhabited and nearly as pristine as it was when the early settlers arrived. Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge is part of the largest expanse of mangrove forest in North America. Approximately two thirds of the refuge is mangrove forest, which dominates most tidal fringes and the numerous islands, or keys. The northern third of the refuge consists of brackish marsh and interspersed ponds, small coastal hammocks of oak, cabbage palms, and tropical hardwoods such as gumbo limbo.
The refuge is located approximately 20 miles southeast of Naples, FL on the south side of U.S. 41. The eastern boundary lies just east of the Port of the Islands community and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. The western boundary is adjacent to Collier-Seminole State Park. The refuge surrounds the town of Goodland, just off of County Road 92. The Gulf of Mexico forms the southern boundary. The refuge is best accessed by boat. The two prominent boating access points are found in Goodland and Port of the Islands. Take U.S. 41 south out of Naples and drive 12 miles to Hwy 92, turn right and drive 5 miles to Goodland, or continue on U.S. 41 for 5 miles to Port of the Islands.
If you are into hiking, try:
TEN THOUSAND ISLANDS MARCH TRAIL – 2.4 miles
FAKAHATCHEE STRAND STATE PRESERVE is Florida’s largest state preserve, protecting more than 85,000 acres. They call it the Amazon of North America, and you can find plenty of orchids. It’s also the location of the best-seller The Orchid Thief, and the movie, Adaptation, which is worth a watch if you are planning to visit.