Crowds return for Fourth on Marco Island

Lance Shearer

Marco Island was ready to kick back and relax, and Fourth of July provided the perfect opportunity. Independence Day at the beach was a soothing, low-key affair, as calm as the wavelets that swept ashore at Residents’ Beach.

he fireworks went off as scheduled, once the sky had darkened sufficiently, but earlier in the day, the games, contests and activities of “Uncle Sam’s Sand Jam” that kept kids and organizers busy during the day on previous Fourths did not take place. With no organized recreation, each family or group among the thousands of beachgoers was left to its own devices to keep themselves amused.

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For many, taking selfies was a popular pastime, and just hanging out, sunbathing or picnicking under canopies and beach umbrellas. The breeze and some low-SPF cloud cover made for a comfortable afternoon, and the Gulf water was the temperature of warm broth. There was no hint of Tropical Storm Elsa approaching from the south.

Some mostly younger folks tossed around footballs, including Gary Littell and his kids Gary and Maya, and some indulged in “spikeball,” an offshoot of volleyball in which teams hit the ball into what looks like a small trampoline.

For birdwatchers, there were plenty of opportunities. In addition to the resident Residents’ Beach burrowing owls, who kept an eye on the proceedings from the top of a palm-thatched chickee hut, white ibis and ducks waded in the ponds behind the beach, and gulls patrolled the waterline. One intrepid killdeer mother valiantly sat on a clutch of eggs on the gravel between two cars in the parking lot, in what must have been a secluded spot until Independence Day.

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Many beachgoers gathered up to their necks in the water, talking with friends, and waving at photographers sticking to the shallows. On the sandbar at water’s edge, Patrick Huey reclined in four inches of water in his collapsible beach chair, mirrored shades and a red, white and blue visor. He had, he said, “found the secret of life,” which seemed to include a large dose of taking things easy.

Red, white and blue were the colors of the day, showing up in swimsuits, shirts, and hundreds or thousands of American flags. These were sold by Lee Rubenstein of American Legion Post #404 and his cohort, busy raising funds for new projects and statuary.

For those who didn’t bring their own food and drink, Paradise Grill at Residents’ Beach provided an endless stream of cheeseburgers, ice cream treats and a tasty grouper Reuben, along with basic and craft beers served at a beachfront cabana by Nicole Graver and Carmen Vastellanos. Whether the Marco Island beach really is the world’s widest or not, it seemed like it to the groups schlepping their mountains of gear back and forth across the sand.

From Tigertail to South Beach, partiers thronged the beach. Before the fireworks, the empty stretches of beach filled up with loose groups of spectators. They oohed and ahead in response to the rockets’ red glare. The beachfront condos echoed back the detonations of the shells, as though they were firing back at the barge. Something close to a hundred boats sat offshore in a spectator fleet, and one airplane circled to watch from the sky.

The best thing about the Independence Day celebration at the beach was that it happened, after last year’s festivities had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This was just a fantastic community event, celebrating our nation’s freedom – and our freedom from COVID,” said Ruth McCann, executive director of MICA, the Marco Island Civic Association, which hosts the day at Residents’ Beach. MICA contributed $5,000 to the cost of the fireworks and barge, along with some donations from hotels, but the City of Marco Island picked up the bulk of the $64,000 tab.

Sure, there was a traffic jam leaving afterward, but it was a tiny price to pay for Independence Day in paradise.