It doesn’t take long to get into the spirit.
Heading into Matlacha, you’ll rumble over the famous “Fishingest Bridge” and pass a half-dozen former fisherman’s bungalows and shacks now splashed with bright funky colors and house art galleries. Even the telephone poles are decked-out with murals. You get the feeling you’re in the midst of a non-stop party. Each gallery— with its fusion of artistic creations— is better than the one you just left.
About thirty minutes from Fort Myers, Pine Island is the largest island on the west coast of Florida, a charming stretch of waterfront some 17 miles long by two miles wide. It’s as laid back as it gets. Visitors will find none of the highrises and commercial sprawl typical of the Gulf’s other beachside towns. The residents take great pride in their island and like it just as fine.
Pine Island actually consists of five separate communities: Matlacha (Mat-la-shay), Pine Island Center, Bokeelia (Bo-keel-ya), Pineland, and St. James City. They are all quaint, secluded spots which have their own unique character. Street signs are named for fish, boats, and trees.
Pine Island is surrounded by dozens of pee-wee islands that make an ideal waterfront habitat for spawning fish, birds and vegetation life. For anglers the local bounty brims with sea bass, sea trout, snook, redfish, ladyfish, catfish and tarpon. And where there are fish, there is nature - especially birds. The region teems with ospreys, herons, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, egrets, white pelicans, hawks, owls and more. Kayakers gravitate here to paddle placid backwaters.
Gnarly and twisted mangroves fringe the island rather than the expected sandy white beaches. It is surrounded by mangroves, three aquatic preserves, acres of palm, citrus, avocado, guava, macadamia, and mango trees. Hospitality is as intense as the afternoon Florida sun.
There is sparse traffic on the island, and the bike path running from one end to the other is ideal for cycling. Hikers take the Calusa Heritage Trail, which winds among ancient shell mounds and the remnants of an impressive cross-island canal. It was built by the Calusa Indians, who were the first residents for thousands of years. Their demise came at the hands of the Spanish in the 1700s.
Pine Island was not inhabited by full-time non-Calusa settlers until around 1873, when the settlers lived off the substantial bounty of the sea and farmed an array of tropical plants while developing the beautiful island paradise that visitors currently enjoy.
Today, visitors will find a refreshing mix of residents— musicians, artists, long time authors, as well as commercial fishermen and boat captains – who revel in the laid-back lifestyle and its protected and alluring environment.
For Old Florida charm, Tarpon Lodge is hard to beat. Royal palms and banana tree leaves shade the front entrance. The Pine Island restaurant there is housed in a former family fishing lodge built in 1926. The lodge’s creaky floors and brick fireplace take you back to simpler times and the locale serves as a great spot for flats fishing in the Pine Island Sound waters.
The Tarpon Lodge is surrounded by ancient Calusa Indian mounds. The 3,700 foot interpretative walkway is part of the University of Florida Randell Research Center and takes about an hour or so to navigate. The Calusa had no written language but were skilled craftsmen, artists and engineers. They dug navigation canals on Pine Island and were expert fishermen. They constructed shell mounds, or middens (“debris of life”), comprised of the many clams, oysters and other shellfish they consumed over hundreds of years. The mounds were quite practical, keeping dwellings dry during years with particularly high tides.
Farther north you round a big curve at the top of the island and spy white homes graciously trimmed in lattice, with fishing piers extended into the bay. You’ve entered the tiny village of Bokeelia. Stop into a vintage mom-and-pop restaurant called Capt’n Con’s, where locals feast on the special of a cup of homemade seafood chowder and beer-battered fish with potato salad. Across the road is Crossed Palms Gallery with its collections of beautiful and reasonably priced handcrafted pottery, wind chimes and jewelry, as well as paintings and sculptures by local artists.
But for most newcomers it’s Matlacha that wows them. Although considered part of Pine Island, it technically occupies a smaller island in Matlacha Pass to the east, a huge expanse of water ten miles long and nearly two miles across at its widest point.
In Calusa language Matlacha means “shallow water.” And, there is plenty of it. The Pass’ channels, oyster bars, grass-flats, sandbars and mangroves dominate the waterways. Roseate spoonbills, flocks of ducks and blue herons congregate out of the wind in tidal pools and wetlands at the top of Little Pine Key. Check out the Great Calusa Blueway, which winds down the east side of Matlacha Pass through places with vivid names such as Big Dead Creek, Mud Hole and Buzzards Bay.
Until 1927 when the first of three bridges went up, the only way to Matlacha was by water. Today a few shrimp boats are still tied up to the working docks. But most of the fishing now takes place on the bridge from Cape Coral to Matlacha, which has the strange nickname of “Fishing-est Bridge in the World” due to the volume of people vying for their daily catch— night and day.
To accommodate watercraft, the Lovegrove Gallery provides dockage – painted peacock blue and decorated with white-bottomed Prussian blue bottle trees trimmed with fluorescent paint so that they glow in the dark during the nighttime events.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, head over to Yucatan Waterfront Bar & Grill, where you can enjoy the spectacular scenes of dolphins playing, fish jumping and pelicans dive-bombing for a meal while you’re feasting on locally-caught seafood, lobster shipped in daily from the Florida Keys, babyback ribs and succulent prime rib.
Bert’s Bar and Grill sits on the eastern side of the Matlacha Pass Bridge. A local hangout, at Bert’s you’ll find good eats, a classic pool table, live entertainment, and more million dollar waterfront views. You are likely to see some of the clientele wearing white rubber fishing boots, known in these parts as Pine Island Reeboks. Order fried oysters, a burger, pizza, or a grouper Reuben melt. Live music rings out most days.
Each July the island hosts the Mangomania celebration as fun-lovers pour into the island to enjoy all the great mango creations of food and drinks. The celebration rolls on for a full week. Book your stay now.
Editors Note - Terry Conway was one of our long-time popular writers whose articles have been enjoyed for many years. His articles will re-appear on occasion as a tribute to his talent as a contributing writer for this publication.