“It’s an island, babe. If you didn’t bring it here, you won’t find it here.” —Quinn, in Six Days, Seven Nights.
OK, so Harrison Ford’s character spoke these words about Makatea, a small coral island in the South Pacific, but he could have meant Matlacha just as easily. Granted, unlike Makatea, Matlacha does have a causeway connecting it to the mainland, so the village — one of five census-designated places cozied up together across two islands (Bokeelia, Pine Island Center, Pineland and St. James City are the others) — does have some supplies. But gluten-removed beer, for example, is not easily found. Sushi, too, is off the menu.
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of fresh fish and if you’re worried about red tide, well, don’t — it hasn’t seeped into Matlacha Pass yet. That means you can eat local snapper without fear, and also that the water is beautiful.
Our first morning I lace up for a sunrise run, not as thrilled about running as I am exploring the island before the air gets warmer than my body temperature. I leave our cozy, over-the-water motel room at Bridgewater Inn and gamely run up the Matlacha Pass Bridge.
The bridge itself is something of a landmark. It’s not high; its clearance, without the drawspan open, reaches only 9 feet. Lee County replaced original wooden swing bridge, built in 1927, with a concrete bascule bridge in 1968. Its notoriety comes from its reputation: “The fishingest bridge in the world.”
We arrived late at night, filled with trepidation: When we booked the room, the hotel clerk assured us Matlacha Pass —which lies between the mainland on its east and (in order of appearance) Matlacha, Pine Island, Pine Island Sound, and Cayo Costa and Captiva on its west — remained red tide-free. That was almost a month before our getaway, though.
Nevertheless, a month later, the same holds true: no red tide here. The waters surrounding Matlacha are well protected — after all, there are two sets of islands and another body of water between the Gulf of Mexico and the fishingest bridge in the world. Kayaking and fishing here look like they look in any non-red tide year, and that’s a blessing.
Since there’s really only one main road through town, my sunrise run involves some detours, like a jaunt through Fisherman’s Park, an adults-only mobile home park on the water. As opposed to the “quirky artist village” that so many Florida chambers of commerce use as brand identification, Fisherman’s Park epitomizes a different type of quirk: the watery grit of boat captains and fishermen exists alongside service-industry types who appear to call this brightly-hued chain of mobile homes home.
Next door, I grab a cup of blackberry brandy coffee from The Perfect Cup, an almost-hipster coffee roaster where the locals come to eat, which saves it. By the time I walk back to the bridge, I’ve slurped enough of the coffee to run up the incline and back to the room.
As the town wakes up, we make our way through some of the small cottages-cum-businesses that live along the main drag. We test the flavors at Great Licks ice cream (c’mon, it’s summer in Florida, you have to eat ice cream on vacation!) and explore the small but mighty art shop surrounding it, Island Visions.
And by that, I mean it surrounds the ice cream shop literally. While the ice cream shop has its own front door, the only place to eat is at the few tables amidst the art. Island Visions features artists from across Florida —while they have artists from Matlacha and the surrounding communities, they also have Tampa Bay artists; both Susan Hess (Madeira Beach) and Beth Kauffman (St. Petersburg) have work here.
Island Visions seems loosely curated — you’re not walking into an art exhibit, but all the work ties to a definite theme: the water. Don’t expect lots of sunset photographs and beach scenes; while a few sneak in, it appears owners Steve and Lisa Timcak work diligently so that you don’t mistake Island Visions for a gift shop that carries art. Unlike so many other places to buy art along Florida’s coast, the art here evokes a sense of place, and the theme crosses media — a blown-glass octopus seems right at home with watercolors of fish swimming past a dock pylon. The art doesn’t depict the immediate place — at least, the lion’s share of it doesn’t — but it definitely evokes a sense of place, and it’s not your traditional Florida beachscape, soaked with sun and margaritas.
The art in Island Visions somehow matches the general vibe of the island — subtropical without being stereotypical, and that sets both Matlacha and Island Visions apart in many ways.
And, of course, it’s one of the few places waterfront towns you can visit in southwest Florida without breathing red tide, which, these days, is worth its weight in gold.