Tag Archives: Pine Island

Road trip: In Matlacha, there’s no red tide — but gorgeous water views on this Gulf Coast island

“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.

Or fish. 

Matlacha: The Florida island that Time forgot

Road trip: Mangoes, kayaking and Brad Pitt.

My love affair with Pine Island started right after Hurricane Charley swept through in 2004. Tampa Bay was supposed to get hit, but at the last minute Charley had other plans. For the five not-quite-towns on Pine Island — Matlacha (matt-luh-shay), Pineland, Bokeelia (rhymes withe Cecilia), St. James City and Pine Island Center — our good fortune was their tragedy. 

But our tragedy is also their good fortune.

See, Pine Island is one of the only remaining barrier islands on Florida’s west coast that doesn’t have sandy beaches, which means it also doesn’t have a lot of appeal for developers. What it does have is fishing, kayaking and a sort of charm you don’t often find along coastal Florida — because there’s nary a sandy beach in sight.

What’s that, you say, no beach? On a barrier island? How on earth did that happen — and what’s the point of going there if there’s no beach?

Well, it happened in part because of the Great Depression. Sort of. As for reasons to go? Uh, sublime kayaking, a mango festival and it’s not your typical tourist town (or any type of tourist town). 

Back to the island’s beginnings: Because of a land boom of the 1920s (moreso the inevitable bust that followed), the 1926 hurricane, and the 1929 medfly that decimated the citrus industry, Florida had a jump start on the Great Depression — to quote Alabama’s Song of the South: “… Well somebody told us Wall Street fell/But we were so poor that we couldn’t tell.”

So when this little island got connected to mainland Florida round about that time, priorities weren’t on development. When the economy rebounded, for whatever reason — perhaps because it lies between the mainland and Sanibel/Captiva — no one got around to razing the mangroves encircling the island.

No beaches here, which is nice, actually. Photo by Cathy Salustri

Today, those mangroves protect the island in more than one way — not only from erosion, but, as a protected tree, from developers. With no sandy beaches (and really only one tiny bay beach), hoteliers have seen little reason to invest in the island.

That’s not to say you won’t find paradise there — those mangroves make for enthralling kayaking, and the Great Calusa Blueway — 190 miles of southwest Florida saltwater tempting you to try it — runs through here, and the island does have outfitters.

Photo by Cathy Salustri.

At least one of the few few motels that live here offers the use of kayaks — Knoll’s Court, with six rooms and conch-shell pink doors, epitomizes the type of lodging you’ll find. It fronts the water, with a sea wall mysteriously devoid of mangroves. Bokeelia, at the island’s northern tip, boasts some inns and B&Bs, but the main industries here rely on the land and sea: fishing, landscape plants and citrus. A “planned community” — Calusa Ridge — showed horrible promise before Florida’s most recent land bust, but today the bulk of the lots sit empty, with native vegetation slowly winning the battle where land was cleared for homes that never came to pass. 

This bike, found in neighboring Bokeelia, is either art or function, or both, but I never know which. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

The locals celebrate their spectacular growing season with the annual MangoMania, a two-day festival celebrating not only mangoes but all the tropical fruits grown on the island. Should you decide you need something more substantial, one of my standby breakfast places, The Perfect Cup, makes an egg dish called Irish Eye you should try before you set off exploring.

Just another roadside shop in Matlacha. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

As you explore, keep in mind this is the home of Florida mystery writer Randy Wayne White. You can easily find his home, an unassuming frame home perched atop an ancient mound. He wrote perhaps his most powerful work (from a Florida junkie’s perspective) — Dark Light — in his shed-turned-office in the days following Charley, as the island struggled to recover. 

More roadside color in Matlacha. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

Next door, the Randell Research Center is the reason so many things here are named “Calusa whatever”: This archaeological site — it covers 67 acres of a 100-acre shell mound fronting the western edge of the island — is some of the last remaining evidence of the Calusa people. It also represents one of the northernmost places they lived; their population — which may have been as high as 50,000 at one point — stretched from here to the Everglades’ Ten Thousand Islands.

Of all Florida’s indigenous peoples, the Calusa have the fiercest reputation, and from what archaeologists have unearthed from the few remaining shell mounds, they were intensely attractive. Think about it: they lived on fish and fruits and vegetables (so they had some great muscles), they survived as fishermen so they spent a lot of time outside (they had a tan), and archaeologists know they were tall with long flowing hair. I essentially picture Calusa men looking like a tall, tan version of Brad Pitt (sans beard). The Calusa are long gone (thanks a lot, Conquistadors!), in part because — as the Florida Center for Instructional Technology gravely understates, “The first Spanish explorers found that these Indians were not very friendly.”

This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing Tampa.