Matlacha

By: Herb Hiller

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Polka-dot dolphins and coconut postcards in Matlacha - the beauty of visiting a small town.

Small towns exist along the way between memory and imagination. Most of us can remember either growing up in such places or visiting as kids. These places remain scrapbooks of local history, where times change more slowly and values endure.

In Florida, so full of newcomers, few people claim small towns as their own. Super highways sweep past such places. Small towns surprise us after the suburbs, condos or retirement communities that typically come to represent Florida for us after our first vacation visits at coastal and golf resorts.

Yet, rural Florida is mainly where the state's landmark preservation efforts have succeeded, where proliferating trails and greenways lay themselves out, where wildlife remains plentiful and where small towns harbor traditional life. The common appeal is heritage and integrity of place.

Everywhere, small town residents have figured out that looking after visitors works to keep their places viable. And so enter bed-and-breakfasts, outfitters for paddling trips, surprisingly good restaurants, all added to historical neighborhoods and museums.

Heritage shows up, too, in small town streets, general stores and antique shops, as well as kids riding bikes and retired folks helping with street fairs or keeping benches warm around courthouse squares.

You know how they say, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life?" It's also the best day for remembering Florida's small towns as small as they'll likely ever be again. With some 650 people a day moving to Florida and a population set to double by 2025, sooner is better than later for sampling Florida's small town treasures.

Like a gift of the gods, whimsy bubbles up champagne-like in Matlacha, a peewee-sized place where people live, work and get along, inspired by play.

The most workaday aspect of town is the mile-straight road through it, its two lanes useful for bridge anglers to brag about the size of their snook, for shopkeepers to flaunt sometimes outrageous mannequins, for mailboxes decked out like polka-dot dogs, dolphins and manatees.

The story goes that a while back two fellows were hired to pace off building lots east of the bridge across Matlacha Pass. One stood a mere 5'3", the other towered 6'4". No surprise that folks at the bait shops, cottages and galleries along the road's north side can gossip by leaning out their windows, while to the south, a friendly chat might mean having to walk a spell to a neighbor's porch.

Pronounced right, the name of the place rhymes with "sashay," as in "proceeding nonchalantly." So, Matt-LaShay. In Seminole it means either "big warrior" or "junior warrior" - though others say it means "knee-deep water." Big, junior, knee-deep - no biggie in this unincorporated Lee County anglers' paradise of some 750 neighbors off mainland Cape Coral where the pace and scale suit a peace-and-love, land's-end lifestyle.

Hard not to like the Doll Lady even if you never meet her yourself. She lines the roadside out front of her toy-sized house with hobby horses and stuffed dolls in salvaged metal chairs. Sign on her door says, "Sorry. This is not a shop. It's just for fun." Funny how people read this and feel disappointed and elated at the same time.

Ladies you come across with hooks in their shirt pockets are Hookers. They're members of a civic club which runs fishing tournaments and other fundraising events to benefit the local school and help neighbors in need. More ubiquitous than the hooks are the green tide tables most everybody carries and the shin-high white rubber boots called Matlacha Reeboks that most everybody wears for sloshing around the fecund waters that surround the isles of town.

About the only evidence of misbehavior in Matlacha might show up while paddling behind some over-the-water house where a pirated No Parking sign reveals itself in a backyard. Locals will reassure you that this helps save the cost of maintenance otherwise required were these signs all left where the county first put them.

Doesn't take long to get into the spirit of the place.

I'd barely shown up in town the last time when an elderly gent, surprisingly sure-footed, stepped from a canoe with his grandson, Jesse, complaining there was nothing wrong with him except a case of too many birthdays. No complaint about anything else. Jesse, 12, had just caught a three-pound sea trout.

Not that fishing is all there is to do around Matlacha.

There's shrimping, crabbing, clamming.

Visitors even sightsee and shop, like in the real world. Only the sights and the shops look different. For sights, remnant Indian mounds surround the Randell Research Center in the Pineland district on neighboring Pine Island. Calusas held sway here for centuries before the arrival of Spain in the early 1500s. Until 1927, when the first of three bridges went up, the only way to Matlacha was by water.

There's MOTI - the Museum Of The Islands - that tells the history of the three main islands (Matlacha, Little Pine and Pine). MOTI shows photos of St. James City from the turn of the last century when that town at the foot of Pine Island was briefly a thriving resort and later site of an ill-fated hemp factory.

North up Pine Island, Bokeelia crowns the shore of Charlotte Harbor. Bokeelia reveals itself slowly. You have to come 'round a big curve at the top of the island before finding the white houses graciously trimmed in lattice and the fishing piers extended into the bay.

Here is Capt'n Con's Fish House with its tables in rooms of a one-time residence. A post office occupied a closet-sized space, now arranged for intimate dining. In Bokeelia, too, is Crossed Palms Gallery with its collections of beautiful and affordable handcrafted pottery, windchimes and jewelry among the paintings and sculptures.

Mangrove islets surround Bokeelia and extend through Pine Island Sound. They can be paddled around with rentals from Gulf Coast Kayak in Matlacha or otherwise toured on the Tropic Star of Pine Island which also carries visitors to beaches at Cayo Costa daily. There are no beaches to speak of on the bridged islands.

The hub of Pine Island is unincorporated Pine Island Center with its banks, markets and stores that maintain some few thousand here year round augmented by flocks of snowbirds.

But it's chiefly Matlacha that captures short-term visitors. Mostly they stay at the Bridgewater Inn, a whimsically painted bungalow-like place that hardly suggests its interior comforts, and with a porch all the way 'round good for watching dolphin, manatees, tarpon. Alongside is "the fishingest bridge in the world."

Good, too, are Knoll's Court Motel, less imaginative, nonetheless comfortable, and Breese Glennon's Matlacha Island Cottages with their old pine floors and "pocket doors" that slide into the walls.

Cindee Tolliver runs Traders Hitching Post with its surprising cache of fine turquoise and silver jewelry.

Surprising how many good places there are to eat in Matlacha. Sandy Hook Fish & Rib House on the water is big, crowded, festive and serves moist, flaky fresh fish; Moretti's Seafood Restaurant feels most island-like, all white, on the water, again featuring seafood with outstanding German beer on tap. Bert's Bar & Grill rings with live music weekends. Usually something live, too, in St. James City.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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2 comments
joe withrow
joe withrow April 5, 2014 2:29 AM
we were able to visit matlacha march 2013 it has been since 1969 since we lived there at jim @bettys sea shell restaurant at the entrance of matlacha park I was 10 it brought back so many memories I was able to show my wife where I went to school an lived an played, fished we were able to eat at the old restaurant which is called barnhills seafood restaurant. which is funny that was my mothers maiden name. her name was Josephine her sis was betty an jackey brother was owen, bobby.we tried to find bettyshe is in a althimers facility to let her know mom passed away we couldn't find her. we were able to spend two weeks there an fort myers we loved my wife was thrilled I am currently working on a way to move back hopeing it will happen
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