By Janet K. Keeler
There’s funky. There’s cool. And then there’s funky-cool Matlacha.
A tangle of low-rise buildings painted in colors that make sense only where the sun shines bright most of the year flank the mile-long road through the fishing village.
Tropical greens, pinks and yellows stand out against the blue sky. Inside are artists and art, ice cream shops, clothes, local seafood to cook at home or devour on site, and places to rent watercraft or book trips that will get you out on Matlacha Pass then to Pine Island Sound beyond.
Locals and visitors alike will tell you the pass and environs can boast the best fishing and picturesque vistas in Florida. There really might not be a spot that tells the tale of coastal Florida better than Matlacha, where the living is laid back and people fish from their back yards. There are just over 700 residents here and that’s the way they like it.
Matlacha might be Florida’s best-kept secret, its location a mystery even to people who’ve lived in the Sunshine State for decades. It’s considered one of the communities of Pine Island, the largest island in the state, but that’s not totally accurate. It’s an island itself, bisected by Pine Island Road. Still lost? How about 15 miles west of Fort Myers on Florida’s southwest coast? Plug it into your GPS and trust that once you get there, you’ll spend a delightful afternoon roaming through shops and or wrangling the mile-high soft shell crab sandwich at Blue Dog Bar & Grill.
And how to pronounce the name? That’s another unknown for many. The locals say it “matt-luh-SHAY” and the origin of the word is fuzzy. According to the Fort Meyers News-Press, the most widely accepted theory is that it has roots in the language of the local Calusa Indians and means “water to the knee.” This makes sense given the shallow water surrounding the island.
Now that you’ve found Matlacha and you know how to pronounce the name, it’s time to set off on a ramble through town. Drive over “Florida’s fishingest bridge” and find yourself a parking spot on either side of the two-lane road. On busy days it might be a hunt, but don’t let that deter you. Start your discovery tour at Island Visions art gallery and you can snag a spot in its adjacent lot. Here’s what you need to know about Matlacha: You can drive through in the blink of an eye but don’t rush it when you’re on foot. Island Visions is a good reason to slow down.
There’s much to look at here and even more that will tempt you. Local art that fits into carryon bags? Score. Glasswork that brings Florida island life into your home includes colorful hanging jellyfish and flip-flops, plus chimes and stained glass scenes. Paintings of coastal tableaus and Florida’s big birds line the walls. Cases of jewelry are stuffed with temptations. Someone say temptations? There’s an open door pass through to Great Licks Ice Cream. Try the mango sorbet or toasted coconut ice cream. Coconuts and mangos are grown in abundance on Pine Island and tropical fruit is celebrated each July at MangoMania.
Next stop, as you’re walking toward the fishing bridge, is Leoma Lovegrove Garden & Galleries. The name doesn’t specify whimsical but it could. Artist Lovegrove’s whimsy plays out in her reproduction miniature paintings that come with their own easels. Lots of cards and other gifts and art here, and don’t leave without walking through the outdoor tropical garden. Lovegrove has done commissioned work for Jimmy Carter and Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic.
Does all this art make you want to try your hand at creating your own masterpiece? Wild Child Art Gallery offers art classes on its patio in various mediums, including painting, sculpture, mosaics and jewelry. Wild Child is home to more than 100 Southwest Florida artists. Their vision of the state’s flora and fauna -- and that includes sea critters, too -- is displayed throughout.
On the other side of Pine Island Road are more shops worthy of a stop, including Trader’s Hitching Post. The Hitching Post lays claim to being the island’s oldest gallery and is certainly the only spot within miles where you can buy American Indian jewelry and art from all over the United States. There’s the Matlacha Menagerie gallery where you’ll find more unique wares plus plenty of great plots to bring your own gardens to life. Stop by the Shoe Gallery, an unlikely tourist haunt but loaded with great footwear. Frills Gallery mixes stuff you hang on the wall with stuff you hang on your body. Shop here for funky-cool clothes.
Those scoops of toasted coconut ice cream and mango sorbet have likely worn off by now. It’s time for a real meal. New comer Blue Dog offers contemporary spins on Florida standards plus $5 pints of local brews, including a couple made in Fort Myers. The Olde Fish House is a local favorite and besides a marina and dining room, has a seafood market that sells fresh, locally caught fish. For folks with their own wheels, it’s always smart to traverse the Florida byways with a cooler in the trunk. Most businesses will provide the ice to keep the fish fresh until you can get home.
You’ll find more places to eat and shop as you wander along Pine Island Road through Matlacha. And once you find this Florida gem, you’ll keep coming back, hauling a few friends with you.