About an hour’s drive west of Southwest Florida International Airport is Pine Island, a charming stretch of waterfront some 17 miles long by two miles wide. It’s not a place for lapping up the sun’s rays on a blanket by the water’s edge. Gnarly, twisted mangroves fringe the island instead of the expected sandy white beaches. You also won’t find the high rises, concrete and blacktop typical of more touristy, beachfront locales. What you will discover is a quaint, secluded spot dotted by fishing bungalows, old country cottages and hospitality as intense as the bright Florida sun. And a thriving art district as well.
Pine Island actually consists of five separate communities: Matlacha (Mat-la-shay), Pine Island Center, Bokeelia (Bo-keel-ya), Pineland and St. James City. Each treasures its own distinctive ambiance.
Although considered part of Pine Island, Matlacha technically occupies a smaller island in Matlacha Pass to the east. Until 20 years ago, Matlacha was an “old Florida” fishing community. But in 1992, a voter referendum led to a ban on net fishing designed to protect the popular recreational fish typically snared along with the mullet being targeted by commercial fishermen. Immediately following passage of the net ban, Matlacha’s fishermen shot holes in their boats and set them on fire. The pyre of burning fishing boats could be seen from Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel and signaled the end of Matlacha’s existence as a commercial fishery.
Today,there are still a few shrimp boats tied up to the working docks, and while everyone swears you can see the grisled, bearded holdouts from the mullet fishing days about town, Matlacha is now a highly-regarded artists community. They’ve splashed the shacks and bungalows the fishermen once called home with bright funky colors and converted them into art galleries and studios, gift and island wear boutiques, seafood restaurants, rental cottages and small motels. Even the telephone poles have murals.
Famous musicians like Jimmy Buffet drop into the local bar to toss back a few brews and play a set, unannounced, while authors like Robert Macomber spin tales behind laptop monitors in darkened corners. And most of the fishing now takes place on the two-lane bridge from Cape Coral to Matlacha which has the strange nickname of “Fishing-est Bridge in the World” due to the volume of people who fish off it, night and day.
But if art is your passion, there’s lots to see and it’s all within easy walking distance. The tiny island has 8 art galleries: Bert’s Pine Bay Gallery, Bonnie’s Art Gallery, Frills (featuring bead and other craft jewelry),Island Visions (colorful Floridian paintings and prints), Julia’s Arts (Florida to modern paintings and prints as well as pottery and metal works), Lovegrove Gallery & Gardens (wide array of eccentric pieces, from paintings to painted furniture), Trader’s Hitching Post (Native American art and jewelry) and WildChild Art Gallery (serious to whimsical, beach scenes to wildlife and sea life motifs).
Art lovers and collectors from all over the world trek to Matlacha from October through June for its monthly Creative Coast Weekends (formerly called Art Night), when all the galleries stay open late and entertain art customers and tourists alike with free wine, desserts and new exhibitions showcasing hundreds of southwest Florida artists, many of whom live right on the island. And in February, Matlacha hosts the ever-popular Pine Island Art Show which is now entering into its 40th season.
So plan a trip to Matlacha. For the history. For the ambiance. And for the art.