Note: Hurricane Ian destroyed many of the cottages and businesses in Matlacha. The small community is in the midst of rebuilding and not ready for visitors. The following story was written before Hurricane Ian.
Perhaps if Matlacha and Pine Island had had beaches, they would be ruined and look like everywhere else.
Fortunately, this out-of-the-way little bit of Old Florida west of Fort Myers avoided the scourge of look-alike commercial development and high rises.
Today every day is throwback Thursday at this colorful, art- and nature-filled area.
Here are six reasons we fell in love with Matlacha:
- The little wooden houses painted vivid topical colors.
- The waterways where dolphin always seem to be patrolling.
- The informal seafood restaurants.
- The saltwater kayaking around the mangrove islands in Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve.
- The unstuffy art galleries that are fun to visit.
- The nearby Calusa Heritage Trail.
Matlacha, Florida, history
Matlacha (pronounced mat-la-SHAY) was a fishing village until 1992, when gill-nets were banned, putting most fishermen out of business.
Those funky little wooden cabins in Matlacha predate the fishermen, though. The oldest wood buildings were built by Matlacha’s original residents: Squatters who began to occupy the island that was created when Matlacha Pass was dredged in the 1920s.
When commercial fishing ended, artists started to move into the historic wooden buildings. Today, there are a dozen galleries and studios in the three-block-long town, along with a few shops and a half dozen restaurants.
The atmosphere is quirky, reminiscent of the Florida Keys. For years, it was an out-of-the-way and remote location that attracted people for exactly that.
Matlacha still has no stop lights and a single two-lane road passing through it, connecting Cape Coral and Pine Island.
Pine Island is geographically bigger – 17 miles long and two miles wide – with several communities: Bokeelia and Pineland on the northern tip, St. James City on the southern end. But it is largely residential with a number of mango orchards and tree nurseries.
West of Pine Island across sparkling blue waters are the barrier islands that collect all the sand and thus have spectacular beaches. At the southern end of this string of islands are Sanibel and Captiva. The northern island is Cayo Costa, which is mostly occupied by a state park accessible only by boat. (The ferry to Cayo Costa leaves from the northern tip of Pine Island.)
Kayaking near Matlacha FL
The Great Calusa Blueway, an outstanding network of 190 miles of kayaking trails, marks several kayak routes along Pine Island.
It’s all scenic – blue skies, placid water, plentiful bird and marine life, lots of mangrove islands – but there are no particular sights to see. (You have to admit: All mangrove islands pretty much look alike.)
But kayaking here, you put yourself in a premier location to experience nature. There’s no guarantee, but if you paddle around here, there’s enough wildlife, you may have a memorable encounter.
Our group brought a canoe and also rented a kayak from helpful folks at Gulf Coast Kayaking in Matlacha. From there, we paddled into the Matlacha Pass Preserve.
What did we see?
Fisherman trying to land a small bonnethead shark.
A hawk stalking a least tern and eventually catching the poor bird mid-air and carrying it off into the mangroves.
Dolphins in the near distance over and over.
The tips of a ray’s wings rhythmically poking out of the water as it flapped by.
An American bald eagle overhead.
Ospreys, herons, egrets and ibis. It was bliss.
Kayaking here is sunny with some open water and there are few places to get out and stretch. Gulf Coast Kayaking loaned us an excellent map and suggested a loop around a few islands that would take us three or four hours and minimized crossing the channel with its powerboats.
You also can put in kayaks at Matlacha Park and Boat Ramp which has restrooms and picnic tables.
Consult the maps from the Great Calusa Blueway about possible routes.
Kayak put in locations: near Matlacha:
Gulf Coast Kayaks
4120 Pine Island Rd, Matlacha
If you don’t rent kayaks from them, there is a charge.
Matlacha Park and Boat Ramp
4577 Pine Island Rd, Matlacha,
You must pay for parking here.
The Calusa Blueway maps list several other area locations if you prefer to start from Bokeelia or Cape Coral.
More things to do in Matlacha FL
Art galleries in Matlacha are fun to visit – unstuffy and full of Matlacha color and flavor.
We particularly like the artists’ cooperative WildChild Art Gallery, 4625 Pine Island Rd, Matlacha, 239-283-6006, and, next door, Leoma Lovegrove’s Gallery and Garden, 4637 Pine Island Road, 239-283-6453.
Both galleries have delightful gardens in the back that face a canal. Leoma Lovegrove’s entire garden, with its walls and sculptures made out of recycled blue bottles and its colorful sculptures and objects, could be considered a work of art in its own right.
Once you leave Matlacha to explore Pine Island, we recommend walking the Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center, 13810 Waterfront Drove, Bokeelia, 239-283-2157.
The trail introduces visitors to what was once a large and thriving Calusa Indian community. The towering shell mounds were built by a people who dug and engineered canals and supported a population of 50,000 throughout Southwest Florida by fishing and harvesting the bounty of these coastal waters. When the Spanish arrived, they considered the Calusa a fierce tribe. By the late 1700s, however, the Calusa were gone – victims of disease or captured and enslaved.
We learned a lot of surprising facts about the Calusa on our walk through this facility. (Archeologists found the Calusa had papayas and chili peppers – rare in early Florida – and they used shark liver oil as a mosquito repellent, for example.)
The information on the signage and trail maps is clear, informative and fascinating.
Admission is by donation. They suggest $7.
At the end of the island in Bokeelia there’s a fishing pier and access to the first half is free. It’s a grand place to watch the sunset. (Watch where you park: A gruff staff member from a nearby restaurant barked at us when we stopped in the wrong place.)
Matlacha cottages, hotels and lodging
We loved our stay at the Bridgewater Inn, 4331 Pine Island Road, Matlacha, (239-283-2423) a 100-year-old fishing lodge built on a dock and overlooking the draw bridge. Each room has a waterfront view and we always saw dolphin when we sat by the water for sunset or with morning coffee. You can fish right from outside your room. Rates start at $150 off season; there is a two-night minimum.
We stopped by to tour the Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island, 13771 Waterfront Drive, Bokeelia, 239-283-3999, which is next to the Calusa Heritage Trail. A 90-year-old private home has been transformed and expanded into a beautiful waterfront lodge with an elegant dining room and spectacular views. Rates start at $135. The property has been lovingly restored after extensive hurricane damage in 2004 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
At the northern tip of the island, Jug Creek Cottages, 8135/8145 Main St., Bokeelia, 239-283-0015, is operated by the company that runs the ferry to Cayo Costa on property owned by the state park. These are rustic efficiency cabins, very worn and basic and start at $100 a night.
Matlacha cottages: Several of the adorable cottages in Matlacha are available through VRBO.
There are several other motels in Matlacha. None are part of national chains and most look to be Old Florida in style.
- There are no state parks in the area. There is a KOA campground on Pine Island.
- Kayakers who want primitive camping can paddle to Picnic Island, a spoil island with a sandy beach located across the boating channel from the southern tip of Pine Island. Here’s Picnic Island on a Google map.
For such a small town, there is a good choice of restaurants. There are several seafood spots we’d love to try next time, including the dining room at the Tarpon Lodge.
Here are a few places we dined or were especially recommended:
An Olde Fish House Marina is rustic waterfront restaurant in a building that dates to the 1930s. Featuring fresh local fish, it has fishing boats that unload their catches directly to the kitchen. With outdoor seating, it is the essence of a Matlacha experience.
Blue Dog Bar & Grill, has local craft beers on draft and makes a great mullet sandwich. (In addition to a good choice of fresh fish, we were pleased to find several vegetarian choices.) 4597 Pine Island Road NW, Matlacha, 239-558-4970.
The Perfect Cup, 4548 Pine Island Road, Matlacha, 239-283-4447, is an excellent breakfast or lunch spot.
Micelis, 3930 Pine Island Road, Matlacha, 239-282-8233, has good pizza, a wide-ranging menu of Italian choices and live music most nights.
Places to explore near Matlacha
- Cayo Costa State Park: Dreams of a private island (just west of Bokeelia by ferry or for advanced kayakers)
- Pine Island: Step back in time without a tourist in sight
- Manatee Park and the Orange River for winter manatee viewing
- Telegraph Creek: Unspoiled kayak trail worth discovering and not just for llamas, about a half hour east.
- Six Miles Cypress Slough Preserve
- Fort Myers Beach: Charming seaside getaway
- Lovers Key State Park for manatees, kayaking and beaches
- Mound Key State Archaeology Site
- What makes Sanibel special and nine ways to experience it.
Places to explore near Naples
- Naples: Rich in nature, beaches and boating
- Corkscrew Preserve in Naples
- Bird Rookery Swamp Trail for hiking and wildlife
- Barefoot Beach is on Southwest Florida’s wild side
- Clam Pass Park, a Naples beach where you ride the tide
- Koreshan State Historic Site: Wacky Florida history; lovely spot preserved
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning a trip, especially to areas hard hit by hurricanes.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.