Visiting Matlacha and Pine Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast
The sunset behind Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island. Florida gulf coast sunsets are world famous for a good reason.
It was 6:30 in the morning as I rushed from South Beach to I-75 west. I couldn’t get there fast enough. In less than an hour, I saw the vast expanse of Everglades before me and breathed a sigh of relief as I left behind the crazy busyness and congestion of Miami. The river of grass was a sight for my sore eyes and a welcome respite from the concrete jungle.
My destination: a friend’s wedding at Pine Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida. My purpose: to get away from it all and take a break from Miami. And this I most certainly did, finding a peaceful and laid-back island no more than four hours away from the magic city. I wanted slow, remote, relaxing and that’s exactly what I got. And I mean really slow—even Key West would have been too busy for my taste.
My friend, an old high school buddy, got married on North Captiva Island with the sound of the surf and a glorious sunset as backdrop. We arrived via pontoon boat for the simple ceremony, which couldn’t have been more romantic.
But while I was there for the weekend, I spent time on my own tooling around the area. You could say I also had a romance of my own, falling in love with all the nothing I had the option of doing.
A private trailer home reminds you about island time in Matlacha.
For starters, Matlacha. In order to reach Pine Island by road, you have to pass by this tiny fishing community. Pronounced matt-luh-shay, the historic village is not only quaint, but also quite artistic. Both Matlacha and Pine Island boast a large community of artists, earning the area the title of Florida’s Creative Coast. On a tiny drag of the main road, you’ll find a handful of shops selling art and fashion created by locals. Art is a big deal in this neck of the woods, but more on that later.
The main drag—just barely two blocks long or so—is home to quirky shops, galleries and studios.
Matlacha’s storefronts burst with color and a sense of humor.
No corner goes untouched by art behind Wild Child Gallery in Matlacha.
An adorable papier-maché manatee chair behind Wild Child Gallery, which features the work of over 120 artists.
Whimsical signs are a Matlacha artistic tradition. This one was for sale at Island Visions.
There are also a number of waterfront restaurants in Matlacha. Try Bert’s Bar and Grill for lunch. Fried scallops and a cold brew satisfied me after a long drive from Miami. Here, you’ll also enjoy some old Florida hospitality. My waitress addressed me as “pumpkin” and “honey” before I even placed my order. It was like my best friend was having me over for a bite to eat. I challenge anyone to find that kind of service in South Beach.
I liked Bert’s so much, I stopped by at night, too. Part dive bar, part community hangout, Bert’s serves beer, wine and puts on live music. It was here a leather-clad biker tried to pick me up simply by eyeing me across the bar, pointing at me and then tapping the counter. I turned my head to look around, shrugged my shoulders and smiled quizzically. He didn’t push the matter. And I thought I was jaded from all my years in Miami Beach. I’ve never seen a “woman, come hither” pick up like that—at least this guy was straightforward!
I may not have followed the biker, but I did end up being charmed by 87 year-old Ralph, a regular at Bert’s and the “unofficial” mayor of Matlacha. The old flirt and widower regaled me with stories about the area and his two former wives. We talked about love and relationships. His advice: “The best thing to do is to talk to each other and when you go to bed, kiss her goodnight and say I love you.” It was this kind of genuine friendliness I would encounter all weekend long in this part of Florida.
Onto Pine Island, where you won’t find a single high-rise, shopping mall, fast food joint or even a traffic light.
On my first day, I arrived at the Tarpon Lodge just in time for sunset. The lodge is surrounded by ancient Calusa Indian mounds and just being there feels sacred somehow. The calm waters of Pine Island Sound provided the perfect canvas for the glorious setting sun. My big city stress also melted into the horizon as I looked forward to spending three days here.
The Tarpon Lodge dates back to 1926 and while it serves as a great spot for flats fishing in the gulf—a private marina caters to anglers—it’s also an utterly charming lodge for travelers looking to relax or couples who enjoy quiet romantic getaways. Tarpon Lodge serves gourmet fare in its four-star restaurant and more casual meal options in an outdoor porch for lunch.
The view from my cozy, simply appointed room. Now you see why I didn’t want to leave.
Pine Island really isn’t a beach community. It’s all about enjoying the water above the water here, with fishing, kayaking, canoeing and boat tours your best bet for exploring estuarine marine environments. Pine Island Sound is home to manatees, bottle-nosed dolphins as well as hundreds of bird and fish species.
Sailing is now available on Pine Island thanks to Captain Koucky, who recently put the beautiful Alondra, a 47 Herreshoff wooden boat, back in service. Koucky’s boat is docked just behind the Tarpon Lodge.
Captain Koucky, who is also a master pottery artist, painstakingly and lovingly restored the Alondra by hand.
On my second day, I toured the Calusa Heritage Trail, an archeological site just a few steps from the Tarpon Lodge. The 3,700 foot interpretative walkway is part of the University of Florida Randell Research Center and takes about an hour or so to complete. Here you’ll learn about the fascinating Calusa Indians who lived on this site for over 1,500 years.
The Calusa Indians disappeared by the 18th century after a relatively short period of time of European colonization. Amazingly, people lived in this part of Florida even as far back as 12,000 years ago.
The Calusa had no written language but were skilled craftsmen, artists and engineers. They dug navigation canals on Pine Island and were expert fishermen. They built shell mounds or middens (“debris of life”) comprised of the many clams, oysters and other shellfish they consumed over hundreds of years. These mounds were not only practical—they kept dwellings dry during years with particularly high tides—they may also have signified political hierarchy.
While on the trail, climb up the tallest shell mound and imagine the landscape before you dotted with dwellings, just as a chief might have seen his tribal domain. A dirt path takes you up to the mound, where you can still see the thousands of shells that make up the artificial elevation.
It really is a shell mound, literally.
A copy of the Calusa Cat wooden sculpture reveals the handiwork of Calusa artists. The original was discovered further south in a bog around Marco Island. The six-inch figurine dates from about 800 A.D.
After the trail, I headed up further north on the island to a section known as Bokeelia. There’s not much here except for vacation rentals, a fishing pier and an old mom-and-pop restaurant called Capt’n Con’s where I feasted on the Saturday special of beer-battered fish with potato salad. A cup of homemade seafood chowder and a draft beer also hit the spot and all for less than $12.
Great comfort food is served up at Capt’n Con’s. The breading was crispy, the fish tender and not at all greasy.
You can see Charlotte Harbor in the distance from the northernmost tip of Bokeelia.
Painted coconut fish make great souvenirs. Find them for sale across from Capt’n Con’s in Bokeelia and at select shops in Matlacha.
The artist at work in his outdoor studio, accompanied by a four-legged friend. He’s usually there on the weekends.
The cheeseburger at the Dollar Bill Restaurant and Bar on Cabbage Key was pretty good. The setting, even better. Wait until later in the day if you want to skip the lunch crowds.
The next day, a little hungover from the wedding, I walked from Tarpon Lodge to Pine Island Marina next door, where I boarded the Island Girl III to Cabbage Key. A comfortable fifteen-minute boat ride landed me on this famous little island, where Jimmy Buffett is said to have composed the song Cheeseburger in Paradise. Cabbage Key is only accessible by boat and is popular as a lunch hangout. Inside, the restaurant is decorated wall-to-wall with dollar bills left by visitors. Leaving cash isn’t just a fun, touristy thing to do— about $10,000 of it goes to a local charities every year, the majority benefiting to AMIkids in Lee County.
Family-owned Cabbage Key Resort, the Tarpon Lodge’s sister property, offers numerous cottages for anyone interested in staying here. My favorite is The Dollhouse, which is perfect for couples. There isn’t much on the 80-acre, underdeveloped key. No cars are allowed. Besides the resort, only staff housing and three privately owned vacation rentals break the otherwise lush, natural landscape filled with cabbage palms and native vegetation. A walking trail winds through the island where you might feel a little spooked if you have an overactive imagination, but it’s perfectly safe.
If you stay here, take a day boat trip to Cayo Costa State Park with a boxed picnic lunch from Cabbage Key Resort and enjoy the beautiful beaches. And if you only come for the day, make sure you take in the view from the Water Tower. Hopefully you’ll spend some alone time there like I did and hear the high-pitched squeak of ospreys as they fly close by and perch on their nests.
The main building at Cabbage Key Resort, where the restaurant is located, was built on a shell mound.
The Dollhouse Cottage at Cabbage Key.
Speed limits for a golf cart. Life slows down in Cabbage Key and all of Pine Island and Matlacha, for that matter.
The view from the Water Tower on Cabbage Key. That’s Cayo Costa in the distance, a short boat ride away.
Locals from neighboring islands hanging out at the bar in Cabbage Key.
FLORIDA’S CREATIVE COAST
On my final day, I really had a hard time yanking myself off Pine Island. I enjoyed so much peace and quiet here. But I was lucky enough to say farewell by visiting Koucky’s Gallery and Gardens on my way out. His is just one of several art galleries and studios on the island. Couple this with the artistic activity on neighboring Matlacha and you see why it’s called the Creative Coast.
Koucky is a master at pottery, specializing in several styles, including raku. “We have about 300 artists here on Pine Island,” he said. “Writers, musicians, painters, potters. We have a drawing league, songwriting workshops, drumming classes. There’s a lot going on.”
Koucky posing by his pottery. He’s also the captain of the Alondra, which I mentioned above. He has been a sailor longer than he has been an artist, but he’s been doing both a pretty long time.
Some of Koucky’s former students have become professional artists in their own right. One of them was working clay in the studio when I visited.
It must be the vast expanse of gulf, the fresh air and the utter simplicity of the place that inspires this creative bunch, some of whom are transplants from bigger cities. Sometimes you do need to get away from it all to recharge. Three days in Pine Island and Matlacha did it for me.
IF YOU GO
Arrive by car, but expect to spend some time on the water..
If driving from Miami, there are two main routes to the Gulf Coast. Take I-75 off 595 in Broward or do the historic Tamiami Trail further south, which is longer but more interesting. Once you arrive, stop at the Pine Island Welcome Center just before Matlacha at 3640 Pine Island Road. The friendly staff there will give you suggestions on what to do and where to go, eat and stay.
You will need a car here. There is one gas station on Pine Island, which you can’t miss, as it’s on the main intersection next to the Circle K.
Creative Coast Weekends take place the second of each month from November to April. Art galleries open during extended hours. Listen to live music, take cooking classes and more.
Fishing charters abound on Matlacha and Pine Island. Captain Erik Flett operates out one of the Tarpon Lodge. Depending on the season, you can catch tarpon, redfish, snook, grouper and other species. Tarpon fishing is serious business around here. For more information, visit Native Attitude Fishing Charters. To charter the Alondra, visit Pine Island Sailing. To get around on the water, also check out Island Girl Charters for water taxi services and other activities such as shelling, snorkeling and lunch trips.
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