There's a quaint little fishing village in southwest Florida with a cool vibe and a whole lotta color goin' on.
In the 1990's, coming off some major changes which impacted the town's livelihood of commercial fishing, the sleepy town of Matlacha Island east of Pine Island took a new direction and reinvented themselves as something unique and unexpected.
Residents literally took a paint brush and palette, and reenergized their town with bright, tropical colors, and today enjoy the well-deserved reputation as a funky artist community that still fishes, a lot. Though still laid-back, I dare you to drive straight through without being tempted to get out of your car and see what's around.
Mat-la-SHAY or MAT-la-shay. However you say it, it sort of rolls off the tongue with as much twang as you're willing to give it.
The small spit of island off the coast of Fort Myers, between north Cape Coral and Pine Island is a great little town to chill out for the day in an atmosphere that's uniquely its own. Think 'Sleep Florida Fish Camp meets Andy Warhol' and you start to get the idea. Matlacha stands out among the many quaint seaside towns in southwest Florida as the free spirit in the family.
You won't find a trace of neutral, organic design or South Beach chic, nor the whitewashed beach style of neighbors Sanibel and Captiva, just a stones throw away. No, Matlacha packs a vibrant punch of raucous, in-your-face color, where neon trumps pastel and seashells become sculpture. Each time I visit, it's more colorful than the last, and residents are hoping the momentum continues.
Which is why, when I noticed the "Don't Dump the Plan" signs along the road, I asked locals about the proposed changes to the long-held Pine Island Plan by developers seeking to expand and develop parcels around Pine Island.
Increased development would almost certainly impact Matlacha Island and the entire area's delicate ecosystem around Pine Island, so residents are naturally concerned about the future preservation of their work over the last 20 years. Only time will tell.
The waters all around the islands of southwest Florida, and especially Pine Island and Matlacha Pass are teeming with so many varieties of fish, colorful wading and shore birds, it's no surprise anglers have long regarded the area as some of the best fishing in the world. Whether from your own boat or rental, or from the bridge - also known as "The Fishingest Bridge in the U.S.A." - there's always a great place to drop a line.
If you're into paddling, I can't think of a better place to explore than these waters. Kayakers, SUP boarders and others could easily spend days on the smooth inlet backwaters and exploring the natural world.
While we sat at the Island Cafe enjoying our lunch of cold beer and cod bites (out of this world!), huge schools of fish hit even bigger schools of minnows and smaller bait fish along the surface of the back bay off the restaurant's deck, and I could see my husband (practically drooling) longing for his fishing rod in hand to cast a few.
More than a dozen fishing boats and small water craft must have passed by in the course of an hour on the way out to Matlacha Pass. Around here, being on the water is what it's all about.
But something happens to me when I come here - the slow pace, the funky vibe - I'm not sure which it is. But all I want to do is take in a stroll among the shops, antique stores, and galleries. They all fit naturally within the quaintness of the town, as if every sleepy fishing village could use a pop of color. Many of the telephone poles are even painted!
One of my favorite galleries belongs to local artist Leoma Lovegrove, the outside of her lime green and pink gallery perfectly offsetting the vibrant, multi-colored canvases she's famous for. Look for the quirky white mannequins on the roof and her signature white-glove sunglasses.
During my latest visit, her gallery assistant hinted at the big changes they were making in the gardens behind the gallery, scheduled to be open later this fall. I can't wait to go back to see what's in store. From the peeks I stole through the papered windows, it promises to be a feast for the eyes!
Right next door is Wild Child Art Gallery, a bright contemporary gallery featuring the work of artist and owner Peggy McTeague, along with over 120 artists from around Florida. Textiles, jewelry, paintings, sculpture, and wood carvings. The gallery was jam-packed with beautiful creations perfectly curated and displayed. I especially loved the hanging stained glass sculpture in the window, made from colored glass and metal, with some carved sugar bowl lids and other beautiful objects thrown in.
And since it wouldn't be island-hopping without a cold beer or tropical drink, we always seem to end up at a local joint with a good crowd gathered listening to some live music. Sometimes it's Bert's on one side of the road, which has two different areas To relax in - a bar/poolroom up front and dining room with a water view out back - depending on your mood. Sometimes it's the Old Fish House Marina on the other side of the road, a hangout popular with bikers, plenty of parking for your rides, and good live music.
If you love southwest Florida, and are making plans to visit Fort Myers, Sanibel, Captiva, Naples or Marco Island anytime soon, slow your pace down to "island time" and explore Matlacha for the day (or more). Because who wants a whitewashed beach vacation without a splash of neon color?