Get Out of Town: Pine Island by Su Byron

Matlacha rhymes with “cachet.” It seems fitting. Less than two hours south of Venice, this unique island enclave has a cachet all its own. Known as the gateway to Pine Island, it’s an authentic slice of Old Florida, easily reached over a drawbridge. Once upon a time, Matlacha was a thriving fishing village. After the 1992 net ban, the waterfront town reinvented itself as an artists’ colony and a tourist destination—especially for boating and fishing excursions. Today, the three-block stretch is a menagerie of exuberantly painted, historic buildings and fishing shanties housing art galleries, schlock shops, kitsch and clothing boutiques, hole-in-the-wall eateries and waterfront restaurants. Despite its arty new persona, Matlacha is still unpretentious and laid back. It’s still the place to listen to grizzled fishermen talk about the good old days. (For the price of a few beers, you might be able to reel in some good stories.) Spend a day or a few nights; there’s enough to see in Matlacha and surrounding Pine Island to keep you happy and carefree for a week. Here are some tips to get you started!

Stop first at the Greater Pine Island Chamber of Commerce to pick up a booty of information about Matlacha and environs. The folks there are well informed and can answer all questions. 4120 Pine Island Road; 239.283.0888; pineislandchamber.org.

If you’re here on a Tuesday or Friday, stop by Lovegrove Gallery & Gardens and ask artist/owner Leoma Lovegrove to take you on a 45-minute walking tour. For $10, she’ll tell you everything you need to know about the area, including all the juicy gossip, the coordinates of the best fishing hole, and where to launch your kayak. Lovegrove’s gallery showcases her own large, colorful paintings of Florida’s native flora and fauna. Famed as the “Peter Max of the south,” Lovegrove loves to invite visitors to stroll through the lush tropical gardens behind her gallery. 4637 Pine Island Road, N.W.; 239.283.6453.

When it’s lunchtime, spend time at the Olde Fish House Marina, a funky, dockside restaurant and fish market where you order your grub through a window and eat it on picnic tables overlooking scruffy shrimp boats. The fare is classic fish camp cuisine—heaping helpings of locally caught mullet, gator and grouper, soft shell crabs, po’ boys, clam strips and hush puppies, all fried to a fare-thee-well. They don’t sell alcoholic beverages, so if you crave beer or wine, you’ll have to buy it at the convenience store next door. 4530 Pine Island Road, N.W.; 239.282.9577.

Next, take a postprandial hike down the main drag and walk off all that fried food. Stop at Trader’s Hitching Post for some of the best Native American and southwestern art, artifacts and jewelry this side of Santa Fe. You can load up on Kachina dolls, fetish necklaces, Navajo-crafted pottery—and an astonishing array of silver and turquoise jewelry. 4618 Pine Island Road, N.W.; 239.283.4040.

Matlacha Menagerie is a classy sculptural zoo providing a home to glass, steel and ceramic simulacre of Florida critters (turtles, sharks, dolphins, gators, sea birds) created by regional artists. The shop also shelters a fanciful collection of Talavera pottery from Puebla, Mexico—brightly colored mugs, planters and other ceramic pieces depicting the critters south of the border. 4604 Pine Island Road, N.W.; 239.282.0099.

The Wild Child Gallery showcases paintings, sculptures, jewelry, ceramic art and metal sculptures by more than 120 Florida artists. Owner and artist Peggy Lee McTeague creates intricate, beautiful metal sculptures and fountains. Other artistic delights include Kate and Ed Coleman’s bright, bold vases and tiles; Chuck Koucky’s austere ceramic plates and bowls; and Rusty Bell’s organic, otherworldly woodcarvings. 4625 Pine Island Road, N.W.; 239.283.6006.

Island Visions exhibits its own share of visionary works by area-based artists, including Christina Wyatt’s sensuous mermaids, watercolors of local vistas by Ed Brown, fused glass jewelry by Beth Collette, Coni Brown’s colorful painted wood signs and furniture, Marc Geldon’s stonework vessels, and stained glass mermaids and dragonflies by Beth Kauffman. Make sure to stop for an ice cream in the adjoining Great Licks Ice Cream shop. Yum! 4643 Pine Island Road, N.W.; 239.282.0452.

Frills is a fabulous place to find island-style clothing and accessories, locally created jewelry, hand-crafted furniture and other creations by area artists and artisans. (It offers two separate storefronts, so strictly speaking it’s two fabulous places.) 4630 and 4608 Pine Island Road, N.W.; 239.283.0448.

Around sunset, head for the outdoor tiki bar at Miceli’s Restaurant, perched smack dab on Matlacha Sound. Here, you can sip a refreshing beverage while digging live tunes and watching birds flock to a nearby island aviary. 3930 Pine Island Road, N.W.; 239-282-8233.

Don’t miss: Matlacha hosts its Creative Coast Weekends every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from November through April. Participating galleries, boutiques and restaurants offer specials, live music, tours and artist demonstrations. The annual Island Pirate Fest & Pirates Ball happens February 8, 9, 10, 2013, at Bert’s Bar & Seafood Grill. This family-friendly event features games, music, pirate garb contests, a mermaid parade and a swashbuckling assortment of pirates, wenches and buccaneers.

271 Pine Island Road; 239.282.3232.

Where to stay: The Bayview Bed & Breakfast (12251 Shoreview Drive; 239.283.7510) is an entrancing, four-room, waterfront hideaway. Just kick back and watch manatees, hopping mullet, bald eagles, frolicking dolphins and glorious sunsets right from your private porch. Knolls Court Motel (4755 Pine Island Road, N.W.; 239.283.0616) overlooks Matlacha Pass, where you can fish off the dock, use the motel’s kayaks and paddleboats—or stroll into the heart of Matlacha. The Bridgewater Inn (4331 Pine Island Road; 239.283.2423) bills itself as “a fisherman’s dream come true” and it truly is. In classic fishing camp style, the nine-room inn is built on a dock extending into Pine Island Sound. Just stick your pole out your window and you’re gone fishin’. The owners can also hook you up with inspired fishing and boat charters.

Originally published in Venice Magazine.