A Florida Island Destination Back in Time
Having lived in Florida for nearly thirty years and having traveled around the state many times for business and leisure it is rare that I find an area so vast that I have never explored but this most recent weekend trip took us to a place we’d not been to before. Pine Island is located between Fort Myers/Cape Coral and Sanibel/Captiva Islands in the southwest area of the Florida peninsula.
It was no more than two hours from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area to get there but another time and world away from it. As you drive down along the main road (which is County Road 78 or Pine Island Road) into Pine Island from the expressway, you soon pass the usual suburban clutter and enter a world that time has not caught up to. When you leave the suburban blah scene you’re nearly there and the Pine Island Chamber of Commerce will be on your right. The first town you go through is absolutely adorable and a complete throwback in time. It is called Mathlacha (it is pronounced MAT Luh Shay or we’ve also heard mostly in southern American English accents Mat-luh-SHAAAY) and is home to under 800 residents.
There are places to eat and sleep here as well as shop. The entire town pretty much is an historic district to 20th century Florida before the word “condo” became part of the Florida lexicon. In this district, which is honestly no more than a few blocks long, you’ll find Bert’s Bar & Grill followed by the Bridgewater Inn and then cross another small bridge to the main part of the town where there are multiple restaurants, ice cream shops and some other options for accommodation. It doesn’t get much cuter or quainter than this stretch of road to give you a feel for what Florida looked and felt like when cars had names like De Soto, Studebaker and Nash. They are painted all sorts of bright colors now but the feel is still here.
We ate at Mulletville on the main road across from Pizza Bella. It is a great place and I could highly recommend it to anyone. There is outside seating on a canal and there’s a bar and restaurant inside. Like the rest of the community, it is a bit of a throwback in time but the food is fresh and delicious. Down the road are some shops you can walk to including some “art galleries” and other shops. If you’re into the Margaritaville look, have tiki statues around or love the geckos to decorate your patio then you have found nirvana with Matlacha Menagerie. The shops are all fun to go through no matter your taste though. So ramble around and by the time you get down the road there is a convenient ice cream shop to greet you.
If staying here is in your future, Knoll’s Court Motel is where you want to continue your throwback in time. It is impeccably clean and about as old Florida as you can get. There’s a small number of rooms at this old motor court that is on the water and has a dock. The rooms are clean and the terrazzo floors gleam. I loved this place.
To continue your journey you head west toward Pine Island Center which has a hardware store and several places to stop and shop including a Winn Dixie supermarket south of Pine Island Center in a shopping center. This area has some historic interest to the mid century but for the most part it has been developed to include the shopping center and even a modern Dairy Queen.
To the south there is the small town of St. James City and to the north of the island there is Bokeelia. As we were travelling in our RV we went to the KOA in St. James City and have nothing but wonderful things to say about the property. There’s everything you expect at a KOA including a super clean pool, friendly campers and staff, a great store and a great experience. We loved our camping neighbors and had a great time camping here. There are cabins, a few lakes, clubhouses, showers, laundry facilities and more.
St. James City is pretty much a string of old time dockside bars. Fishing, if you haven’t been able to tell until now you’ve not been looking, is huge in this area of Florida and right the way along from Matlacha you will notice fishing boats and pleasure boats everywhere. In St. James City you’ll find a general store, which we didn’t go into but which I was dying to see, and several bars starting with the Ragged Ass Saloon, Froggy’s, Low Key Tiki and Woody’s Waterside. You could ride bicycles here from the KOA and do your own pub crawl if you wanted to. There are wide bicycle paths along the main road on the island making it easy to cycle up and down the island as well as some nature paths which we didn’t get a chance to explore this trip.
Bokeelia is the town on the northside and is an interesting mix of mostly new construction, mobile homes and a few older homes. There is a single story house on the Main Street in Bokeelia that demonstrates what the town must have looked like before any modern construction. It is a simple single story white house with a fire place and it is on the water. It was occupied when we visited but can be viewed from the street. While time may have slipped by much of this island the town of Bokeelia was discovered by suburban pioneers who added large homes designed to withstand a huge storm surge making this end of the island a little less interesting to the traveler though very appealing to those living here. You will find Cap’n Con’s Fish House across from the municipal pier and ample parking. The food is good and the beer is cold here and there is even a four stool bar inside. There’s outdoor seating too. This is another throwback in time that I hope never disappears from Florida. These types of places are what Florida is all about.
One of the fairly obvious things about the island that is still worth mentioning to anyone who hasn’t visited is that there are no beaches on the island. This is perhaps why it remains such an attractive place today without over development. And I cannot believe that I’ve lived in Florida for thirty years without visiting it or ever hearing about it. And I’ve worked in the tourism industry for all of those thirty years! I hope you’ve enjoyed looking at a part of Florida that doesn’t have an exit and doesn’t have a beach but it is another time and only requires your mind to take you back there when you visit. We definitely want to return after having done this cursory exploration. Enjoy.