In 2014, I spent about two months in Ft. Myers, Florida. After only two weeks in town, I was introduced as a regular at Bonita Bill’s. Soon thereafter I met the folks at the dog-friendly Sea Gypsy Inn and began attending “secret meetings.”
“Secret meeting” is friend code for “Let’s meet at the Beach Pub, knock back a few beers, and watch the sunset.”
There are lots of places that can draw you back. For me, Ft. Myers is one of those. I was sorta sideways when I went the first time, and I wasn’t a whole lot better when I went this last time. Maybe that’s just how far I have to go to get my head straight. Salt, sand, and long-time friends tempting you with boat rides to your favorite bars don’t hurt.
After all this time, Bonita Bill’s is still my favorite bar. Doc Ford’s still has the best Dark and Stormy, and Beach Pub is still the best place to watch a sunset. I hit up all those places just to be sure, but I also found a new one only 30 minutes away.
Matlacha, pronounced like Nick Lachey’s brother (Mat-luh-SHAY), is one of five communities associated with Pine Island. Four of those communities lie on the island itself, but Matlacha is its own little island between the mainland of Cape Coral and Pine Island. You’ll cross the “The Fishingest Bridge in the U.S.” to get there.
If you’re looking for “Old Florida,” where the south blends seamlessly into a tropical vibe, colorful bungalows are inhabited by residents instead of tourists, and fishing is still a way of life for many, this is one of the places you’ll find it. As the area grows in popularity, you will find a budding tourist industry. However, it’s still more quiet, bohemian charm than Mickey Mouse, and dogs are welcome.
To get to Matlacha, we drove across the The Fishingest Bridge and through the town. Yes, we drove THROUGH Matlacha to get to Matlacha. Bear with me. We were headed to Matlahca Community Park to drop our kayak in the water and paddle across Matlacha Pass, which is part of the Calusa Blueway paddle trail.
Because why drive to a place when you can paddle across the water in 14 mph winds and maybe see dolphins? There is always a method to my madness.
Unfortunately, there are no photos of the one dolphin we saw. By the time I realized I could secure my phone to my bikini top with the pop socket (I’m now calling this the “boob-pro”) and run video while still paddling, the dolphin was gone. Henri’s startled reaction to him jumping out of the water was priceless though, and I must admit I was pretty excited myself.
Once across the pass, we tied up at Bert’s Bar and Grill for lunch and scenery. Their dock is made for motor boats, not kayaks, and with about three feet from the water to the dock, getting out of the yak required a delicate balancing act. We quickly realized that though we had planned to paddle and tie-up, we had not thought to bring a line.
Being the Girl Scout that I am and knowing Henri would stay tight, we used his leash to secure our rig to the dock.
After tying off, Sandra climbed out while I tried to steady the boat. Then I passed Henri up to her. Once Henri was out, I carefully hopped from the boat to the dock. (The reverse effort seemed a little trickier, but with some help from a sympathetic gentleman, we managed a not-quite-so-graceful boarding. With a shout of “Good Luck, Henri!” from the guy on the dock who assisted us, we paddled away).
The patio at Bert’s is dog-friendly, as are most of the patios in Matlacha, but you really should have a leash. They brought Henri some water, and after a 1/2 lb. of peel and eat shrimp and a couple of Coronas, we felt well-rested enough to get back to the boat. The real plan had been to leave the boat docked while we wandered around Matlacha, but without a leash for Henri and no idea where to grab one, we decided to paddle back to the park, put up the yak, and just walk.
Pine Island Road is dotted with shops and galleries boasting colorful exteriors that highlight the community’s quirky, artistic charm. The most famous of these galleries is Leoma Lovegrove. The can’t miss pink roof sets the tone for a street lined with whimsy. Unfortunately, her gallery and gardens are NOT dog-friendly, but plenty of other places ARE.
Island Visions is an “eclectic gallery of art and curiosities.” I stole that description from their business card because it’s the perfect way to describe this shop. With a flea market feel and treasures around every corner, you’re sure to find something of interest from one of the over 60 local artists represented. Be sure to look up, around, and down; even the floors are painted with fanciful designs, and you might spot Hector, the shop kitty.
Right next door to Island Visions is Great Licks Ice Cream of Matlacha. You can take your pooch there for a FREE pup cup with an all-natural treat topping. Get some for yourself, too. It’s delicious!
Another noteworthy stop is WildChild Art Gallery. Voted Best Art Gallery on Pine Island 10 years in a row, you’ll quickly discover something to love. They keep a stash of dog treats behind the counter for JustA, the lucky Schnauzer whose official title is Gallery Greeter, but he won’t mind sharing. I was told his name was JustA as in “just a bit of love, just a bit of trouble,” but you can read the real story here.
Not to be missed- but of course I did- is the WildChild garden space open Wednesday through Saturday. I was there on Monday. If you visit during the later part of the week, you’ll have the opportunity to meet some of the artists while they work and/or teach classes. If you’re interested in a class, visit Art Classes & Workshops on their website for more information.
Where To Stay
We didn’t spend the night in Matlacha, but if we had, I’d have chosen Bridgewater Inn. We paddled past it on our way to Bert’s, which is next door. This brightly colored inn features rooms right on the water, perfect for watching sunsets or the daily visitors of wildlife that often include dolphin and manatee. There were several men fishing from the decks off their rooms who waved at as we passed in our kayak.
Every room at Bridgewater is dog-friendly with no breed or size restrictions AND you can leave your dog unattended as long as he behaves and doesn’t disturb other guests. A $15 per dog/per stay charge will be added to your rate.
Plan Your Day
I’m not sure whether Matlacha is a fishing village with an art problem or an art village with a fishing problem, but it doesn’t make much difference. Life happens at a slower pace here. Do something, or do nothing. It’s your choice, but here are some ideas:
- Shop the local galleries. It won’t take all day and you’ll be ready for a late lunch on one of the dog-friendly patios. Stay for happy hour and enjoy some music.
- Take A Class. Wildchild offers art classes that allow students to make and take.
- Do some fishing. Whether it’s off your own deck at Bridgewater or the Fishingest Bridge in the U.S., you’re in the one the best places in the world for this sport. Bridgewater offers a fish cleaning station to their guests and once that’s done you can cook it yourself or take it to Miceli’s and they’ll cook it for you. Take your pup to Miceli’s, too. Their patio is dog-friendly.
- Go paddling. There are no particular sights to see but the natural beauty of the area begs to be explored. Dolphin, manatee, and rays are frequent guests. Osprey, herons, egrets, and the occasional Bald Eagle roam the skies and hunt the waters. Mangroves abound.
- Watch a sunset. At the end of any given day, grab yourself a glass of wine and a comfy chair. You’ll be treated to one of the best sunsets you’ve ever seen, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the green flash.
Parking can be pretty minimal in front of galleries and restaurants, especially on a pretty day. Park at the Matlacha Community Park for free and walk. You can also arrive by boat.
Special shout out to the local businesses who allowed me to swipe photos from their Facebook pages. Many of the galleries have signs that ask you to not take photos so I altogether dropped the ball on picture taking. I hope I’m a good enough storyteller that you’ll forgive me but if not, I’m blaming the ADHD, the bright colors, and the Florida sun!