Bordering Cape Coral is a little known jewel who few from out of the state have ever heard of. Matlacha Florida is an unexpected surprise you stumble upon as you drive west to a barrier island known as Pine Island.
As you venture off the newly constructed main thoroughfares, the road narrows to two lanes flanked on either side by tall mangroves trimmed to allow slowing traffic. Water can be glimpsed through these thick hedges and osprey are a common sight perched atop painted utility poles which line the sides of the faded black top. As you follow a gentle bend in the road, you get your first taste of the way Florida used to be before the high rises and big box stores took over. A couple of small one story buildings with crushed shell parking areas in front come into view, home to a family owned restaurant and a mom and pop bait and tackle shop.
Farther down is a dry storage marina with boats resting on their trailers, patiently waiting behind a chain link fence, next to a marine repair shop. In front of the abandoned bait shop is the grey haired, retired boat captain/former soda shop owner selling smoked mullet, blue crab and locally harvested honey out of the back of his well traveled pickup trunk. A few homes built in the 50s and 60s can be seen as well as some luxury homes even farther down a side road. Then, after another short jog through more mangrove, you hit a little town forced to adapt to changing times.
Matlacha (pronounced “MAT-la-shay”) was an “Old Florida” fishing village up until 1992 when the ban on gill nets gutted the local economy. This ban was required to protect popular recreational fish which became ensnared along with the mullet targeted by the commercial fishermen. Upon passage of the controversial ban, men who made their living off the water lit up the sky as they set fire to their boats after shooting holes in them. So many boats were ablaze that the pyre could be seen as far way as Ft. Myers Beach and Sanibel Island and when the flames died, so did the existence of Matlacha’s commercial fishery.
In truth, the history of Matlacha is less than 100 years old. The ‘village’ got its start around 1926 when Lee County bought a bridge from a town east of Ft. Myers called Alva and decided to put it between the mangrove islands west of present day Cape Coral . The County had to dredge fill from Matlacha Pass to create approaches to accommodate the single lane swing bridge.
The “fill” became an island. People who had lost their homes to the stock market crash of October, 1929 were drawn to the area by moderate temperatures, protected waters teeming with free food and of course, free land. At first, these ”squatters” pitched tents or lived out of their cars and trunks but they soon began building makeshift wooden shacks with thatched roofs. Clapboard houses on wooden stilts slowly popped up to combat flooding from extreme high tides or tropical storms.
Over time, a full scale fishing industry developed on this still unclaimed land which became known simply as “The Fill”. Lee County tried to evict the inhabitants but lost the court battle and the former squatters became landowners as a result of ‘adverse possession” and thus, the fishing village of Matlacha was born. The short but true history of Matlacha island and its community that did not exist prior to 1926 was the inspiration behind the 1959 Richard Powell novel, Pioneer, Go Home! The book was adapted into a musical film starring Elvis Presley titled Follow That Dream and depicted people willing and able to adapt to survive.
Thus is the spirit of Matlacha. After the gill net ban in the early 1990s, the people of Matlacha adapted to their new reality and transformed a community reliant on commercial fishing to one embracing the arts. This re-invented town is most apparent on the west side of the new bridge. The former fishing shacks that were homes to some of the original squatters are now brightly painted art galleries, island inspired boutiques, and cafes that feature fresh, locally harvested seafood. Tourists can be found walking between the various shops in search of that unique painting, sculpture, or one of a kind piece of jewelry most any day of the week.
Other structures along the main street have been converted into small mom and pop inns that feature cozy rooms for rent by the day, week or month. Some come with a kitchenette not to mention a million dollar view of the local water way, a few have not much more than a twin bed, ideal for that fisherman that just wants a few winks before hitting the water again. While you can still spot an old commercial fishing boat with its nets hanging off their high support arms, sports and recreational fishing have become, for the most part, the income producing careers of locals who still work on the water and the area’s knowledgeable guides are in high demand.
Colorful Matlacha is now referred to as the “Key West of the North” with its funky arts community and its thriving recreational fishing industry as well as a throw-back bar or two where local celebrities hang out and listen to live music. From nothing more than a spoil island created from dredge needed for a second hand bridge to a town of “historic buildings” and million dollars homes with priceless water views, Matlacha is truly an unexpected “spot in the road”. And while no one knows what this Old Florida fishing village turned artsy community might face in its future, you can bet that it won’t be a big boxed store or a super market. Despite its need to adapt to the times, Matlacha still doesn’t and never will have a traffic light.
Information on Matlacha hotels