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The biggest island in Florida, Pine Island, lies just off the coast of Cape Coral. To get there, drivers must cross a two-lane drawbridge from the much smaller island of Matlacha, which is linked to the mainland by a short causeway.
Pine Island is quiet, flat and practically empty for long stretches. (If you squint, a lot, you might think that you were in rural Ohio.)
Matlacha is tiny and busy and narrow to the point of claustrophobia. But the traffic passing through the pinch-point of the bridge shouldnt dissuade travelers from stopping on Matlacha, a delightfully colorful and interesting bit of Florida.
The origin of the islands unusual name, pronounced MAT la-SHAY, is a mystery, although it might derive from the language of the native Calusa Indians.
Created in the 1920s from fill dirt dredged up from Matlacha Pass to anchor the bridge to Pine Island, Matlacha Island was originally settled by squatters and soon became a fishing village.
Today its a small town squeezed between Pine Island Road and the pass, comprising traditional old-Florida cottages, boutique art galleries, waterfront restaurants and bars and a few small inns.
Although we were rushing to catch a ferry from Pine Island, my family decided to stop for lunch on Matlacha, which turned out to be one of the best decisions of our entire vacation.
Island Seafood Market, operated by a family originally from central Ohio, has its own fishing boats and sells seafood thats as fresh as possible. The market also cooks up amazing made-to-order sandwiches. I recommend the lightly panko-coated half-pound slab of bun-bursting, fantastically fresh grouper — or whatever fish in the fresh case floats your boat.
We sat at a picnic table near the dock next to the market and pitied the drivers rushing past — drivers who might never know they were passing by what is, quite possibly, the best fish sandwich in Florida.
When we spotted CW Fudge Factory just down the road, we decided we had just enough time for dessert. We found delicious fudge, an eclectic gift shop and a friendly staff. The whole island, in fact, seemed friendly and delightful.
Notwithstanding the hard work that goes into catching fish and making fudge, Matlacha evoked a kind of laid-back Bohemian nonchalance. Even the post office is adorned with a funky, colorful fish mural.
We were rushing again a few days later on our way back from Pine Island, this time to catch a plane at the airport in Fort Myers. But we all agreed that, come what may, we would make enough time, at least, for another fish sandwich on Matlacha.
Next time, the island gets its own spot on our vacation schedule.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @SteveStephens.