Hidden Jewels of the Lee Island Coast

Small towns, great fishing, and funky shops make for a fun getaway on Florida's western shore.
Tanner C. Latham

For years, Lee County's coastlines and barrier islands have drawn visitors to the southern end of Florida's Gulf Coast. You've probably walked the beautiful beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, the region's most popular destinations. But have you ever dropped your line with Matlacha fishermen off the World's Fishingest Bridge at sunset? Have you ever snoozed beneath the mangroves at Lovers Key State Park, or glimpsed a heron gracefully circling Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary? You may think you know the Lee Island Coast, but do you know its secrets?

Locals call Matlacha (pronounced "MAT-luh-shay") a state of mind. The tiny community on Pine Island sits roughly 15 miles from downtown Fort Myers and easily a generation from the rest of the Sunshine State. No beach here. No condos. No chain restaurants. "Once you go over the bridge, you feel like you're entering another world," says artist and resident Leoma Lovegrove.

A Taste of Old Florida
Originally a shrimping and fishing village, Matlacha experienced an artistic revolution about seven years ago, led largely by Leoma. Today, shops and galleries line the main drag like cups of sherbet, their fluorescent colors revealing the lighthearted spirit that saturates the town's 1 square mile.

Leoma's own Matlacha Art Gallery features a wide array of eccentric pieces, from paintings to painted furniture. "We've got art for everybody," she says, showing items that range in price from $19.95 to $3,500. "What's really fun about being an artist here is that every day is so different," she says. "Matlacha is continually inspiring."

 


Duck out of the midday sun for lunch at Bert's Bar & Grill, a classic burger shack sitting right on the water. Start with either the house specialty of fried smelt ($3.95) or a dozen fried clams ($6.95). The seafood is good, but you have to try the juicy, half-pound cheeseburger ($5.75), served with homemade potato chips.

Set Your Watch to Island Time
"In a place like Matlacha, what you see is what you get," says Osi McCarney, who with husband Steve owns the Bridge Water Inn. A sign at the inn eloquently displays one definite reality: "This is where island time begins." The modest waterfront motel offers basic accommodations, from small rooms without cooking facilities ($59 per night) to furnished, bayfront efficiency suites ($119). You can even reserve a two-bedroom cottage ($129). Rent fishing equipment from Osi for $7 a day, and try your luck just outside your room's door or on the Matlacha Bridge, which is touted as the World's Fishingest Bridge.

Mornings are especially peaceful at Bridge Water, with pelicans perching on pylons nearby, occasionally diving in the glassy bay for breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, stop by Mulletville Restaurant for an old-fashioned stack of pancakes ($3.95).
On your way off the island, stop by Planét's Gourmet Pickles, owner Champ Planét's (pronounced "plah-NAY") miniature storefront, to sample award-winning salsas, pickles, and chutneys. The Prince of Pickledom learned the art of pickling without preservatives, chemicals, or flavor enhancers from his grandparents.

 

A Lovers' Beach
Mangrove trees and sea oats hem the beach's edge, creating a deserted-isle look you've only seen in movies. At Lovers Key State Park, just south of Fort Myers Beach, you may as well be secluded from the rest of Florida, especially in the midst of the off-season (May until November).

"This is America's beach," says a visitor from Michigan. "Just dig in with your shovel, and you know you'll find something." After scampering for the perfect shells, doze beneath the shade-giving mangroves.

If all that rest works up an appetite, try the Grilled Grouper Sandwich ($8.95) at Doc's Beach House, not too far away in Bonita Springs. Continue enjoying the Lee County sunshine at one of their tables right on the beach.

Find Solace in the Sanctuary
One of the first things you'll notice when strolling into Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a gradual drop in temperature. As the 2 ¼-mile boardwalk winds its way through an open prairie, a pine thicket, and finally into the largest forest of ancient bald cypress trees in North America, the air becomes refreshingly cool. "This season is one of the best times to visit," says executive director Ed Carlson. "There is an amazing competition among all the plants to determine which has the most beautiful leaves." The best secret, though, is that it's mosquito free, thanks to the resident mosquito fish that eat the larvae.

You'll find the paths leading to these Lee County treasures are anything but worn. Their charm remains preserved by those in the know and enhanced by those, like you, who seek them out.

For more information: Contact the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, 1-888-231-6933 or www.fortmyerssanibel.com.

Sunrise, Sunset
It's no secret that two of the Lee Island Coast's most cherished amenities happen every day. Here are May's estimated sunrise and sunset times from the beginning to the end of the month.

Sunrise: 6:50-6:35 a.m.
Sunset: 8:01-8:17 p.m.

This article is from the May 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.