Beyond the Beach in Funky Pine Island

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Nothing shy about Matlacha artist Leoma Lovegrove

Located just 30 minutes west of Fort Myers and off of most tourists’ radar, Pine Island, Florida doesn’t have a single beach to its name. Ditto for high rise development, theme parks and the typical chain stores. Yet its Old Florida appeal is undeniable, both for the 9,000 year-round residents of the 17-mile long island, and for the savvy visitors who come calling.

Besides a plethora of wildlife and a no-frost tropical clime, Pine Island is also home to the Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, which takes around the beginning of November every year. . Hundreds of paddlers, competitors and outdoor enthusiasts convene to follow in the wake of the Calusa Indians, who first paddled along the pristine gulf coastline.

Pine Island is at the northern most point of the Blueway’s 190 miles of marked water trails that start in Bonita Springs, and offer meandering views of leggy wading birds, mangrove tunnels and sugar-sand beaches.

Pine Island’s section of the trail brings you in splashing distance to the artsy small town of Matlacha (say Mat-luh-shay), with its funky waterfront galleries and restaurants. Here, you’ll meet Leoma Lovegrove, whose Painting Out Loud performances have earned her international acclaim. Peggy McTeague at Wild Child Gallery is proud to showcase her own metal sculptures, along with art by more than 120 mostly local artists. And Lou Demek, a New York shoe wholesaler who “retired” to Matlacha and opened the Shoe Gallery, a lemon-colored shop full of serious fashion bargains. Stroll up and down the main drag, and in each shop, it’s the owner who will welcome you, something that just doesn’t happen at your average chain store.

So while the masses flock to the sandy beaches of places like nearby Sanibel, the fortunate few seek out the road less traveled to Matlacha. People like Bill and Diane Stoelker, who moved from Philadelphia to this quirky little town a few years ago. Co-owners of the comfortable Angler’s Inn, the couple fell in love with the island’s laid back lifestyle and friendly vibe.

A paradise for boaters, Matlacha is made up of a series of canals, so you’re never far from the water. And there’s a strong sense of community in town, a one-mile strip of ramshackle fishing shacks turned into galleries, restaurants and shops. Painted in rainbow hues, downtown Matlacha is reminiscent of what Key West used to be like, long before the cruise ships started bringing boatloads of tourists to town.

Order some just caught fish, blackened, broiled, fried or grilled, at Olde Fish House, a waterfront market that serves food Thursday through Sunday out on the shaded patio. Or grab a cold one at Bert’s Bar, where you can sample the best smoked smelt in all of Lee County.

Pine Island isn’t the usual FLorida beach destination, but if it’s authenticity you crave, along with fresh seafood, friendly bars (when was the last time you had a $1 beer?), great fishing and a bona fide artists’ community, then you’ll give this off-the-map destination five stars.

Philly transplants BIll and Diane run the Anglers Inn on Pine Island