If you think the Sunshine State is nothing but strip malls and over-the-top amusement parks, you haven’t seen the real Florida. Yes, it still exists — enchanting pockets where the local fishing pier is a happening zone, and sandy trails lead to lush jungles of live oak, strangler fig, and gumbo limbo trees. Exit off the interstate and explore a world of tiny islands and powdery beaches you can sleep on, with time out to paddle under a canopy of mangroves in the company of manatees. Hesitant as we are to share, here are five favorite slices of old Florida:
MATLACHA: one funky island
“Island people are odd people,” says artist Leoma Lovegrove of Matlacha. “You have to sacrifice a lot to live on an island,” she notes, especially one that’s a mere one mile wide and one mile long, with no schools and no churches. That’s Matlacha. Most people find it by accident, on the way to the barrier islands off the coast of Fort Myers.
Matlacha (pronounced mat-lah-SHAY) would be hard to miss: It’s a happy jumble of colorful buildings, where bait shops sit next to art galleries, and the art practically spills onto the causeway. Lovegrove’s gallery (239-283-6453, www.leomalovegrove.com) is painted pink with green polka dots, with mannequins poking out of the roof. Much of her wildly vibrant work has a theme: the Beatles.
There are about 30 galleries within three-tenths of a mile, and many feature the work of local artists — all of this just beyond the most “fishing-est bridge in the world.” Conceivably, you could buy some bait, rent some gear, and try your luck, but it’s easier just to enjoy the fruits of local waters at Old Fish House Marina (239-282-9577, www.jrmfishhouse.com). Even in the middle of the day, you’re likely to catch a band — guys about the same vintage as Jimmy Buffett playing ’70s cover tunes — the perfect soundtrack for spicy fish chowder and a beer.
PINE ISLAND: A sporty escape
After you’ve knocked around the galleries on Matlacha, it’s a short drive to Pine Island. On this skinny slice of southwest Florida, you’re more likely to see a bobcat than a pair of mouse ears, and the beach and baseball scene in Fort Myers seems a world away. The family-owned circa 1926 Tarpon Lodge (239-283-3999, www.TarponLodge.com) is the place to stay, thanks to its easy-going vibe. There’s a pool, hammocks, and manicured lawns that lead to the blue expanse of Pine Island Sound, plus an award-winning dining room where fresh seafood reigns supreme. They’ll even set you up with a fishing captain, so you can test your wits against tarpon, just as generations of local people have done.
How old Florida is it? We saw a bobcat wandering Pine Island Road just before dark. And, across from the lodge, there’s the Calusa Heritage Trail, an interpretive path located on the site of a former Calusa Indian Village. Now we’re talking really old Florida. The Calusa were here when Europeans first arrived on the shores in the 1500s. The lodge is also located along the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile marked paddling trail that winds through Lee County (www.calusablueway.com).
For all its charms, Pine Island is missing something — a beach. By car, Fort Myers Beach is about 45 minutes away. By boat, it’s a mere 20 minutes to Cayo Costa State Park, one of the bridgeless barrier islands sprinkled in the sound. The best way to go: Rent a kayak from Tropic Star (239-283-0015, www.tropicstarcruises.com) and bring it with you on the ferry to Cayo Costa. Better load up on snacks and water. All you’ll find on Cayo Costa is sand, sun, shells, the odd feral pig, and gopher tortoises. By kayak, you’ll enjoy the pure pleasures of this primitive paradise, including a paddle through a mangrove canopy and a lagoon favored by West Indian manatees. (Look for the telltale snouts poking out of the water.)
To the south are more famous islands, Captiva and Sanibel, but no place says old Florida like Cayo Costa …….