Walkabouts: Matlacha


First things first: How to pronounce “Matlacha.”

Don’t walk into an ice cream shop or shoe store in this coastal Lee County village and ask the clerk how long she has lived in “Mat-lak-uh.”

Think of singer Nick Lachey, and if he had a brother named Matt (he doesn’t). It’s pronounced more like papier maché, and you might even find some in the village’s art shops.

You can buy a coconut painted like a postcard, complete with mailing label, or the obligatory signs that say “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” or a painted-cow flower pot. “I paint a lot of cows,” says transplanted Indiana farm girl Leoma Lovegrove, one of Matlacha’s best-known artists. Maybe you have seen her work reproduced on clothing at Bealls, for which she is the official Florida artist.




You can buy expensive and sophisticated art, too, but this is not Palm Beach or even Palm Avenue. Matlacha is a quaint, colorful, historic former fishing village between Cape Coral and Pine Island, northwest of Fort Myers. There are no traffic lights. The mangrove-lined shores are part of greater Charlotte Harbor.

It is close to Fort Myers and Punta Gorda, but a bit of a haul from Sarasota (90 minutes) and Interstate 75 (30 minutes), which is fine with the locals, who would prefer you leave your big-city attitudes on the mainland. (In fact, Leoma seethes with disdain for Cape Coral, but more on that later.)

Like the sign says at the Bridgewater Inn, “Island Time Begins Here.” In season, the population swells to more than a thousand, and it is a magnet for snowbirds and tourists looking for a walkable place to spend money.

“People love Matlacha,” said Lovegrove. “There is something about this quirky village. It is not pristine. You never know what you are going to find.”

Matlacha is sliced by canals and bayous, but there’s only one main road — Pine Island Road Northwest, which is lined with restaurants, clothing and gift shops, and art galleries.

Matlacha, population 750, is an old place (the name means “shallow water” or “water to the chin” in the language of the old Calusa Indians), but it was reborn in the 1920s, when Lee County built a causeway and bridge from the mainland to Pine Island. Soon, squatters and fishermen took up residence in tents and trailers on the spoil, which expanded the natural mangrove island.

“It was called ‘the fill,’ ” said Gina Taylor, who runs True Tours, which hosts walking tours.

The state finally gave up on trying to oust these residents and gave them title by adverse possession.

That first wooden swing bridge was removed by a hurricane. Electricity came to the island in 1942. Finger canals were dug over the years before dredging and filling was outlawed around 1970.

A narrow concrete bridge replaced the wooden original, and a new drawbridge opened just last year, complete with an impressive bridgetender’s house and parking spaces.

For decades, Matlacha’s bridge has been referred to as the “Fishing-est Bridge in the World,” as it is frequently lined with fishermen.

They aren’t catching as many fish as they used to, though, said Leoma Lovegrove. A number of environmental groups blame neighboring Cape Coral. Developed in the late 1950s by Gulf American Corp., Cape Coral has 400 miles of manmade canals, more than any city in the world, and for decades, its waters were separated from the Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve by a lock called the Ceitus Barrier. Boaters from the west side of Cape Coral negotiated the lock to reach open water.

But the lock has been removed, and people who live in the greater Pine Island area complain that nutrients and pollution from the tens of thousands of Cape Coral homes is ruining the waters of the aquatic preserve.

The environmental groups filed a civil suit over the matter in December.

“They have the greenest lawns ever and we have dead fish,” said Lovegrove. “Our No. 1 industry is tourism, and this is ruining our waters. What good is tourism if we don’t have our fish? Hello-o?”

Lovegrove, a 15-year Matlacha resident, says she gets hate mail from Cape Coral residents whenever she is quoted by reporters on the topic.

mat2“I have been warned,” she said. “I get letters all the time. I separate Matlacha Island from Cape Coral, and they don’t like that. If mail comes to me with a Cape Coral address, I will refuse it. ”

The mailman can find Lovegrove’s gallery easily because it’s the one with the festively painted Scamp trailer parked out front. Her “impressionist-expressionist” portraits of The Beatles peer from the back window.

The trailer doubles as her studio when she and her husband, Michael, are away at art shows. In her business, she can’t afford to run out of art to sell.

Especially with all the competition around her.

After net harvesting of mullet was outlawed in the early 1990s to protect sport fish, the commercial fishing industry died. The mullet fishermen, writes local historian and author Thomas Hall, actually shot holes in their boats and set them on fire — a funeral pyre for a dead industry.

Matlacha had to change, and did so by becoming an art colony and shopping destination.

“It is just a funky, colorful artist community,” said Gina Taylor. “They are calling it ‘Key West north’ now, because it such an adaptable community that has reinvented itself as an arts village, but with authors and musicians as well as artists.”

Pine Island Road is lined with colorful shops and studios that used to be the modest homes of the commercial fishermen. Even some of the palm trees and light poles are painted.

Lovegrove, who attended Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, said, “There are 350 artists in Matlacha, but most of them are not residents. My home, studio and gallery are all within three-tenths of a mile. I can walk to work or take my boat.”

Matlacha is not on the National Register of Historic Places, but that is one of the missions of the Matlacha Island Chamber of Commerce, of which Lovegrove is president. “We want to be nationally recognized.”

Real estate

The real estate market is modest. Mansion owners prefer Sanibel Island, leaving Matlacha with a much more affordable, and unpretentious housing stock. Most lots are 4,000 square feet or smaller.

Virtually every property is on a canal — six feet deep for sailboat access — or open water. Cottages start at $225,000 and the market tops out at about $600,000 for newer, elevated homes of 2,000 to 2,500 square feet.

A 2005, elevated, three-bedroom, four-bath house of 2,750 square feet on Geary Street sold in March for $545,000.NOTEStart.


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: April 12, 2014
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published without permissions. Links are encouraged.