Matlacha – actually pronounced Mat-la-shay (practice this a few times in the car on the way there) – is Old Florida at its best! Why on earth am I asking you to stop off at a one-time fishing village with just over 700 inhabitants, you might ask. Just do it and thank me later! Well, ok then, I shall give you a few good reasons.
Where exactly is Matla-SHAY?
Considered part of the much larger Pine Island (Lee County, SW Florida), Matlacha is actually a separate little island to the east of Pine Island and accessible via bridge. In order to drive to Pine Island, you will have to drive through Matlacha. The dividing body of water between the island and the mainland is called ‘Matlacha Pass’. Good things come in small packages, and at only about 0.2 square mile in size, Matlacha is definitely small! At the 2000 census, it was sporting a compact population of 735 souls.
The World’s Best Grouper Sandwich
We came to Matlacha starving, having arrived here purely to have a little look and get some lunch before heading to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel.
A quick look at google revealed there weren’t a huge amount of places to eat here. It seemed to make sense to head to the one with 5 star reviews, which happened to be a fishmonger/lunch place called ‘Island Seafood’. We found it just before the ‘Fishingest Bridge’ (more on that later) on the right hand side.
When we got there, one of the two jolly men behind the counter informed me pretty much straight away, that they have the best grouper sandwich I would ever taste. Uhmm, okay, I thought, modesty is certainly not reigning here, let me test this one.
Having said that, the fish they had for sale on ice looked so fresh and good, I almost believed him. So one grouper and one tile fish sandwich were duly ordered. The man behind the counter carefully plucked the fresh fillets from the ice and went on to make sandwiches with them!
Meanwhile, three cheerful middle aged ladies sat down next to us,
clearly new to Island Seafood too. They ordered the Grouper sandwiches also. Which isn’t all that surprising, as I forgot to explain that this is pretty much the extent of the menu: fish sandwiches and shrimp. I do often say: the smaller the menu, the better the food.
When the food arrived, it was perfect. The fish was so fresh, juicy and cooked to perfection, even the buns were incredibly tasty – I think they put their home-made garlic butter on there – whatever they did, it was magic. When the chap came to check on us, I had to tell him that it was indeed the best Grouper (and Tilefish) sandwich I had ever tasted!
A little later, he walked over to the three ladies, and all I heard from their table was ‘oh this is the BEST grouper sandwich I ever had’ (times three), which made me smile!
To cut a long story short, stop here for their world best Grouper sandwiches, or just to pick up some fresh seafood, you won’t regret it! They do all their own fishing, you might even see one or two of their boats on the dock. They obviously do all the processing/filleting and cooking too. In fact, the people that serve you probably caught the fish they serve you! Where on earth do you find that these days? You find it in Mat-la-shay (can you say it correctly now?)!
They are also extremely nice and friendly there. A big shout out to Island Seafood, keep up the good work, I’ll be back! I think the three ladies will be back too!
The World’s Fishingest Bridge
Onwards we went over the ‘Fishingest Bridge’. Just a pretty ordinary single-leaf drawbridge over Matlacha pass to Pine Island – but not quite so ordinary. The wooden predecessor of the metal drawbridge (actually there have been two of those since), was very famous in its day for the unbelievable fishing that was to be had from the bridge! Apparently, anglers could be found lining the bridge shoulder to shoulder on some days!
I found this account, from a newspaper clipping, from 1955:
“The bridge is a fishing balcony and at any time, winter, summer, day or night, you’ll see both men and women wetting their lines over the rails of the bridge. Recently, I actually counted 220 fishermen on this bridge, while a few hundred yards north of the bridge in about a quarter of a mile-square space of water, I counted 42 boats, each with two or three persons fishing from them.
They all appeared to be reeling in fish. This spectacle of so many fishermen lining the bridge, shoulder to shoulder, the fleet of boats on the dark blue water and the emerald islands, all under a bright blue sky, caused a continual jam of cars, as tourists watched the bending rods and listened to the exciting shouts and laughter of the fishermen as they landed speckled sea trout and now and then a snook, redfish or mackerel.” (from www.captivasanibel.com)
Matlacha – An Old Florida Fishing Village
Back in the day when the nickname ‘Fishingest Bridge’ was coined, Matlacha was a somewhat remote fishing village. The main occupation of villagers in the 1950’s, and in fact until 1992, was fishing. Visitors also tended to visit for that very reason: the great fishing. What we now see, the many cute and colorful houses with art galleries, back then they were fishing houses and fishermen’s quarters!
All the fishing heritage and infrastructure Matlacha was built upon came to an abrupt end in 1992, when the county voted for a ban on net-fishing, which had been deemed too destructive to many of the fish species.
In protest of this ban, Matlacha’s fishermen shot up their boats and set them on fire. The smoke from the burning fishing boats could reportedly be seen from Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island. This was the end of Matlacha’s days as a commercial fishery.
Today, one can still see the odd large fishing boat or shrimper docked at Matlacha, like the one here by Island Seafood:
Matlacha From Fishing To Artist Village
In the present day, Matlacha is largely an artist village. As you drive past the historic village center and see the colorful shacks and cottages, you will realize immediately that you have come to an artsy place! There are plenty of vibrant colors and cute decorations, as well as lovely landscaped and decorated little gardens behind the gallery properties.
We visited a few wonderful art galleries, truly something for everyone, with plenty of local Florida artists showcased. This is a great spot to get your Christmas and birthday gifts, they will be unique and charming, many items with an ocean and sea-life theme.
The galleries also cater for every size wallet, truly something for everyone and in every price-range. For good reason, photography is not allowed in the galleries, so you have to go and see for yourself! I can, however, show you the outsides of the buildings here.
One notable Matlacha and Florida artist has her lovely gallery there also, and I recommend you visit Leoma Lovegroves cute and colorful gallery.
She is one of the more well known contemporary Florida artists and has her headquarters, home and gallery on the island. Leoma has a unique and bright colorful style, very cheerful! I love her work – and so do many others. I even saw her lovely sparkly take on light-bulbs for sale in the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers.
Incidentally, we saw our three ladies from Island Seafood again eating their dessert ice cream in one of the galleries, they hollered out to us. It’s a small place and you will bump into people again and again. May they all be as pleasant and cheerful as those three ladies!
What Do You Think? Have you been? Let me know how you found Mat-la-shay, o-kay?