Florida’s overlooked coast

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Travel Editor

Matlacha was a surprise. But then most things on the southwest coast of Florida were a surprise. I had driven I-75 between Fort Myers and Sarasota numerous times and always wondered what lay to the west, along the water. Now I was finding out.

Matlacha (pronounced “Mat-la-shay” -- another surprise) sits at the entrance to Pine Island. It was the kind of place that made me, initially, curse travel writers for being too easily infatuated with the familiar. (In 18 years, no free-lancer ever sent me a story about the town, though I had received dozens about Key West and Orlando.) Then, after about five seconds, I thanked my peers for allowing me the thrill of discovery.

What I discovered was an old fishing village-turned-art fair. Small, brightly painted galleries lined the road like oversized gift boxes; most were set close enough to it that they resembled a gauntlet. The closeness, the colorfulness, the almost miniature scale produced a kind of fairy-tale quality that made it difficult not to stop.

Tourists not dependent on travel writers strolled from gallery to boutique to ice cream parlor. The art was bright and cheerful (like the town) and some of the galleries opened up in the back to larger spaces holding sizable canvases. One artist, who lives in Sanibel, Fla., had a lovely series of paintings based on old Florida postcards and travel posters. I asked one gallery owner how long Matlacha had been an art gallery town and she said for at least 15 years.

Back in the car, I returned to the mainland and headed north on 765. It was an artless stretch of treeless tracts set with square, concrete houses.

Punta Gorda looked appealing, with an attractive downtown, but I wanted to make it to Boca Grande before dark so I didn’t get out to stroll. I followed 41 north and then took 776 south. Visit islands and you eventually do some contradictory driving.

Pine woods were broken up by lone, one-story businesses. After Placida, a toll bridge took me into manicured nature that smelled of money. This was Gasparilla Island. On my left, palms and mangroves rimmed the bay; on my right, well-trimmed hedges hid gulf-front mansions.

I pulled into Boca Grande just before dusk and turned down a street that ended at the beach. The pastel sunset fit in nicely with the soft-hued houses.

The Gasparilla Inn gilded the northern edge of town, with high yellow walls and tall white columns. One of the state’s historic hotels, the Gasparilla had rooms starting at $200. The receptionist who told me this wore a nametag that identified her home country as Jamaica, though that didn’t mean she was open to bargaining. Or sympathetic to cheapskates. Her uniform was bigger than her nametag. She said the inn owned a motel a few blocks north. On my way out, I admired the tables next to the rockers on the porch. They were made of inlaid shells and managed, unlike many things made from mollusks, to rise above the realm of kitsch.

Downtown was attractive, upscale and dead. I strolled Park Avenue and didn’t pass a soul. A neon sign in the shape of a martini glass gave the street a kind of Edward Hopper feel. Which was strange for a town where the Bushes vacation.

Temptation, the restaurant with the sign, had a cozy interior, though it was a little dark for someone eating alone. I ended up a few blocks away at Loose Caboose because the hostess assured me the yellowtail snapper was fresh. She knew, she said, because her husband was the chef. And it was, its freshness enhanced by a delicious mango salsa sauce, and a side of mashed potatoes and cauliflower. Model trains stood stationary on shelves high on the wall, though the couple was applying for a permit to have one chugging around the restaurant.

After dinner I drove to South Beach, a restaurant-bar at the southern tip of the island, where a three-man band played for a one-man audience.

In the morning I had breakfast at Loon on a Limb. I love bacon-and-egg joints bustling with locals; this wasn’t one of them. Over at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, the choir was made up of seniors in white slacks and blue blazers. The tallest gentleman bore a striking resemblance to George Bush Sr., while the priest looked a lot like Phil Donahue.

Outside, residents drove golf carts along the quiet streets. Green Republicans.

The Boca Grande Lighthouse, just south of South Beach, was the squattest lighthouse I’d ever seen, a windowed light perched on a balcony set atop a square house sitting on stilts. But the exhibit inside was interesting, telling of the town’s two stars: phosphate (discovered here in 1881) and tarpon, which still migrate here (in smaller numbers) every spring.

Just outside town I stopped at Gill’s Grocery to buy the Sunday Times. The front page featured a chilling photo of a Palestinian woman, with emphatically folded arms, standing by a cooking fire with her windswept young daughter.

“That’s an amazing picture,” I said to the cashier.

“It’s like that every day,” he said.

“A dramatic photo?” I asked.

“A depressing photo,” he corrected me.

Back in Placida, I veered left on a road that brought me into Englewood, which looked to be to Boca Grande a little what Hollywood Beach is to Boca Raton. A ways north, a lovely stretch called Canopy Road ran through a tony barrier island. I drove slowly, sneaking peeks at the houses sprawled behind foliage.

Eventually I made my way back to Route 41, which took me into downtown Venice. Here was a place, it seemed pretty clear, that demanded a longer look.

Getting there:

Take Alligator Alley and follow I-75 north to Exit 143. Follow Route 78 west to Matlacha.

Where to stay:

I didn’t stay on Pine Island, but if you go to (and click on “Tourist Links”), you’ll find a list of lodgings in Matlacha and nearby towns.

In Boca Grande, the Gasparilla Inn & Club, at 500 Palm Ave., is a member of Historic Hotels of America; 800-996-1913,

I chose instead the Innlet on the Waterfront at 1251 12th St. E., 941-964-2294, Rates start at $155 (until July, when they go to $133).

Where to eat:

In Boca Grande, I highly recommend the Loose Caboose -- excellent food served in pleasant surroundings by a friendly husband-and-wife team. Temptation, though I didn’t eat there, looked very popular.

What to do:

Fishing is big on this coast, especially during tarpon season (May through mid-July). And, of course, in Matlacha you can buy enough art to fill a museum. Otherwise, it’s a good place for just kicking back (and watching sunsets).