Every third weekend of July, the population of Pine Island – about 9,000 during the winter, but reduced during the steamy summer months – seems to double in size, thanks to the hugely popular MangoMania celebrations. The tropical fruit festival is just one of the attractions offered by this unusual island in the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.
Located in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Southwest Florida in Lee County, Pine Island is mostly zoned for agricultural products. The climate ensures that those items range from 50 varieties of mangoes, carambola (star fruit) and black sapote, a species of persimmon that the locals also call “chocolate pudding fruit,” to so-called “water crops” such as farm-raised clams, shrimp and fish. The island is also famous for its species of palm and citrus trees that are troublesome to keep healthy even in other subtropical regions of Florida.
Pine Island’s many gardens, groves and markets have encouraged a seasonal, laid-back lifestyle that is reflected in both the design of the towns and the livelihoods and hobbies of its denizens, many of whom are visual and literary artists. The four major communities – Bokeelia and Pineland to the north, Pine Island Center in the middle, and St. James city to the south, overlooking Sanibel Island and the Sanibel Causeway – are unincorporated and have no traffic lights, tolls or high rises. Bokeelia, plus Little Palm Island (a 4,700 Wetland Restoration preserve) and old fishing village Matlacha (pronounced Mat-la-shay) to the east, are actually land entities of their own, but considered part of greater Pine Island.
Biking and hiking are preferred ways to get close-up views of the fecund foliage and intriguing coastline, which in turn attracts an enormous amount of water birds. In fact, the mostly off-road Stringfellow Road Bicycle Path (a.k.a. Pine Island Bike Path), which begins at Bokeelia and ends at James City, parallels Pine Island’s main artery, the 16-mile Stringfellow Road (County Road 767).
The island’s dual history as a 1,500-year homeland for the Calusa Indians and a maritime centre for boating and fishing, have kept tourism interests afloat.The Randell Research Center, sited on 200 acres in Pineland, is an on-going archaeological dig and historical project focused on the shell mounds left by the Calusas, who were wiped out by Ponce de Leon and his men’s weapons and diseases. Visitors can take the Calusa Heritage Trail, a mile of boardwalks, benches and observation platforms with signs that explain the mounds, canal environment and Calusa culture. For more education on early Pine Island history, travellers can also stop in at the Museum of the Islands in Bokeelia, where exhibits showcase fossils of native wildlife from millions of years ago in addition to Calusa and early pioneer artefacts.
Although the loss of the Calusa Indians left the island uninhabited for a long time, hardy and determined fishermen eventually re-occupied it. By the 1960s, canals had been dug and bridges built, connecting the island to the mainland. Fishing is still an enormously popular activity, particularly in Bokeelia and on Matlacha and its bridge, dubbed “the fishingest bridge in the USA.” In other words, if you’re aiming to cast a line, you better get up pretty early in the day for a prime spot.
Otherwise, renting kayaks – to fish, to explore or to take a guided tour – is an option. For these and other eco-adventures leaving from Pineland Marina, such as half- or full-day narrated nature, shelling, Calusa mound and day-at-the-beach cruises to Cayo Costa State Park (with overnight camping trips also available) and Cabbage Key on the 59-passenger Tropic Star, call on Tropic Star Adventures/Tropic Star of Pine Island, Inc. The outfit also runs water taxis to take hungry diners to and from their charming, boutique lodgings to restaurants such as Pineland’s Tarpon Lodge Restaurant, where high-end fare is served in a vintage sportsman’s lodge built in 1926, or the more casual, dockside Bert’s Bar & Grill in Malatcha, where the music starts with calypso and segues into the blues as the sun goes down.
Matlacha is also a terrific place to browse the galleries and mingle with the locals, as is Bokeelia. Nicknamed “The Creative Coast,” these areas are colonies for artists and writers, who are inspired by the old-time Florida vibe. One such artist, Leoma Lovegrove, has become renowned for her whimsical Pine Island-inspired pieces, as well as her commissioned portraits, including one of former United States President Jimmy Carter and another of Virgin Atlantic Airlines founder Richard Branson.
You certainly can’t get a better endorsement than that.
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Written by Jen Karetnick