It sits off the southwest Florida coast, just north of Fort Myers, tied to the mainland by a tenuous two-lane drawbridge, and is arguably the most laid-back island in the Sunshine State. There are no beaches, few hotels, no high-rise condos. So what draws people to Pine Island?
Fish! Lots of fish!
Snook, Red Fish, Tarpon, Sea Trout, Grouper and more. They all prowl the waters around Pine Island, drawing anglers from all over the country. Fishing is an industry here. There are no fewer than a dozen fishing guides on the island, ready to put your hook in the right spot.
Bill Russell has been guiding anglers on his 24-foot boot for 23 years. “There is a lot of diversity on Pine Island, a lot of different species you can target. If you don’t find them in one location, you just move to another.”
The normal season is October to May. Water quality is important. “This year (2019) the water is really good,” says Russell. Last year was a bad season as Red Tide and algae blooms spread through the water, killing fish and keeping customers away.
There are a number of small “Mom and Pop” hotels and a few Bed and Breakfasts on the island. For a list of options, check the local Chamber of Commerce website. [http://pineislandchamber.org/lodging-campgrounds/]
On the upscale end is Tarpon Lodge. It started out as a fish camp a century ago. Along the way it has been a religious retreat and a drug rehab center. About twenty years ago the Wells family bought it and started fixing it up. Today it has well-appointed luxury rooms, fine dining, and a small marina.
Offshore, in the waterway off Cayo Costa Island, is Cabbage Key, featuring a restaurant and small lodge, also owned by the Wells family. The Key features a juicy cheeseburger that was supposedly the inspiration for Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. The walls in the bar are papered with hundreds of dollar bills pasted up by customers. When they fall to the floor they’re collected and donated to charity.
Cabbage Key is only accessible by boat, with water taxis and ferries running from Pine Island and Captiva Island. It’s a favorite haunt for fishermen and tourists, and the lunch wait is usually over an hour.
There are many restaurant options on Pine Island, some of which will cook your own catch for dinner. The Yucatan is located on the water, right on the main street of Matlacha, as you come on to the island.
You can pull your boat up to Bert’s Bar and Grill, and enjoy the freshest of just caught seafood.
The fine dining is found at the Tarpon Lodge, which has a diverse menu and wine list. Restaurant manager Shohreh Durkin says the secret to their menu is “local, local, local”, everything from vegetables to seafood. And that lunker you landed on your fishing trip? “You clean it, filet it and we’ll cook it anyway you like”, says Durkin.
Over the years Pine Island has developed a reputation as an artist and writer’s retreat. Seclusion is easy to come by. There are a couple non-high rise condo communities on the island, but otherwise housing is low density.
The year-round population on the island is less than 2,000 natives, most of them retirees. Snowbirds boost the population a bit in the winter. And during the tourist season traffic at the village of Matlacha can get a little congested on the two lane highway, the only way on and off the island.
For outdoor adventures besides fishing, there is a 16-mile bike trail that runs from end to end on the island. There’s also kayaking on the Calusa Blueway paddle trail. The Calusa Heritage Trail is about a one-mile hike starting at the Randell Research Center. There’s also a golf course and country club.
Pine Island was hit hard by Hurricane Charley in 2004. Many properties were destroyed or heavily damaged by the storm. Today the island has been fully restored, with no signs of the destruction.