If you think the Sunshine State is nothing but strip malls and over-the-top amusement parks, you haven’t seen the real Florida. Yes, it still exists — enchanting pockets where the local fishing pier is a happening zone, and sandy trails lead to lush jungles of live oak, strangler fig, and gumbo limbo trees. Exit off the interstate and explore a world of tiny islands and powdery beaches you can sleep on, with time out to paddle under a canopy of mangroves in the company of manatees. Hesitant as we are to share, here are five favorite slices of old Florida:
MATLACHA: one funky island
“Island people are odd people,” says artist Leoma Lovegrove of Matlacha. “You have to sacrifice a lot to live on an island,” she notes, especially one that’s a mere one mile wide and one mile long, with no schools and no churches. That’s Matlacha. Most people find it by accident, on the way to the barrier islands off the coast of Fort Myers.
Matlacha (pronounced mat-lah-SHAY) would be hard to miss: It’s a happy jumble of colorful buildings, where bait shops sit next to art galleries, and the art practically spills onto the causeway. Lovegrove’s gallery (239-283-6453, www.leomalovegrove.com) is painted pink with green polka dots, with mannequins poking out of the roof. Much of her wildly vibrant work has a theme: the Beatles.
There are about 30 galleries within three-tenths of a mile, and many feature the work of local artists — all of this just beyond the most “fishing-est bridge in the world.” Conceivably, you could buy some bait, rent some gear, and try your luck, but it’s easier just to enjoy the fruits of local waters at Old Fish House Marina (239-282-9577, www.jrmfishhouse.com). Even in the middle of the day, you’re likely to catch a band — guys about the same vintage as Jimmy Buffett playing ’70s cover tunes — the perfect soundtrack for spicy fish chowder and a beer.
PINE ISLAND: A sporty escape
After you’ve knocked around the galleries on Matlacha, it’s a short drive to Pine Island. On this skinny slice of southwest Florida, you’re more likely to see a bobcat than a pair of mouse ears, and the beach and baseball scene in Fort Myers seems a world away. The family-owned circa 1926 Tarpon Lodge (239-283-3999, www.tarponlodge.com) is the place to stay, thanks to its easy-going vibe. There’s a pool, hammocks, and manicured lawns that lead to the blue expanse of Pine Island Sound, plus an award-winning dining room where fresh seafood reigns supreme. They’ll even set you up with a fishing captain, so you can test your wits against tarpon, just as generations of local people have done.
How old Florida is it? We saw a bobcat wandering Pine Island Road just before dark. And, across from the lodge, there’s the Calusa Heritage Trail, an interpretive path located on the site of a former Calusa Indian Village. Now we’re talking really old Florida. The Calusa were here when Europeans first arrived on the shores in the 1500s. The lodge is also located along the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile marked paddling trail that winds through Lee County (www.calusablueway.com).
For all its charms, Pine Island is missing something — a beach. By car, Fort Myers Beach is about 45 minutes away. By boat, it’s a mere 20 minutes to Cayo Costa State Park, one of the bridgeless barrier islands sprinkled in the sound. The best way to go: Rent a kayak from Tropic Star (239-283-0015, www.tropicstarcruises.com) and bring it with you on the ferry to Cayo Costa. Better load up on snacks and water. All you’ll find on Cayo Costa is sand, sun, shells, the odd feral pig, and gopher tortoises. By kayak, you’ll enjoy the pure pleasures of this primitive paradise, including a paddle through a mangrove canopy and a lagoon favored by West Indian manatees. (Look for the telltale snouts poking out of the water.)
To the south are more famous islands, Captiva and Sanibel, but no place says old Florida like Cayo Costa.
BOCA GRANDE: A throwback to a graceful age
Think of Boca Grande as a baby Nantucket. Most people get around the island on golf carts, the perfect way to slow down to the island’s leisurely rhythm. Reachable by causeway (and a $6 toll) from Fort Myers, Sarasota, and Tampa airports, this posh island outpost is home to the 100-year-old Gasparilla Inn & Club (941-964-4500, www.the-gasparilla-inn.com, rooms from $225), open from October to early July.
Decked out in sherbet hues and the original wicker chairs (albeit under many coats of white paint), the Gasparilla oozes old school charm: Jackets are required for gents in the dining room (in season) and tea is served daily from 4 to 5 p.m. “We go everywhere, to Harbor Island, and St. Bart’s, but this place keeps drawing us back,” says Alec Dinapoli from Portland, Maine, who’s been coming to the hotel with his family for 20 years.
Days are spent on the golf course, the tennis courts, the croquet lawns, and at the beach club; beyond the hotel are a few shops and restaurants. We fell in love with Sisters Restaurant for pizza and pasta (941-964-2002, from $11.50), and a photogenic lighthouse at Gasparilla Island State Park.
This is upscale old Florida, a glimpse of what life was like when the railroad (now a bike path) came through the island, bringing wealthy vacationers. That part hasn’t changed much.
ANNA MARIA ISLAND: Old-fashioned family fun
Drive over the causeway from Bradenton to Anna Maria Island, and feel the years slip away. Just beyond the colorful manatee welcome sign is an island that delivers retro family fun in a dazzling package of sand, surf, and sunsets. Anna Maria is all about the beach, and what a beach it is: baby powder sand dotted with tiny coquina shells, lapped by the aqua waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The sunsets are spectacular, with none of the hoopla of Key West, but all of the peaches and purples.
Accommodations here are delightfully low-key, mostly mom and pop “efficiencies” with kitchenettes, set on — or across the street from — the sea-oat-fringed beach. There’s a terrific beachfront bed-and-breakfast inn, the Harrington House (941-778-5444, www.harringtonhouse.com, from $159), but there are no high-rise hotels, since buildings over three stories aren’t allowed.
Island restaurants are gleefully quirky: Mr. Bones BBQ (941-778-6614, www.mrbonesbbq.com, from $9.99) offers everything from ribs to chicken tikka masala, plus beer, cooled in a coffin, while the classic Gulf Drive Cafe (941-778-1919, www.gulfdrivetiki.com, from $6.99) serves breakfast all day on the beach.
You could make plans to do things, like wander the Bird Walk on the bay side of the island, but better to simply let the lazy days unfold. For a little action, take the free island trolley to Rod & Reel Pier, where old-timers and little kids test their wits against the fish. On Anna Maria, timeless pleasures rule.
STEINHATCHEE: Woods and water
Never heard of Steinhatchee? Neither have most Floridians. Located in the wild, river-laced forests of north central Florida, also known as the “nature coast,” this village of 1,600 folks is incredibly quiet — until scallop season, from July to mid-September, when the population swells and the Sea Hag Marina (352-498-3008, www.seahag.com) is abuzz with activity.
Anyone with a Florida saltwater fishing license (easily obtainable) can be a scalloper, and it’s a blast. You don a mask, snorkel, and fins, carry a mesh bag to hold your scallops, and head out in a boat through the Steinhatchee channel to the gulf, and then go north or south for several miles until the inshore waters become clear. Then you look for scallops hiding in the sea grass. They move by snapping their shells and spitting water out — kind of a sandy spurt — and propel themselves in a zigzag motion. Local restaurants, like Roy’s (352-498-5000, www.roys-restaurant.com), will cook your cleaned catch.
Other pursuits are equally outdoorsy, lsuch as paddling the Steinhatchee River and hiking the trails at (totally unimpressive, but interesting) Steinhatchee Falls, following in the footsteps of Timucuan Indians, Spanish explorers, and Civil War troops. Things get a little crazy during the annual Fiddler Crab Festival, held on President’s Day weekend, when everyone turns out for events like the fiddler crab races.
There’s nothing posh about this place, and that’s just the way the locals like it. “Our fine mall is the dollar store,” says Dean Fowler, owner of Steinhatchee Landing Resort. Designed to resemble a typical north Florida community from the early 1900s, Steinhatchee Landing (352-498-3513, www.steinhatcheelanding.com, from $140) is the best place to stay in this fishing village.
The nearest airport, Gainesville Regional, is nearly two hours away, so there’s no danger that Steinhatchee will change anytime soon. “This is the anti-Orlando,” says resident Kevin Kizer. “It’s the country side of Florida, a real blast from the past.”