A slice of Old Florida "country" still thrives on this lush, green isle.
When she saw two shirtless, shoeless boys gliding over a dirttrail on bikes with their arms outstretched like wings, Lisa Bentonknew she had found a home on Pine Island, Florida: "I said, 'Thisis Mayberry.'"
In truth, it's four Mayberries. Located northwest of Fort Myersand connected to the mainland by a causeway, the island includesthe communities of Matlacha, St. James City, Bokeelia, andPineland. It's a place with no traffic lights, where you can visityour neighbors by boat. Although the island has few beaches,several exist on nearby uninhabited islands. Residents love theneighborliness, nature trails, and renowned fishing. Relaxing, theysay, can keep you busy here.
Candy-color fisherman's shacks in Matlacha (that's mat-luh-SHAY)hold galleries, restaurants, and bars where it feels like everyoneknows you even if you've never met before. Locals wear "Pine IslandReeboks"―white, rubber shrimpers' boots―and call thespan over Matlacha Pass "The World's Fishingest Bridge."
Overlooking the flat-water sound and mangrove islands, Pinelandharbors the vintage Tarpon Lodge, where most come for fishing,food, and sunsets. But not office manager Nancy Glickman. "I'm anamateur astronomer. I was looking for stars," she says. "When theconditions are right, the skies are some of the finestanywhere."
St. James City has streets named for exotic fruit such asCherimoya and Carambola, and mailboxes covered with shells andpainted pelicans. Folks can get groceries at the St. James GeneralStore, eat breakfast at Jackie's Family Restaurant, and share whatattracted bookstore owner Liz Lutzi: "The feeling of not reallybeing in a city." Cynthia Welch lives in St. James City and worksin Bokeelia because of the "peace, serenity, and sunsets," shesays. With a 15-year-old daughter, she adds, "It's a great placefor teenagers. You can get on your bike and ride to your neighbor'shouse and mothers don't panic. That's small-town America, and youdon't find that everywhere."
This "close-knit community" feeling is a powerful lure fortransplants, and a hook holding locals. "They say it takes avillage to raise a child," says Mel Meo, who's lived here almost 40years. "But really it takes an island to raise a child."
That means everybody. Customers at Olde Fish House MarinaRestaurant hold baby Stephen while his grandmother brings theirorders. Stephen's mom, Jessi Skorupski, says her menu reflects theislanders' bond. "When I opened up, a lot of the old island womencame and gave me recipes." Macy Romero left the hurry and hubbub ofMiami Beach to raise her 2-year-old daughter here, among the marshrabbits and manatees. "The nature drew us here, to spend our livesoutdoors," she says. That's Pine Island's magnetism, Mel says: "Welive in paradise, so there's no reason to go anywhere else."
(published December 2007)