And if they're really lucky, the new and old residents band together to preserve the funky ambience.
That's the short version of the Matlacha (pronounced mat-la-SHAY) story.
Today, this colorful small town west of Fort Myers is filled with both art and nature. Little wooden houses painted vivid topical hues line the three-block-long main street and dolphin patrol the waterways, frequently spotted from the bridge.
Matlacha attracts visitors for its informal seafood restaurants and its saltwater kayaking around the mangrove islands in Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve.
It was a fishing village until 1992, when gill-nets were banned. But the colorful wooden cabins in Matlacha predate the fishermen. The oldest were built by Matlacha's original residents: squatters who occupied the island created when Matlacha Pass was dredged in the 1920s. (The story is told in a corny Elvis movie filmed in Florida in 1962, "Follow that Dream.")
Matlacha still has no stop lights and a single two-lane road that passes through it, connecting Cape Coral and Pine Island, 17 miles long and two miles wide with the communities of Bokeelia and Pineland on the northern tip and St. James City on the southern end.
Here are four must-do activities if you're visiting the Matlacha area.
The Great Calusa Blueway, an outstanding network of 190 miles of kayaking trails, marks several routes along Pine Island.
It's all scenic – blue skies, placid water, plentiful bird and marine life, lots of mangrove islands – but there are no particular sights to see. Kayaking here, however, you put yourself in a premier location to experience nature. Consult the maps from the Great Calusa Blueway about possible routes.
Put in locations: Gulf Coast Kayaks, 4120 Pine Island Road, Matlacha, 239-283-1125. If you don't rent kayaks from them, there is a charge.
Matlacha Park and Boat Ramp, 4577 Pine Island Road, Matlacha, 239-283-4110. You must pay for parking here.
Art galleries in Matlacha are unstuffy and full of Matlacha color and flavor. Best bets: the artists' cooperative WildChild Art Gallery, 4625 Pine Island Road, Matlacha, 239-283-6006; and, next door, Leoma Lovegrove's Gallery and Garden, 4637 Pine Island Road, 239-283-6453. Be sure to visit the delightful gardens in the back that face a canal.
Walk the Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center, 13810 Waterfront Drove, Bokeelia, 239-283-2157. The trail offers excellent signage and information about the Calusa Indians. The towering shell mounds were built by a people who engineered canals and supported 50,000 people in Southwest Florida by fishing. Admission is by donation, $7 is suggested.
At the end of the island in Bokeelia there's a fishing pier and access to the first half is free. It's a grand place to watch the sunset.
Take a ferry to Cayo Costa
West of Pine Island are the barrier islands with spectacular beaches. One of them, Cayo Costa, is mostly occupied by a state park and is accessible only by boat. The ferry to Cayo Costa leaves from the northern tip of Pine Island. Information: http://www.cayocostaferry.com/