Discover nature’s bounty in Vero Beach and other communities fringing the Atlantic

Florida’s Treasure Coast: discover nature’s bounty in Vero Beach and other communities fringing the Atlantic

Georgina Cruz

Early on a Sunday morning, my husband and I packed a cooler with fresh-squeezed orange juice from a nearby fragrant grove and spread our towels on the sands of Vero Beach. Our companions were a dozen sandpipers scurrying by the shore. After a while, a man with a metal detector came by. He stopped to chat and showed us a shiny doubloon from the gold-and-silver-laden Spanish fleet of 11 galleons that wrecked off Vero Beach in 1715 and gave its nickname to Florida’s Treasure Coast. As we watched a squadron of 16 pelicans flying in V-formation and enjoyed a bountiful brunch with views of a flower-bedecked gazebo at Sonya’s, we know we had found treasure, too.

Comprising Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin counties, and extending from Jensen Beach in the south to Sebastian Inlet State Park in the north, Florida’s Treasure Coast offers visitors a trove of riches, recent hurricane hassles notwithstanding.

The first Treasure Coast city we visited was Vero Beach, where we spent two days at a nostalgic seaside cottage at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort. That was three years ago. We were so taken with Vero’s unhurried lifestyle and 26 miles of beaches that we returned the following weekend and bought a house.

Originally known as Vero (“Beach” was added in 1925), the city was built on citrus and now has a good mix of farmers, anglers, snowbirds, families, and retirees. The Indian River (part of the Intracoastal Waterway) divides it, with a historic downtown and antique shops on the west and upscale homes, chic cafes, and boutiques on the east by the beach. With the ocean bottom dropping sharply off the coast, the wave action attracts surfers, and the Gulf Stream’s proximity means good fishing and diving.

Besides the pleasures of Atlantic beaches, nature lovers in Vero Beach find a bounty of attractions, including the Environmental Learning Center on Wabasso Island on County Road 510 in the tidal Indian River Lagoon. It offers walks through a mangrove forest and kayaking excursions.

The Sebastian Inlet State Recreation Area has three miles of beaches, eco-tours, and walks to see loggerhead turtles nesting in June and July. Campsites with electricity and water are available.

Adventure Kayaking Tours rents kayaks for visiting Pelican Island or Archie Carr national wildlife refuges in Sebastian. Other natural charms include McKee Botanical Garden in Vero, with 18 acres of tropical plantings, and several parks, including Riverside, where dolphins often frolic in the river. A walking trail, framed by majestic oaks, is frequented by woodpeckers, blue jays, and cardinals.

Riverside Park is also home to the Vero Beach Museum of Art, which has a permanent collection strong on 20th century art and a gallery devoted to Florida artists, plus films, concerts, and other events; Riverside Theater, featuring plays and seasonal performances; and the adjacent Riverside Children’s Theatre.

The Indian River Citrus Museum and Heritage Center in Vero showcases artifacts, memorabilia, and stories of pioneers. History buffs will enjoy the McLarty Treasure Museum in the Sebastian Inlet State Recreation Area. It displays Indian artifacts and sunken treasure from the 1715 Spanish fleet.

Other treasured diversions include golf courses, tennis, shopping at Indian River Mall and Tanger Outlets, and Los Angeles Dodgers’ spring training and Vero Beach Dodgers minor league games. Dining delights include Black Angus fillets at Tangos and the catch of the day at The Grill at Palm Court Resort.

Sports, beaches, and attractions also overflow like gems in a pirate’s treasure chest in St. Lucie County. The New York Mets train in Port St. Lucie, home of the Port St. Lucie Mets. Fort Pierce Jai-Alai is one of the few remaining frontons in the U.S. featuring the last-paced Basque game.

Golfers enjoy three stunning courses at PGA Village in Port St. Lucie and the state-of-the-art PGA Learning Center. Kolter Resorts at PGA Village offers “Stay and Play” packages that include rounds of golf and luxury accommodations in a choice of more than 150 guest rooms, villas, and townhomes.

Equestrians can ride along Florida’s coastline with Hutchinson Island by Horseback, one-hour guided trips sponsored by St. Lucie County Parks and Recreation the first, second, and fourth Sunday of each month. Radisson Beach Resort occupies a stretch of Hutchinson Island’s 21-mile beachfront.

Fort Pierce Inlet State Park provides boating in the Indian River, St. Lucie River, and Atlantic Ocean. At the Fort Pierce Inlet and Marina, fishermen are often seen bringing in trophy-sized sail-fish or marlin. The offshore reefs are home to spiny lobster (some reaching 10 pounds). St. Lucie County boasts dozens of sites for diving–from 13 to 100 feet deep–with marine life-filled reefs and ancient wrecks inviting exploration.

To stop and smell the flowers, Heathcote Botanical Gardens in Fort Pierce has 3.5 acres of themed gardens. The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution on the Indian River Lagoon offers aquaculture and submersible exhibits and boat tours to spot exotic birds, alligators, and dolphins. The Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit features aquatic displays. The Manatee Observation & Education Center is dedicated to these endangered creatures. A lovely spot for lunch is the nearby waterfront Tiki Bar with tasty fish sandwiches.

Another learning attraction is the Oxbow Eco-Center with naturalist-guided walks. The Savannas State Preserve in Fort Pierce is ideal for bird watching.

Historic downtown Fort Pierce offers antique shops, novelty stores, and fine art galleries, including the A.E. “Bean” Backus Gallery. The St. Lucie County Historical Society depicts the region’s heritage with artifacts, exhibits, and dioramas. The UDT-SEAL Museum on Hutchinson Island preserves the weapons, artifacts, and memorabilia of U.S. Navy frogmen and SEALS.

After dark, there are performances by the Treasure Coast Symphony and Concert Association, the Treasure Coast Opera Society, and the Community Theater. For a delicious pre- or post-theater dinner, waterfront Mangrove Mattie is unrivaled, especially on evenings with all-you-can-eat snow crab legs.

Martin County, at the southern end of the Treasure Coast, is 30 minutes north of Palm Beach and has several quaint villages worth exploring. Main Street in Smart abounds with trendy boutiques, antique shops, and restaurants. Jensen Beach evokes the nostalgia of Florida’s old riverfront towns, while Port Salerno thrives on boat building and fishing.

Stuart, the “Sailfish Capital of the World,” offers quick access to some of the best fishing waters anywhere. During catch-and-release tournaments, it’s not unusual to land 1,000 sailfish in a week. Stuart is at the eastern terminus of the Okeechobee Waterway, a canal that crosses the state to the Gulf of Mexico.

Bathtub Beach on the southern tip of Hutchinson Island features a huge natural “pool” at low tide with shallow waters ideal for children. At Jensen Beach in June and July, nature lovers can observe the nesting of sea turtles on the beach. Other activities in Martin County include trail riding in Palm City and canoeing in Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

Contact: St. Lucie County, (800) 344-TGIF,; Indian River County, (772) 567-3491,; and Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce, (772) 287-1088; These visitor promotion bureaus can provide up-to-date information on damage caused by this fall’s hurricanes.

COPYRIGHT 2004 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group