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Discover a Quieter Side of Florida Along the Treasure Coast

Hidden in plain sight on the Atlantic coast between Orlando and Miami, the area’s charms include quaint towns and literal treasure

The Treasure Coast of Florida is a world apart from the fast-paced Gold Coast (which stretches from Palm Beach to Miami) to the south, not to mention busy, family-oriented Orlando to the north. Culturally vibrant with a laid-back air, rich in unspoiled beaches, boating and fishing, it’s a wonder that more people aren’t flocking to this paradise.

What’s in the name? Pirates, privateers and treasure ships roamed the coast of Eastern Florida more than 300 years ago. In 1715 a hurricane sank a Spanish treasure fleet loaded with gold coins, jewels and artifacts. The name, Treasure Coast, was coined in 1961 when salvagers began recovering lost treasure offshore.   

The Treasure Coast comprises three counties: Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin. The drive from Melbourne International Airport takes from about 45 minutes to just under two hours, depending on your destination within the Coast.

Here are some of Billy’s picks for the treasure you’ll be able to find onshore – organized by county, from north to south.

Vero Beach (Indian River County)

The morning sun reflecting off the lake’s surface gives the cypress trees a bluish glow, hence the name of the lake – Blue Cypress Lake. Located 20 miles west of Vero Beach, this is a fisherman’s paradise, best known for largemouth bass, with some of the cleanest water in Florida. Of course all these lovely fish attract the fish-eaters – so there are lots of hawks, eagles and osprey to spot as well. One of the most picturesque ways to tour the lake is by airboat – try Florida Air Boat Excursions and say hello to Captain John for us.

The nearby McLarty Treasure Museum is an absolute must for history buffs, meanwhile. Chronicling the efforts of local treasure hunters, it displays artifacts including nautical equipment, and of course loot collected from wrecks over the years, including gold and silver coins, iron, glass and pottery.

Another option: Book a day cruise on The Moonraker, a 40-foot luxury catamaran owned and operated by Captain Bruce Jackson. It’s the only charter cruise boat in Vero Beach, and Jackson knows the perfect spots for swimming, wildlife and sunset dining. Touring the Indian River Lagoon, you might spot dolphins, manatees and a variety of birds. Bring your own drinks and food to fully enjoy this experience.

Seasick? Art lovers are well rewarded by a visit to the Vero Beach Museum of Art, a permanent collection of more than 800 works, primarily American, from the early 20th century to the present. They feature a broad range of art including glass, paintings, photography, sculptures and video.

Where to eat

A popular dining spot famous for its seafood entrees and steak offerings, The Ocean Grill makes a mean jumbo lump crab cake, and save room for a slice of key lime pie for dessert.

Capt. Hiram’s Resort, meanwhile, is a riverfront hotel with live music, full service-marina, riverboat tours and fresh-caught seafood. We enjoyed the triple trouble tacos and conch fritters. Finally, Mulligan’s boasts the best location to enjoy a beachside breakfast. Try the french toast with a variety of toppings.

Parm Parmar / Billy

Breakfast at Mulligan's

St. Lucie County

Welcome to the sailfish capital of the world. Whether you’re fishing or just looking, your best bet for spotting one of these beautiful specimens is from the water – ideally, we discovered, by motorized kayak. Husband-and-wife team Bill and Cathy Gibson, owners of Motorized Kayak Adventures, are passionate naturalists who guide visitors through an exploration of Florida’s Indian River Lagoon and the St. Lucie River Estuary System in battery-powered boats (energetic kayakers can use paddles manually if they so choose). On these personalized tours, you learn about the extraordinary mangrove ecosystem populated by osprey, kingfishers, herons, fish and, of course, alligators.

Courtesy Motorized Kayak Adventures

For a change of pace you can also experience the pristine beaches in the saddle: The Hayes family has been offering beach tours on horseback since 1994. Assisted by Tammy and Sabrina Hayes, riders mount up in Frederick Douglass Park, and are led down to the beach for a blissful hour-long ride on a heavenly expanse of shoreline. It’s one of the few stables in the state that are allowed horseback beach tours. You can take advantage of this experience any time of the year.  

Parm Parmar / Billy

Where to stay

The Club Med Sandpiper is the only all-inclusive Club Med resort in the United States, and it’s geared toward families hoping for a sporty holiday. Newly renovated and kid-friendly, the resort stretches along the St. Lucie River and employs professional instructors for tennis, golf (there’s an 18-hole course), volleyball and fitness. There’s also a flying trapeze and circus school with professional supervision. If you’d rather just laze by the pool, there are three to choose from.

Where to eat

The seafood excels at the On the Edge Bar & Grill – we suggest the fresh fish tacos or grouper sandwich. The Captain's Gallery is known as the local spot for breakfasts, which include pecan pancakes, eggs benedict and mouthwatering biscuits.

Martin County  

The lovely town of Stuart – the “happiest seaside town in America,” according to Coastal Living magazine – charms visitors with a historic downtown shopping district, where some 50 locally owned stores include art galleries, antique shops and boutiques. What it doesn’t have is a fast-food restaurant or a building taller than four storeys high.  

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States Lifesaving Service built a number of houses of refuge along the then-sparsely populated Atlantic coast of Florida, where sailors or anyone else who had been shipwrecked could wait until they were rescued. (There were dried provisions socked away in the attic.) At one time there were 10 such places along the Florida’s Atlantic coastline. The House of Refuge in Stuart is the last of its kind, and now serves as a museum. The keeper’s living quarters are maintained as they were in 1904. Located on Hutchinson Island in Stuart, the House offers spectacular views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Jensen Beach to Jupiter Inlet Aquatic Preserve.  

Parm Parmar / Billy

The nearby Barley Barber Swamp is named after a man who lived in the area at the turn of the 20th century. As you’ll learn on a tour, the 450-acre expanse was once a bald cypress forest and a waterway in the Everglades watershed. Today it’s one of the remaining old-growth cypress communities in the United States. It’s an environmental treasure, teeming with green plants and wildlife. Three bald eagles call the swamp home; look up at any high places and you might spot one pole. The free guided tours are offered along a 5,800 foot (1¾-kilometre) closed-loop boardwalk, reservations are required.  

If you’re travelling with your family, the Florida Oceanographic Center makes for a fun, educational experience. The kids can feed and pet the rays, walk nature trails and learn how oyster shells are being recycled. The facility also has a large saltwater lagoon filled with sharks, a turtle sanctuary and game fish.

Once called the pineapple capital of the world, Jensen Beach is all old-Florida-charm and magnificent beaches – it’s a destination for beach volleyball players (and there’s still a pineapple festival). People also come for the sea turtles; barricaded areas on the beach protect the nests of loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles. Jensen Beach nurtures cultural life as well; every Thursday the town comes alive with craft vendors, live music and other entertainment between 6 and 10 p.m. on Jensen Beach Boulevard.

Where to eat

At the Seminole Inn, Jonnie Flewelling and her family put on a traditional southern menu – all the usual suspects, including okra, collard greens and a family fried chicken recipe that has been passed through the generations.

Chill out at the Kona Beach Café, where there’s a cool Hawaiian beach vibe, live music and excellent drinks along with some of the best burgers available.

Where to stay

Hampton Inn:  Centrally located with comfortable rooms. Not far from beaches, historical landmarks, arts and entertainment. Eat-in-breakfast or breakfast-to-go is on offer for the busy traveler and business guest.

The Costa d’Este Resort, meanwhile, is an upscale property owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Good access to Vero Beach and surfing waves.

Parm Parmar / Billy

Costa d'Este Resort

Published Wednesday, January 11th 2017

Header image credit: Blue Cypress Lake. Parm Parmar / Billy

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