Vacation Gold on Florida’s Treasure Coast
Article & Photography by Jennifer Merrick
On July 31st, 2015, divers struck gold when they found 4.5 million dollars’ worth of Spanish coins off the coast of Vero Beach, 170 miles southeast of Orlando. It’s just a fraction of the loot that was lost when 11 ships laden with jewelry and precious metals capsized during a hurricane in 1715, exactly 300 years earlier, on their return to Spain.
Those riches have been washing up on Florida’s mid-eastern coast ever since, and it’s why this region, which encompasses St. Lucie, Indian River and Martin counties, is known as Florida’s Treasure Coast.
Though we didn’t unearth any gold coins on our recent trip, we did discover a treasure trove of vacation gems. Here were some of our favourites.
Indian River County
“We are now entering Osprey Alley,” said Captain John, and we were treated to the sight of several large nests and their feathered inhabitants. We marvelled at mothers taking care of their fledglings, fanning them to keep them cool. These graceful water birds were just one of many wildlife sightings on this unforgettable airboat tour of Blue Cypress Lake. We also spotted alligators, turtles, eagles, great blue herons and the adorable two-day-old moorhens.
Lunch was also memorable at Capt. Hiram’s Resort’s Bahamian-styled Sand Bar. Surrounded by palm trees, our feet sunk in the warm white sand, it was the ideal island ambiance for noshing on conch fritters and mahi-mahi tacos. The best part is you can eat as much as you want because the magic mirror in the women’s washroom makes you appear 20lbs thinner. “I want to take it home,” murmured one patron while admiring the distorted, but oh so flattering view.
Our next boating excursion was straight out of a James Bond movie on the aptly named yacht, ‘Moonraker’. Fully equipped with kitchen, showers, a BBQ and even a hammock, this 40-foot catamaran sailboat can be chartered for a couple of hours or an entire day. We sailed on a sunset cruise, a picture-perfect introduction to Vero Beach, a destination often referred to as Florida’s Hamptons. We capped off this fine evening at Ocean Grill, a local institution known for its seafood, ocean view and stately atmosphere.
St. Lucie County
“Great weather, horses, and a beach — it just doesn’t get any better than that,” said Allen Hayes, owner of Horseback on the Beach. He was right. The excursion that took us along the water’s edge on Hutchinson Island felt like a scene right out of a movie with a cool ocean breeze, turquoise water and the most good-natured horses imaginable. The beach was virtually empty except for us and I assumed it was private. It wasn’t. It’s one of St. Lucie County’s 21 miles of beach that are more popular with sea turtles than crowds.
Nature lovers can enjoy 11,000 acres of parks and preserves, and eco-sites such as the Manatee Observation Center, Great Florida Birding Trail and the Oxbow Eco-Center. Hungry after all that activity? Head over to the seaside fishing village of Fort Pierce, where you’ll find several restaurants that showcase the turquoise water of the River Lagoon. We stopped in at On the Edge and found the atmosphere of this open-air thatched eatery as good as its fresh seafood.
During our time in St. Lucie, we stayed at the Club Med Sandpiper, which is a destination in and of itself with its full roster of activities that includes everything from flying trapeze and circus school to more traditional leisure pursuits of tennis and golf. This all-inclusive resort is especially known for its food and entertainment. “Dining is a focal point for us,” said Ralph Cipollo, executive chef, and after sampling their Alaskan salmon with shitake mushrooms, we wholeheartedly agreed.
“Look down the boardwalk to your left and up. That’s what a 1000-year-old Cypress tree looks like,” said Chuck Barrowclough, our guide at the Barley Barber Swamp. For a few moments our normally boisterous group is silent as we took in its majesty. Adorned with Spanish moss and with vines wrapped around the silver-barked trunk, it’s the star attraction of this 400-acre nature reserve that shelters a diverse eco-system and indigenous flora and fauna. We were thrilled to spot alligators and bald eagles. But the ancient tree enthralled me most, and I couldn’t help but think what stories it would be able to tell if it could. Remarkably, this worthwhile tour is free although donations are encouraged to continue its conservation work.
Though the cypress couldn’t tell its story, we found someone at our next stop that regaled us with tales of a Florida of yesterday. Jonnie Flewelling, innkeeper of the Seminole Inn, has strong family ties to the area. Her grandmother was the first post mistress of Indiantown, and they still retain post office box number one. Jonnie is a gifted storyteller and her accounts of the Seminole natives, early rancher ‘crackers’ and of her inn riveted me. The Seminole Inn has been welcoming guests since 1926 and has been in the Flewelling family for 40 years. Stays can be as relaxing as rocking on the wooden chairs on the porch or as adventurous as hunting for wild hogs.
But what they are best known for is their country brunch. “We draw people in from Jacksonville to Miami and often book out,” says Jonnie. After partaking in their southern fare of biscuits, meatloaf, collard greens and the crispy fried chicken, I could understand why.
“My mother stood over me for 20 years before she let me make it myself,” said Jonnie.
These recipes, and more importantly the stories that permeate every detail of the Seminole Inn, is a legacy to be proud of, and are perfect examples of what riches visitors can find on Florida’s Treasure Coast.
If you go: Most visitors fly to either Orlando or Fort Lauderdale and drive to the Treasure Coast. Driving distance is 60 to 90 minutes depending on the destination. We stayed at the Hampton Inn in both Vero Beach and Stuart and were impressed with their convenience, service and full breakfasts.
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