Our recent attendance at the 2018 Florida Governor’s Conference on Tourism was inspiring, to say the very least. Based on the information we gathered at the event, we have selected a few highlighted locations to spotlight on a virtual “tour” of Florida. These articles will be released in a series – each featuring a different location. For more information on the destinations we’re featuring, please click here. You can also check out the previously published features on Amelia Island, Bradenton Gulf Islands, and Florida’s Historic Coast. Please note – information contained in this feature is not based on firsthand experience, but from promotional materials put out by representatives of the featured location at the 2018 Governor’s Conference.
Situated along Florida’s Treasure Coast on the Atlantic Ocean, the communities of Vero Beach, Sebastian and Fellsmere are the geographical starting point for the Florida tropics, with winter temperatures rarely dipping below 70° (21°C). The county is centrally located 70 miles south of the Kennedy Space Center and 135 miles north of Miami. The destination resides at the intersection of green and glamorous, with 100,000 conservation acres, 26 miles of pristine beaches and a treasure trove of cultural attractions. Hotels and resorts with rooftops no higher than swaying palm trees support the destination’s motto “Sunrises, not High Rises.”
Inland from the Atlantic coastline, more than 100,000 acres of pristine Florida wilderness surround the shores, lagoons, Intracoastal Waterway and lakes of Indian River County. It’s a rare gem of a place where mangrove swamps, maritime hammocks and pine flatwoods provide a glimpse into primitive Florida.
Indian River County also offers an abundance of cultural experiences. The area draws local, national and international talent to its stages and shores. Cultural experiences include heritage and art museums; seasonal shows by Ballet Vero Beach and the Vero Beach Opera; as well as live theater, and pop, symphonic and choral concerts and festivals.
In January, there’s the Sebastian Riverfront Fine Art & Music Festival, plus the Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival. February heralds Gardenfest and the Florida Craft Brew & Wingfest. March brings the prestigious Under The Oaks fine art show, the Firefighters Fair and the Annual Pelican Island Wildlife Festival. April ushers in the Hibiscus Festival. The calendar continues throughout the year.
Vero Beach’s Ocean Drive has built a reputation as a luxury shopping destination, while the Sunset Saturday Night free concerts, held once a month, draw crowds of all ages. Both shoppers and concertgoers can enjoy a booming local restaurant scene, which offers an eclectic mix of casual and fine dining in historic, walkable downtown Vero Beach. The downtown area is artfully charming, filled with resident artists. Visitors can stroll and shop for authentic treasures rather than mass-market souvenirs. Of particular note are several centuries-old shipwrecks off the coast, and the salvaged treasure that’s shown at the McLarty Treasure Museum in Vero Beach and the Mel Fisher Museum in Sebastian.
Indian River County is part of Florida’s Treasure Coast — and that’s not just a catchy brand name. Famous shipwrecks occurred off the coast of Vero Beach centuries ago. Their submerged remains are still there today. Treasure hunters have salvaged millions of dollars in gold coins and valuable artifacts from those wrecks, much of which is on view at local museums, and some of which is for sale.
But treasure hunting in Indian River County is not just for well-funded professional salvage operations. It’s for visitors too. Here are a couple of fun facts.
On Sea Grape Trail Beach, a wreck is so close to shore that after storms you may find shards of pottery and small coins washed up on the beach.
One wreck sunk with 70 pounds of emeralds on board. Only three pounds have been recovered. (Got your scuba gear handy?)
Folks with metal detectors are a common sight on the beaches of Indian River County. They’re not hoping to stumble across a lost bracelet or loose change. They’re hunting for real treasure. For more adventurous types, scuba divers and snorkelers can easily reach these wrecks.
McLarty Treasure Museum
Located on a lovely stretch of A1A on the barrier island north of Vero Beach, this museum is part of Sebastian Inlet State Park, so visitors can make a day of it. The museum focuses on the history of the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet (see history below), and features all manner of artifacts — coins, jewelry, tools, weapons — as well as videos (including an A&E Network production, The Queen’s Jewels and the 1715 Fleet) and exhibits. The McLarty is both highly entertaining and an immersive history lesson.
Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum
Named after a renowned treasure hunter, this unstuffy museum and gift shop located on the Indian River contains a theater, dioramas, photos, dive site maps, and lots and lots of treasure and artifacts pulled from Spanish shipwrecks of the 17th Century. From gold coins and silver bars to candle sticks and rosary beads, this attraction offers a lively look back into a particularly swashbuckling period of Florida history. The gift shop offers a bounty, from inexpensive re-creation coins to authentic silver coins that can run $10K.
1715 Treasure Fleet
On July 30, 1715, Queen Jewels, a Spanish treasure fleet returning from the New World to Spain, left Cuba. After sailing into a hurricane, 11 of the 12 ships sank off the coast of what is now Wabasso Beach, just north of Vero Beach. Divers from around the globe have come to our destination to experience these astonishing shipwrecks up close. In 2015, Queen Jewels LLC and founder Brent Brisben salvaged $4.5 million in gold coins from the wreck — exactly 300 years to the day after the ships went down.
The Breconshire Wreck
The SS Breconshire, a steamship built in England in 1833, was carrying cargo en route from New York to Tampa, Florida when it hit a reef and wrecked on April 30, 1894. The entire crew survived. Today it rests a quarter mile out from the popular Ocean Grill Restaurant. The wreck is located in only about 12 feet of water. At low tide, a watchful eye can still see the bow of the ship peeking out from below the surf. The Boiler may not contain a lot of actual treasure, but it’s certainly an Indian River County cultural treasure.
It’s always a glorious day at the beach in Vero, Fellsmere and Sebastian, especially when entertaining the younger set. To do more for less (less of a financial outlay that is), we recommend these kiddie-approved activities that are the perfect complement to a day in the surf and sand:
Humiston Park is a wonderful place for children to play. The park features a great set of slides and swings alongside a picnic grove where Mom and Dad can relax in the shade and the entire family can enjoy a packed lunch. When the kids are finished playing, take them across the street for a sweet treat at Kilwin’s Ice Cream shop. No admission fee.
The Environmental Learning Center gives children the opportunity to get their hands wet with fun touch tank encounters. Volunteers are on hand to show visitors how to gently and safely interact with small sea creatures such as hermit, horseshoe and spider crabs, brittle stars, sea cucumbers and sea urchins, in the Center’s 145-gallon touch tank. The campus also features a learn and play “Imagination Station,” an outdoor “Tipi” and little Fairy Houses. Admission: $5 adults & children 12+. $3 for children 11-2. Under 2 – FREE
McKee Botanical Garden is building a Children’s Garden that will open in December 2018 that will include a fairy forest, pirate ship tree house, a splash garden and lily pad lawn so kids can have fun while learning with hands-on opportunities. The Garden currently offers a Garden Discovery Backpack program where they fill the pack with items and the kids explore the gardens to find. For children ages 3-12, these Garden Discovery Backpacks are perfect for charting your own garden adventure. Each backpack contains an educational guide and a variety of tools to encourage exploration. Choose from five themes: Garden Explorer, Things With Wings, It’s a Bug’s World, Plantastic and Survival: Lost in the Jungle. Please note – the backpacks are not available during exhibits or peak periods, including the weekends. Price: included in the cost of admission. A parent’s driver’s license or ID needed as deposit.
Riverside Children’s Theatre is home to a variety of fun summer shows for kids, such as “Willy Wonka Jr.” (June 16-17), “Willy Wonka Kids” (June 23-24) and “Peter and the Starcatcher” (July 21-22). The theatre has also created exciting summer camp programs that help children ages 5 and up develop musical theatre skills, learn to collaborate with others as an ensemble and perform in a showcase. Price: show tickets (TBA), summer camps ($100-250).
The Vero Beach Museum of Art has just opened a Kids Art Zone with ten different play areas with hands-on activities including magnetic and chalkboard walls, floor puzzle and a puppet theatre. An interactive sketch aquarium allows kids to sketch their own sea life and have it scanned and projected on the aquarium wall. On select dates, the museum hosts a KidZ ArtShop program for kids ages 4-11 from 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM (best for kids ages 4-11) that starts with a guided gallery tour and ends in the studio, where kids can make their own art inspired by what they saw. The museum is also throwing its 37th annual Children’s Art Festival, featuring free exhibitions, art-making activities and more, on April 28, 2018 from 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM. Price: KidZ ArtShop ($2 studio fee, free for members).
View manatees at: The Vero Beach Municipal Power Plant on Indian River Boulevard just north of 17th Street; also from the C-54 spill way at the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park in the northwest part of the county, and at Round Island Park West at the south county line off A-1-A.
Wabasso Causeway Beach is an ideal spot to set up a family picnic or launch kayaks, jet skis and fishing boats. Families can cool off in the refreshing water, search for purple crabs among the rocks or simply relax in the shade of tall Australian pines. Free.
The Turtle Tracks Program at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort uses fun, interactive games and activities to teach children ages 6-17 about the challenges facing sea turtles, as well as simple ways for humans to help protect these gentle creatures. If your children are older, reserve a special Sea Turtle Night Walk Experience on select dates in June and July 2018. The walk begins at 9:00 PM and lasts 2-4 hours, depending on how quickly a nesting turtle can be found. Price: Turtle Tracks (free), Sea Turtle Night Walk ($35/person + tax).
Sebastian Inlet State Park is a beautiful park and campground beside the Atlantic Ocean. On the inland side of the causeway, you will find a little cove with picnic tables – perfect for a family lunch – and several shallow rock pools. These rock pools are a fun, safe way for kids to get a closer look at starfish, tiny fish and other marine life. Free.
Historic Dodgertown is a Florida Heritage Landmark site where the Brooklyn Dodgers played spring training games from 1948-2008. The site is currently being refurbished and is still actively used for sports tournaments (youth, college, senior). Visitors staying in one of Dodgertown’s 89 hotel-style villas are free to use any of its on-site amenities, including a competition-sized swimming pool, lighted basketball and tennis courts, a sand volleyball court and more. Entrance fee $5.
Family-style resorts – The Reef Ocean Resort is a contemporary oceanfront hotel with spacious condos, located just one mile from the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Disney’s Vero Beach Resort is also an excellent family-friendly option, with its traditional rooms and villas, whimsical pool and children’s play area. The local Holiday Inn and Hampton Inns offer free breakfasts for additional cost savings.
Indian River County is celebrated for its wide, gorgeous beaches, luxury accommodations, and memorable culinary and cultural scenes. But Vero Beach, Sebastian, Fellsmere and its surrounding areas are also rich with possibility for eco-adventurers. The destination resides at the corner of green and glamorous.
More than 100,000 acres of pristine, protected Florida wilderness accompanies the shores, lagoons, Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, rivers and lakes of Vero Beach, Sebastian, and Fellsmere. With so much preserved area, outdoor enthusiasts can easily find themselves on a hike, run or paddle that’s provides plenty of old-Florida tropical delight.
We’ll get you started with a few ideas on excursions:
Indian River Lagoon National Scenic Byway, 195 miles long, offers a terrific eco-overview of the destination. It meanders through expanses of three wildlife refuges, a national seashore, and numerous state and local parks and sanctuaries. Its southern corridor encompasses the entire Sebastian River area, including Fellsmere. Visitors can enjoy the rich and lavish land either by driving or by getting out and sailing, swimming, surfing, boating, fishing, and hiking.
Sebastian Inlet State Park is located on the barrier island north of Vero Beach. Safe to say it has everything a nature lover could ask for. First, the park encompasses three miles of gorgeous unspoiled beach. You can hike a 10k nature trail; canoe/kayak (there are concessionaires); camp (in an RV park or go primitive), fish, and even “mountain bike” (three trails of sandy and swampy flatland challenge the off-road cyclist). There’s a marina, covered picnic pavilions with grills, restaurants and gift shops, museums, wildlife viewing areas and more.
McKee Botanical Garden is an 18-acre tropical paradise where native plants and exotic botanicals combine with Old Florida charm. The Garden boasts the largest collection of water lilies in the state. Located at the southern gateway of Vero Beach, it also features trees, waterfalls and historic structures, each with their own story. The McKee Botanical Garden hosts a variety of cultural programs, including art exhibits, educational programs and special events. Another point of interest is the Bamboo Pavilion, the first permitted bamboo structure in the United States.
Blue Cypress Lake, part of the Blue Cypress Conservation Area in Fellsmere, is a magnificent body of water roughly seven miles long and three miles wide, with 21 miles of shoreline wrapped in 29,000 acres of marshes, swamps and cypress forests. The lake is one of the top osprey nesting sites in Florida. A kayak trip promises magical moments, including up-close views of osprey nests and cypress trees up to 130 feet tall. Middleton’s Fish Camp provides eco-tours and fishing. Take a Florida Cracker airboat ride with Captain Lawrence.
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, located on the northern part of the county’s barrier island, is 5,445-acre natural wonder. The park is accessible by car, or by canoe/kayak via the Indian River Lagoon. In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order that established Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation. The Refuge offers free, guided wildlife tours on Wednesdays from November through March. By the way, the park allows foot traffic only; no fishing, no pets either.
Sea Turtle Night Walk by Disney’s Vero Beach Resort is a real treat for eco-enthusiasts, fabulous for kids of all ages. Official monitoring scouts lead the tours, search for sea turtles, and offer informative presentations. The payoff is you get an up-close look at the nesting experience through night-vision goggles. You’ll also have a radio earpiece to hear the specialist narrate the experience. The tours take place on select days in June and July, during the nesting season.
St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is a top spot for eco-wanderers who want a taste of primitive Florida. This park, a short drive inland from Sebastian and bordering Fellsmere to the north, offers 22,000 acres of backwoods, complete with equestrian and all sorts of trails. Unpaved roads lead you into and out of the park. Pine flatwoods form a backdrop for other biological communities, including cypress domes, sand hills and beautiful strand swamp. They’re home to many native plants and animals, including over 50 protected species.
Lagoon Greenway, located at the corner of 8th Street and Indian River Boulevard in downtown Vero Beach, is ideal for a quick breath of fresh air and a brisk walk. Or take your time — stop as often as you want. The 187 acres feature an ecologically diverse three-mile trail system for hiking, jogging or bike riding. Dogs on leashes are permitted.
Farm 13/Stick Marsh Reservoir has a reputation among avid anglers as one of the most notable bass lakes in Florida. This 6,700-acre reservoir offers unsurpassed bass catch-and-release.
Besides having hotels and resorts that rise no higher than swaying palm trees, Vero Beach’s barrier island boasts another feature that makes it unique to itself: only independently owned restaurants inhabit this lovely stretch of coastal Florida. Put another way: no chain eateries.
The barrier island’s chef-driven restaurants come with, not just terrific, eclectic food, but extraordinary views of the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s a survey of some favorites — not your standard beach shack hangouts:
Ocean Grill — A textbook example of a beachfront seafood and steakhouse. Call it upscale rustic. The place is such an institution that celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse filmed a segment here for his show. Menu offerings range from fine dining to more casual. Full bar, too.
Citrus Grillhouse — Think of this American bistro-style restaurant as casual/classy. Chef Scott Varricchio’s menu incorporates Italian and Mediterranean origins into “approachable comfort food bursting with flavor.” The menu changes seasonally, and uses regionally grown produce and specialty meats and seafood.
Mulligan’s Beach House Bar & Grill — This is a place where, if you desire, you can sip a brew and eat fish and chips under a thatched roof with your toes in the sand. (Or you can opt for deck or indoor seating.) This casual, family-friendly place serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is one of six Mulligan’s locations on Florida’s east coast — but it just doesn’t fit our definition of a chain.
The Tides — This Zagat-rated fine dining establishment is located a couple blocks from the water. It’s also been honored with a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Upscale but not stuffy.
Cobalt — Part of the Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa, Cobalt offers three distinct settings: poolside grill, the lounge or beachfront dining room. The innovative, seafood-intensive menu reflects the fresh, local ingredients of Florida’s Treasure Coast. The Kimpton also features Heaton’s Reef, an alfresco bar and grill — an ideal gathering spot that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and is known for its terrific happy hours.
The Wave Kitchen & Bar — Ensconced in Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s Costa d’ Este Beach Resort & Spa, this open-kitchen restaurant offers customizable menu options; fresh, locally sourced seafood and produce; and Cuban specialties from the Estafan Kitchen Cookbook.
Riverside Café — This is the only restaurant on the west side of the barrier island, overlooking the Indian River Lagoon. (It has the advantage of offering excellent sunsets.) Formidable food, a bustling bar, live music (country star Jake Owen got his start here) and DJ dance nights. Features a dock for those who prefer to arrive by boat.
Vero Beach, Fellsmere and Sebastian have no shortage of name brand hotels, from a cluster of budget-friendly places near I-95, to flag-associated properties in walkable downtown Vero Beach, to a Holiday Inn on the barrier island beachfront.
But much like the dining scene, our destination features an array of one-of-a-kind places that range from upscale to quirky.
Capt Hiram’s Resort — Set on the lovely Indian River in Sebastian, this laid-back place promises a touch of The Bahamas on Florida’s east coast. The resort features four seafood-focused eating/drinking spots, from Blackfins for riverfront dining to Bimini Beach for low-key evenings around a fire pit. In keeping with the Island feel, there’s live music at different venues on the property. The resort also includes a full-service marina with 60 boast slips.
Costa d’ Este Beach Resort — This four-diamond property, owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan, offers chic luxury right on Vero Beach’s barrier island, with spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean, just steps from the beach. Sumptuous dining; spacious, finely detailed rooms; a full-service spa; an amazing pool; and available watersports and health & wellness make for a very special stay.
Disney’s Vero Beach Resort — Located on the barrier island’s Wabasso Beach, a few miles north of Vero, this is the only Disney-owned resort in Florida outside of the Orlando area. The property blends old-style hominess with upscale splendor. Besides being a stone’s throw from a pristine beach, the Disney Vero Beach features four places to eat and drink, a Mickey Mouse-shaped pool and myriad family activities.
The Historic Driftwood Resort — For a true taste of old-Florida beachfront living, replete with a façade made from weathered wood, you can’t go wrong with this property, whose origins date back to the early 1900s. The two-story place sits right on the Atlantic Ocean on Vero Beach’s barrier island, and includes the legendary Waldo’s Restaurant. A private boardwalk will take you to the beach.
Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa — You’d have to try really hard not to relax while staying at this luxury property, which overlooks the Atlantic on the Vero Beach barrier island. The pet-friendly hotel has a spa and an array of available watersports. Top restaurants Cobalt and Heaton’s Reef provide special dining. The Kimpton features studio, 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom suites, many with private balconies. Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the Top 15 Hotels in Florida in 2016.
Oyster Pointe & Bay Resorts — Stay like a local at this dual resort complex on the Indian River in Sebastian. Their condo-style suites come in 2- and 1-bedroom models — spacious with plenty of natural light. Amenities include expansive pools, tennis/basketball court, shuffleboard, playground (the properties are very family-friendly) and — we love this one: for an extra $100 a week, you get the use of a 15-foot motorboat, fuel included.
Sportsman’s Lodge — This place is a regular haven for the fishing-obsessed. Its rustic, beachy feel and functional rooms and apartments — great for housing your angler gear — provide a value option. The place sits right on the Indian River and includes a dock and marina. Plus, there are a couple of bait and tackle shops just a few blocks away.
Middleton’s Fish Camp — Now for something more rugged. This authentic fish camp is located on Blue Cypress Lake, one of the best fresh-water fishing spots (large mouth bass, crappie, great-tasting catfish) in the state, and a gorgeous place for eco-wandering. It’s about 30 miles west of downtown Vero Beach. You can rent a boat, hire a guide, get all the gear and bait you need, and stay in one of Middleton’s cabins or trailers.
Road trippers can easily access the destination via I-95, the Florida Turnpike or Route 60. It is also convenient to Orlando International; Orlando-Melbourne International, Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood, and Miami International airports. Vero Beach Regional Airport is served by Elite Airways with direct flights from Newark, N.J., and Asheville, N.C.