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I love destinations that surprise. And though I'd been to many east and west coast Florida beach towns, this was my first visit to Florida's Treasure Coast. And it certainly won't be my last. The locals call it "Florida's best-kept secret," and after discovering her treasures, I couldn't agree more.
Indian River County is situated just 34 miles south of Melbourne and 87 miles north of West Palm Beach. This northern part of the Treasure Coast consists of three delightfully unique towns-Vero Beach, Sebastian and Fellsmere. Vero Beach is magical with windswept beaches scattered with seashells and shorebirds. Sebastian is a quaint riverfront fishing village and Fellsmere an idyllic eco-friendly wonderland.
This picturesque region was aptly named as the graveyard of a Spanish treasure fleet returning from the New World to Spain. In July 1715, eleven of the twelve ships of this fleet were lost in a horrific hurricane near present-day Vero Beach. The galleons were packed with an immense hoard of plundered gold, silver, gems and artifacts now worth billions of dollars.
Though much of the treasure has been recovered, there was much more to be found. Today, treasure hunters continue to search these Atlantic waters for gold, jewels and other historic pieces. Locals have found sunken treasures just 10 feet from shore or washed up on the beach itself. And given that one Spanish wreck sits only 100 yards off Wabasso Beach, it's easy access for adventurous divers and snorkelers.
But the coast's true treasures are not about the booty, but rather in its nature preserves, eco-tourism, sublime coastline, stunning beaches, thriving art community and absolutely fascinating historic tales.
An absolutely beautiful place to home base in this magnificent area is The Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa. This swanky beachfront sanctuary is ideally situated on a pristine beach with stunning ocean views and the most majestic sunrises.
Rooms and suites are beautifully appointed, and the hotel offers two impressive oceanfront dining options. One of the best perks of staying at Kimpton is its prime location-walking distance to the local eateries and charming boutiques of Vero Beach's Ocean Drive.
One of the best Vero Beach experiences was a visit to Pelican Island, the birthplace of our nation's first federally designated wildlife refuge. Just don't forget to pack your binoculars.
Established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the 5,400-acre refuge encompasses the Indian River Lagoon. The refuge's main objective was to save one of the last brown pelican east coast rookeries and to prevent the extinction of egrets and other birds from excessive plume hunting.
As the refuge is the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States, it's also a perfect way to connect with nature. Pristine, picturesque and filled with more than 30 different bird species in addition to sea turtles, manatees, and yes, alligators, the refuge is a heaven on earth for nature lovers. Paved paths make it easy to get around, and there are scenic overlooks for photos and viewing even more of nature's blessings. It's truly remarkable.
This lush exotic property on the National Register of Historic Places was named by National Geographic as one of the "22 Most Soothing Places of Surprise and Sanctuary in North America."
I can attest to this description of this impressive garden paradise. Home to more than 10,000 tropical plants, the 18-acre picturesque grounds feature stunning ponds, waterfalls, streams, trails and a diverse collection of water lilies, orchids and other native vegetation. We spent two hours wandering the splendid gardens and wished we'd scheduled more time to explore. It's really that beautiful...and historical.
The property purchased in 1922 was originally called McKee Jungle Gardens. By the 1940s, it was one of Florida's earliest and most popular attractions, bringing in more than 100,000 tourists annually. But as Central Florida continued to develop and expand, the garden's popularity waned. McKee closed in 1976 and immediately fell into dormancy.
In 1994, this awe-inspiring venue was resurrected and reopened much to the delight of botanical garden lovers everywhere.
This intimate museum may not be big, but it's huge when it comes to its treasures. Mel Fisher's Treasures showcases gold, silver, copper and other riches salvaged from the 11 galleons that sank in these warm Atlantic waters. Original artifacts on display include weapons, equipment and personal items from the vessels and their crews. Guests can even get their hands around a golden nugget valued at a half-million dollars.
Even today salvagers continue to search offshore in hopes of recovering more of the lost bounty. Certainly, the king of treasure hunters was Mel Fisher, the visionary and world leader of historic shipwreck recovery whose team discovered $450 million in local treasure in 1985. We loved the museum's displays and photos highlighting this legendary and intrepid man's many years of successful treasure hunting.
There's no better way to explore fascinating ecosystems and estuaries than getting right out there on the water. The ELC as it's locally called is a 64-acre lagoon island preserve located just off the Wabasso Bridge.
In 1988, a group of local environmentally-conscious pioneers formed the Center to preserve the breathtaking, unspoiled island. Their mission then as it is now is to "educate, inspire and empower all people to be active stewards of the environment and their own well-being."
This Indian River Lagoon is home to a wide diversity of flora and fauna and a popular spot for bird-watching. Those into canoeing or kayaking will love the guided tours meandering along mangrove trails. Pontoon boat rides are also available. Other activities include exploring by bike, meditating in the butterfly garden or even choosing a moon forest therapy walk. There are a lot of cool options in this impressively picturesque lagoon area.
Perhaps the most surprising part of my visit to the Treasure Coast was learning the famous story about the legendary Highwaymen.
It was the 1960s in the Jim Crow South when a group of black artists attempted to get their vividly colorful oil landscape work into local galleries. Every gallery turned them away, but these entrepreneurial African-American artists (that included one woman) persevered.
Instead, they took to the Florida highways, selling their pieces at road stops for a mere 25 to 35 dollars. Today, these historic paintings sell for thousands of dollars and can be found in museums all throughout the U.S.
We had the privilege of dropping into the Florida Highwaymen Landscape Art Gallery to see Ray McLendon working on a painting. His artistry follows in the footsteps of his father, Roy McClelland, one of the original Highwaymen. The works these talented artists produced and continue to create are so amazingly impressive.
What is it about the beach that instantly causes us to take a deep breath, let it go and just relax?
With 26 pristine miles of beguiling uncrowded beaches and 10 places to throw down your beach blanket and umbrella, Vero Beach and Sebastian offer beach bums some spectacular choices. Whether you're into surfing, paddleboarding, frisbee throwing, sandcastle building, shell collecting or soaking up the sun, the area with its sea grape-covered paths and hidden enclaves provide plenty of room for connecting with the surf. And unlike many east coast Florida beaches, the waters of the Treasure Coast are crystal-clear and tourmaline.
Poet Julia Alvarez once said "Don't plan it all. Let life surprise you once in a while."
That's exactly what my visit to Florida's Treasure Coast did. It unexpectedly served up one surprise after the other, much to my delight.
Noreen Kompanik is a San Diego based journalist who is also the co-owner and publisher of Rovology, Travel By Vacation Rental...
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