CENTRAL EAST FLORIDA:
TIMELESS BEAUTY, New Adventures

BY ALISON R. JANISSEN

Central East Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

It’s true the Central East region of Florida’s easy proximity from the world’s attraction mecca makes it a great side-trip excursion. But there is just so much to see and do in this 175-mile stretch—from beaches and natural wonders to dining and activities with a decidedly local flair—that it’s a rewarding and exciting (or relaxing, if you prefer) destination all its own.

WHAT’S NEW

The new Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art, an expansion of the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach, is scheduled to open in 2015. This 26,000-square-foot building will house an unprecedented permanent collection of more than 2,700 paintings of Florida, plus six changing galleries.

Also in Daytona Beach, fans of the Daytona 500 can expect to see and experience some changes at the Daytona International Speedway, which is undergoing a major US$400-million reimagining, known as DAYTONA Rising. Everything is scheduled for completion in time for the 2016 Daytona 500, so stay tuned. When all is said and done, the venue will have approximately 101,000 permanent, wider and more comfortable seats, twice as many restrooms, and three times as many concession stands.

ARTS AND CULTURE

The Fish House Art Center, located on the site of one of the last operating commercial fish houses on Florida’s east coast, is five miles south of downtown Stuart. In addition to collections of American fine art and crafts, the center is home to eight resident artists who invite you to watch them create works of glass, fine art, silk, weavings and beaded jewelry. Stroll the “PocketWalk” to get a feel for this unique artists’ community.

The free Stuart Heritage Museum preserves the heritage, artifacts and history of Stuart, Martin County and its surrounding communities. Countless relics housed by the museum are on display daily from 10 AM to 3 PM.

In Fort Pierce, the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated to Naval Special Warfare, welcomes 70,000 visitors per year. This is where the Navy trained frogmen for the infamous landing at Omaha Beach during World War II.

Located on the shoreline of the beautiful Indian River Lagoon, the Maritime & Classic Boat Museum in Jensen Beach is devoted to the collection, preservation, restoration and interpretation of the maritime and boating history of the Treasure Coast. Educational programs and exhibits, along with opportunities to restore classic boats, are all elements of the museum experience.

In Vero Beach, the Hallstrom House demonstrates a bygone way of life in southern Indian River County with collections of documents, photographs, furniture and memorabilia. It’s open Monday through Friday from 1 to 4 PM and the last Saturday of each month from 1 to 4 PM.

The McLarty Treasure Museum just north of Vero Beach takes you back in time with tales of an ill-fated fleet whose return to Spain turned disastrous when a hurricane struck. Situated on a survivors’ camp of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet, the museum features artifacts, displays and an observation deck that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Even today, salvagers work to recover gold, silver and the “Queen’s jewels” that were lost to the sea and its sandy shores.

In Melbourne, the Art and Antique Studio is an artist-owned and operated gallery that features the work of 14 local artists. Their creations range from oil, acrylic and watercolor paintings to photography, pottery and woven baskets. Chat with the artists and enjoy light refreshments during a monthly First Friday Art Walk.

At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, meet real astronauts who walk the grounds and answer questions, marvel at the size and magnitude of the rockets on display in the “Rocket Garden,” crawl through a model of the International Space Station, experience the five-story screens in two IMAX theaters, and explore Angry Birds Space Encounter featuring seven exhibits for all ages. Since 2013, the complex is also the permanent home of Space Shuttle Atlantis, a US$100-million attraction that covers 90,000 square feet, complete with more than 60 interactive displays. A simulator lets visitors manipulate the Canadarm, a full-scale replica of the original.

Aerospace isn’t the only flight-related game on the Space Coast. The Valiant Air Command and Warbird Museum in Titusville is a non-profit museum dedicated to America’s military and actively maintains and restores all types of aircraft that were indigenous to the world’s military Air Forces starting before WW I to the present. You can even take to the skies in the museum’s fully restored “Tico Belle,” a WW II Normandy Invasion Veteran C-47 or attend a Fly-In Breakfast (drive-ins are welcome) on the second Saturday of every month.

The Mary S. Harrell Black Heritage Museum in New Smyrna Beach houses a collection of photographs, memorabilia and artifacts on display to educate citizens and students about the history and race relations in small-town Florida over the course of the 20th century.

BEACHES

Close your eyes, and picture yourself on the beach. Whether you envision yourself absorbed into a vacuum of silence between the waves and dunes in Sebastian or surrounded by a raucous crowd in Daytona Beach, the 175-mile stretch of the Central East coast has a beach to fulfill your sandy fantasy. Every point in between offers something that lends itself to non-stop activities or peacefully relaxing with a book.

If you’re searching for a unique way to experience the beach, try this. Hutchinson Island in St. Lucie County is one of the few places in Florida where you can enjoy a horseback ride on the beach. Equestrian rental operation Tours On Horseback welcomes beginners and advanced riders alike to walk and trot along a scenic three-mile tour on Saturdays and Sundays.

Indian River County is home to a dozen public parks between Sebastian and Vero Beach that offer access to 26 miles of unspoiled beaches. Busy full-service locations, such as Sebastian Inlet State Park (one of the best surfing sites on the eastern seaboard), have restrooms with showers, boardwalks and picnic facilities, plus a spot to launch a canoe or kayak. Other parks simply provide access to a quiet stretch of sand along the Atlantic.

Stop by Jetty Park beach in Cape Canaveral and watch cargo ships, fishing boats or an occasional US Navy vessel float out to sea. Chances are good that you’ll also witness a giant cruise ship embarkation, because this is the second-busiest cruise port in the world.

Canaveral National Seashore in Titusville is 25 miles of undeveloped barrier island, which preserves the natural beach, dune, marsh and lagoon habitats for many species of birds on Florida’s Space Coast. Year-round recreation includes fishing, boating, canoeing, surfing, sunbathing, swimming, hiking, camping, nature and historical trails.

Head a little north and end up at New Smyrna Beach’s Ponce Inlet, whose waves call to surfers living in nearby, but sadly landlocked Orlando.

There’s something nostalgic about a boardwalk beach experience. The Daytona Beach Boardwalk and Pier juts out over the sand and sea of the “World’s Most Famous Beach,” and offers a lively mix of food and fun.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The Pelican Café in the historic district of downtown Stuart offers casual waterfront dining with its own soft-sand beach and deck seating. Bring your own sand toys because little ones (two-legged and even the four-legged) are welcome to cavort on the shores of the St. Lucie River while the older set enjoys the open-air setting and traditional seafood fare. Burgers and salads complete the menu. The restaurant closes during the winter if winds exceed 20 mph and temperatures plummet into the mid to low 70s.

Between Vero Beach and Fort Pierce, Endless Summer Vineyard & Winery is a one-of-a-kind sun-and surf-boutique winery featuring handcrafted, award-winning Florida wines. Swirl your glass on the handmade wine barrel-tasting bar amidst vintage surfboards and the oldest (1910) boogie board known in existence, or stroll outside through the vineyard and festival area that showcases a landscaped pond and romantic swings. You can even feed fish and turtles from a covered dock surrounded by a 10-acre muscadine vineyard.

In Vero Beach, right on the Atlantic Ocean sits an extraordinary and somewhat startling structure built of cypress logs and pecky-cypress paneling from the swamps around Blue Cypress Lake. The Driftwood Resort, established in the early 1900s, is a two-story pirate’s nightmare of a hotel with shifting levels and crammed with a mish-mash of objects. For those for whom an overnight stay would be overwhelming (kids love it), a temporary visit to the property’s restaurant might be just the ticket. Waldo’s serves traditional seafood fare along with wraps, salads and burgers.

Cocoa Beach’s blues and music bar, the Beach Shack has long been a local and visitor favorite for good times and soulful music. Located directly on the beach, this mainstay is open daily and features live music nightly.

JB’s Fish Camp & Restaurant, on the waters of the Canaveral National Seashore at the south end of New Smyrna Beach, is a favorite with locals, most of whom arrive by boat. It’s so much more than a seafood restaurant, with a full bar, live music and indoor/outdoor seating. Kids can see manatees, dolphins and plenty of exotic shore birds right from the dock, and if they want to fish but forgot a pole at home, they can just rent one! You can even arrange to rent a kayak, take a pontoon boat cruise or hook up with a fishing guide. The camp offers the freshest seafood (literally—it grows its own clams) and is practically next door to the Canaveral National Seashore Park, where after lunch you can climb up Turtle Mound, a Calusa Indian archaeological site.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Take a break from the beach and spend an afternoon with art, history and technology. The Elliott Museum in Stuart hosts a dynamic and interactive collection of antique automobiles, vintage boats, an impressive baseball collection, and a deep trove of Treasure Coast histories and stories that’s sure to delight all ages.

Board the Sunshine Lady from her dock in Stuart for a guided tour of the Indian River Lagoon and its wildlife residents, which include bottlenose dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and a vast array of birds. She even packs a plankton and zooplankton net to fill discovery scopes for a view of life in the ocean. Sunshine Wildlife Tours guides point out the mangroves and the seagrass beds that are responsible for sustaining life in the estuary and discuss the importance of maintaining the fragile balance of this ecosystem.

Scheduling your visit early in the year? From January through April you can explore the historical significance of Florida’s citrus industry at Al’s Family Farms in Fort Pierce. A guided tour takes you through a working wet-line and packinghouse.

Also in Fort Pierce, the St. Lucie County Aquarium features the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit, providing a window into the underwater worlds of the Indian River Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean. Nearly 8,000 gallons of aquariums and a touch tank allow visitors the opportunity to appreciate the region’s beautiful and fragile ecosystems.

Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum in Sebastian is a favorite with kids and adults alike. Displays of salvaged coins and weapons from a Spanish fleet, wrecked off the coast in 1715, tell the story of a time long ago.

The Brevard Museum of History & Natural Science in Cocoa Beach traces Brevard County’s natural history from the days of the woolly mammoths and saber-tooth cats to the modern era of rockets and space shuttles. This museum also includes a butterfly garden, a 19.5-acre nature preserve, nature trails and a covered pavilion with picnic tables.

Kayaking is all the rage, and it’s the perfect wedding of Mother Nature and relaxation. Cocoa Beach Kayaking guided ecotours take you on an exploration of the pristine Thousand Islands of Cocoa Beach as you paddle at a leisurely pace through a mangrove estuary located in the Indian River Lagoon, home of bottlenose dolphins, endangered manatees and incredible Florida bird life.

Are you among the super adventurous? One of the busiest drop zones in the world is Skydive DeLand, which operates out of the DeLand Municipal Airport in Volusia County. Those with a milder thrill gene can take a tandem jump attached to an experienced sky-diver. Or simply watch the action from an observation deck or from your perch at the Perfect Spot Restaurant and Bar.

The Daytona International Speedway isn’t just home to the Daytona 500, it’s a year-round destination of exhibits and experiences. A guided tour lets you explore the NASCAR Sprint Cup garages, check out the drivers’ meeting room, and even get a close-up look at the champion Daytona 500 car. Or, indulge in the ultimate fan experience and jump in the fast lane for a Richard Petty Driving Experience during which you sit shotgun with a driver or grab the wheel and drive yourself. There’s even an experience for kids who are at least 48 inches tall.

ROAD TRIPS

The Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail moves through the City of Fort Pierce in a chronological representation of Hurston’s impact on St. Lucie County. Kiosks and trail markers indicate important sites, such as the Seven Gables House, Garden of Heavenly Rest and the former Fort Pierce Chronicle headquarters. Enjoy a bus tour of the trail and peek inside the Zora Neale Hurston House.

The Indian River Lagoon National Scenic Highway moves through an estuary that provides habitat to more species than anywhere in North America. The 166-mile loop along Florida’s Space Coast starts at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and draws history buffs, as well as nature lovers.

A 14-mile drive along A1A starting at Turtle Mound in New Smyrna Beach and ending at Canaveral National Seashore bisects a narrow finger of land, bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other side by the sheltered Mosquito Lagoon marsh and islands. The drive dead-ends at an undeveloped barrier beach historic site, once a federal House of Refuge for shipwreck victims. Features include abundant marine animals and birds, a walk to a ghost town and a boardwalk climb up a 50-foot mound left by a Paleo-Indian culture, considered the largest remaining Native American mound in the nation—and among the most ancient.

SHOPPING

Discover an endless source of homegrown foods and handmade crafts at one of the area’s many open-air farmers’ markets. Items such as fresh produce, local honey, regional delicacies and folk art are presented by their makers at markets up and down the Central East region—from the Stuart Green Market in Martin County to New Smyrna Beach Farmers’ Market in Volusia County.

Looking for deals? At the Vero Beach Outlets you can count on discounts of up to 65 percent on iconic brands, such as Coach, Dooney & Bourke, Polo Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma and much more. Shoppers who are 55-plus receive additional discounts on Tuesdays, and a complimentary trolley service makes getting from one end of the venue to the other a breezy break.

The beach isn’t just a location, it’s a lifestyle! Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach is 52,000 square feet of everything you could possibly need for a day, a week or a lifetime at the beach. It’s the world’s largest surf shop, and its rental facility offers surfboards, beach bikes, paddleboards, beach chairs and more.

Downtown DeLand in Volusia County is a charming collection of eclectic shops, unique restaurants with sidewalk dining and antique stores. It is located just minutes from the brick buildings and giant oak trees of Stetson University, and the entire main street section can be covered in an afternoon of easy walking. You might even catch one of the nighttime shopping and live music events held during the summer.

SPAS

Sandpiper Bay Florida Club Med, in Port St. Lucie, is home to the only Club Med Spa by L’Occitane in the US. Its 6,000 square feet of renowned pampering is for anyone seeking to rediscover life’s balance with healthy, nourishing experiences for face, body and spirit.

Indulge on a journey to a serene oasis at the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa, where nurturing therapies offered by the tranquil White Orchid Spa will inspire and renew. Even the manliest of men will enjoy the facility’s specialty gentlemen’s services, and all can benefit from customized modalities designed to banish tension from the body and stress from the mind.

In Daytona Beach, the 100-year-old Plaza Resort and Spa is lovely and restful, but possibly haunted! Local legend has it that a previous guest frequents the hallways and hangs out in the bar. Its Ocean Waters Spa utilizes Pevonia Botanica products and offers seven categories of treatments to make your beach vacation soar from pleasant to heavenly.

UNIQUE PLACES TO STAY

Florida is one of the most-visited places on the planet, so naturally there are as many accommodation choices as stars in the sky. Here are a few unique lodging options within the Central East region.

The Old Colorado Inn in Stuart offers studios, suites and a charming cottage within a few hundred feet of the St. Lucie River. Its whimsical, tropical vibe is just a short walk from waterfront dining, shopping and entertainment at the historic Lyric Theater.

For a taste of Old Florida, try the River Palm Cottages & Fish Camp. This collection of 25 colorful cottages on the western bank of the Indian River Lagoon sits amid lush tropical palms and native plants. Hammocks hanging aplenty throughout the peaceful grounds make it seem like you’re worlds away, however nearby Jensen Beach offers plenty to see and do.

If golf is your thing, then swing into the Perfect Drive Golf Villas in Port St. Lucie. Villas and hotel-style guest suites are located within walking distance of PGA Village, which includes the PGA Museum of Golf, PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance and many nearby courses. Of course, Port St. Lucie’s 21 miles of white-sand beaches are nearby, if you need a break.

Mix sea breeze with laid-back Florida river lifestyle, and you’ve got the Inn at Capt. Hiram’s Resort in Sebastian. This lively, local-favored complex sits on the Indian River, which is narrowly separated from the Atlantic by a thin barrier island. Chill in a hammock (until the live music starts) on your private patio, rent a canoe or kayak or head to the beach.

If you seek beachfront charm, the luxurious Windemere Inn by the Sea in Indialantic is just steps from the Atlantic Ocean and claims its own private beach. If you’re whipped from a day of sun and sea, visit the Nest for a massage before retiring to one of the property’s 11 guest rooms.

Bed-and-breakfast inns are not just for New England when the leaves turn. The Old Pineapple Inn in the heart of Eau Gallie Art District in Melbourne is a fully-restored three-story Victorian home within walking distance to the Brevard Art Museum. Naturally, the beaches of Melbourne are just a short drive away.

How about a place on the water, literally? Holly Bluff Marina in Volusia County offers multi-bed houseboat rentals that allow you to cruise mile after mile on the St. Johns River, where manatees graze on shore grasses. And don’t worry . . . complete training on operating the houseboat is provided. Swimming, snorkeling, canoeing, fishing and hiking can all be part of the plan.

INSIDER’S TIPS

Turn off the sun, and the beach becomes a natural wonder. It also becomes the location to witness one of nature’s most ancient events: a nesting sea turtle.

More than 100,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles nest on Florida beaches in June and July, so parks and environmental groups up and down the Atlantic coast organize guided nighttime turtle walks.

On a typical turtle tour, visitors are led to a spot on the beach where a sea turtle is digging a hole a foot or two deep with her hind flippers. The turtle then starts filling the nest with soft-shelled eggs the size of table tennis balls. After laying her eggs, she refills the nest with sand and heads back into the ocean. The whole process takes 30 to 60 minutes.

This moving, educational experience is enormously popular with Florida residents so make reservations as soon as you decide to visit. Children under the age of eight are discouraged on most walks in order to minimize disturbances to the mother-to-be.

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