Treasure Island
Published:
Mar/Apr2004

Below This perky pelican makes Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge his home. The refuge was the nation’s first and last year celebrated its centennial. Pelican Island photo

Before You Go
For more information, contact the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce, 772-567-3491 or www.indianriverchamber.com

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Uncover Florida’s natural beauty in indian river county.

B Y   B A R B A R A   G I B B S   O S T M A N N
Driving south on state Highway A1A along the Atlantic coast of Florida, the first view of Indian River County is from the top of the Sebastian Inlet bridge. It’s enough to take one’s breath away.

The blue water and white-tipped surf of the ocean are on the left and the smooth, dark water of the lagoon on the right. Pelicans and gulls soar. Fishing boats dot the inlet. Fishermen line the jetties that jut out into the Atlantic, and brown pelicans hover nearby hoping to get lucky and grab a fish.

There’s the temptation to stop on the bridge and gape. Instead, proceed to the entrance to the Sebastian Inlet State Park. Turn west (or right) into the park, one of the state’s most popular, to fish, hike, surf, swim, camp, boat, bird-watch, picnic or visit the Fishing Museum at the south end of the park.

It’s a great introduction to Indian River County, roughly halfway between Kennedy Space Center and Miami. A 26-mile stretch of golden ocean beaches combined with the complex ecosystem of the Indian River estuary makes for an outdoor enthusiast’s dream vacation.
Part of the county is on the barrier island and part is on the mainland, resulting in a fascinating mix of lifestyles, sports, habitats and cultures. The main towns of Indian River County are Vero Beach, Sebastian and Fellsmere.

River or lagoon?

The Indian River is actually an estuary, created when salt water and fresh water meet and mix. This type of estuary is called a lagoon because it doesn’t rely on rivers for fresh water (much of the water drains from the land) and it has limited water exchange with the ocean.

Call it a river, estuary or lagoon, it all refers to the body of water between the barrier island and the Florida mainland, running 156 miles from just south of Daytona Beach to the Jupiter Inlet. Indian River is home to 4,300 plant and animal species, making it the most diverse estuary in North America.

The best way to see the lagoon is from the water. Chris Pinson, a lifelong Sebastian resident, and his partner, Beverley Ward, a University of Florida-certified Master Naturalist, operate Sebastian River Boat Tours. Pinson shares his knowledge of the area on guided tours of the lagoon, Pelican Island and the Sebastian River.

The boat tour office is tucked away on the side of Hurricane Harbor Seafood Company on Indian River Drive in downtown Sebastian. The 1927 waterfront building has been a garage, fish market, oyster canning plant and a Prohibition-era rumrunner hangout.

Linda and George Dannen bought the local landmark in 2003 and have revised the menu to feature fresh seafood.

For an even closer look at the lagoon, try a kayak outing with one of the half-dozen kayak companies in the area. During a pre-sunset outing with Kayaks Etc., we were able to get up close to nature. As we glided along the water, two great blue herons stood like sentinels in their nest high in an Australian pine. A kingfisher dived and called, an osprey soared overhead and brown pelicans fished for their dinner. The highlight came when a manatee surfaced just ahead of our kayaks.

Nature sites abound

Nature lovers won’t know where to begin in Indian River County. The Sebastian area is home to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s first wildlife refuge, which celebrated its centennial in 2003. Birdwatchers won’t want to miss a sunset view of the island from the observation tower on the refuge’s Centennial Trail. Allow time for a leisurely drive on the Jungle Trail, which leads to the new visitors’ complex at the refuge.

Another refuge is dedicated to the protection of sea turtles. Twenty-five to 35 percent of all loggerhead and green sea turtle nests in the country are on the beaches between Melbourne and Wabasso, Fla. Much of that stretch is now protected as the 248-acre Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. During the nesting season, May 1 through Oct. 31, people are not allowed to disturb the turtles, although it is possible to view the turtles from a distance.

Birders and hikers will revel in the trails in the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area, which has almost 200 beautiful acres to explore on foot or canoe.

The Environmental Learning Center (ELC) offers hiking, birding, kayaking and other activities to children and adults. The restored cracker-style house of the late Laura (Riding) Jackson, a Florida poet and publisher, also is on the ELC grounds.

Treasure ahoy

Indian River County is part of the famed Treasure Coast. The treasure could be its famous citrus groves, its year-round balmy temperature (an average of 73 degrees), or its abundance of natural areas.

But the treasure in Treasure Coast actually refers to sunken treasure located offshore, in the remains of Spanish and pirate galleons that shipwrecked off the coast in the1700s. For an introduction to the maritime history of the area, stop by McLarty Treasure Museum in the Sebastian Inlet State Park. The museum features the shipwrecked Spanish Plate Fleet of 1715.

Another sort of treasure awaits you at McKee Botanical Garden, an 18-acre preserve that is all that remains of McKee Jungle Gardens, one of Florida’s top tourist attractions until 1976, when the site closed. The rest of the garden’s original 80 acres have been converted to a golf course and condos, but the heart of the garden has been preserved. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Take time to read the history in the great hall and be sure to watch the vintage black-and-white Universal short feature about the former Jungle Gardens.

Much more to see
and do

Indian River County offers visitors a variety of accommodations, including the ocean-side Vero Beach Hotel and Club (1-800-841-5666). The local chamber of commerce has information on resorts and hotels in the area.

In a place flanked by ocean and river, water sports abound. Fishing, windsurfing, sailing, surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, canoeing and swimming are enjoyed all year. There are golf courses, tennis courts, spas, and, of course, lots of shopping, from one-of-a-kind boutiques to outlet malls.

Baseball fans will want to visit Dodgertown, the winter training site for the Los Angeles Dodgers (mid-February to mid-March) and home to the AAA team, Vero Beach Dodgers. Visitors can watch practices and attend games. The facility also rents motel rooms to individuals. The streets are named for famous players, and the street and porch lights resemble baseballs.

The Indian River Citrus Museum in Vero Beach is packed with photos, exhibits and equipment, all of which is explained by enthusiastic volunteer tour guides. Before heading for home, stop by one of several citrus growers in the county–such as Hale Indian River Groves–and stock up on locally grown oranges, tangerines and grapefruit for the folks back home. They’ll be a sweet reminder of your Indian River County adventure.


Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo.

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