If you’re looking for a Florida vacation without the hustle and bustle of big, touristy beach towns but with plenty to do and see, then make plans to visit a true hidden treasure on Florida’s Atlantic Seaboard – Indian River County.
Located between Cape Canaveral and West Palm Beach, the Indian River is part of the Treasure Coast, an area where many shipwrecks – some dating back to the early 1700s – sank with their valuable cargo on board.
The county really lives up to its ‘Coastline, not Highrises’ nickname, with miles of white sandy beaches, surf and the quintessential tropical vegetation and vibe that earn it its other ‘Gateway to the Tropics’ moniker.
Here are seven reasons to make Indian River County your next vacation destination.
1. Surfing is hip
Indian River County is the perfect place to catch the waves and do a little surfing. The location is under the radar of most surfers, who would rather flock to Cocoa Beach and Miami’s South Beach.
A popular destination is the Sebastian Inlet State Park. The park features over 3 miles of shoreline with extensive, uncrowded access to the crashing waves. The standout spot is called Monster Hole, which is actually a shoal formed by an artificial sandbar that serves 10-foot waves.
Other good surfing destinations in the county are Vero Beach Pier, where sandbars on either side of the pier offer good high tide waves, and Wabasso Beach Park.
There is a daily use fee of $8 per vehicle to enter the park.
2. The path of the paddle
Indian River County is home to several classic Florida kayaking experiences.
Bring your kayak or rent one and paddle on Blue Cypress Lake. The lake is lined with spectacular bald cypress trees, knees sticking out of the water and limbs draped in majestic flowing Spanish moss. Countless ospreys and their nests can be seen along the 21 miles of shoreline, as well as the beautiful red-tinged roseate spoonbill and the occasional alligator to keep an eye on you.
Another must-do is paddling into the Indian River itself on the Jungle Trail. This trip begins at Jungle Trail Kayak Launch at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and takes you through mangrove plains before reaching the open waters of the Indian River where you can paddle for miles to explore several islands including Egret, Roosevelt (named after Theodore Roosevelt) and Pelican Island itself.
3. Snorkeling to a shipwreck and treasure hunt
One of the really fun experiences you can have in Indian River County is scuba diving, but you don’t need to put on air tanks to see an incredible sight – the wreck of the SS Breconshire, an English-built steamer that sank in these shallow waters in April 1894 en route from Tampa to New York. You can actually snorkel to it.
Located just 200 meters offshore and 20 feet below the surface, the action of the currents has taken its toll on the 300 foot vessel broken up by the pounding of the waves, but there is still plenty to see.
Most of the ship is still very much alive as it has become a limestone reef that is home to a wonderland of marine life – angelfish, stingrays, sea urchins. Over 400 species of marine life are found here. You might even be joined by a graceful loggerhead turtle.
The perfect time to visit the wreck is between May and July when the water is at its clearest. You should bring and set out a dive flag to stay safe and let boaters know you’re in the water.
Indian River County is part of Florida’s Treasure Coast, an area that has seen many shipwrecks over the centuries, with valuable cargo lost at sea.
Treasure hunters have dived to the wrecks to get their share of the bounty, but us landlubbers can still find some coins and potsherds along the shore. So bring your metal detector and give it a try.
One of your best bets is to scan the beach along the Sea Grape Beach Trail in Vero Beach. Remember that treasure hunts are only allowed on beaches from high tide to low tide.
4. Perfect picture
If you are interested in photography, then grab your camera bag and head to Indian River County. The landscapes, nature, sunrises and sunsets are really magnificent.
Start your day with a gorgeous sunrise and do some beach and ocean photography at Sebastian Inlet State Park. The park has over 3 miles of beach with crashing surf along the North Pier and sea oats gently swaying in the breeze along the dunes.
Then set off to explore America’s first wildlife refuge, the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. Established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 near Sebastian, Florida, the 5,400-acre refuge has several hiking trails that take you through beautiful mangrove habitats and salt marshes. The best time to visit is November through April, when you have the best chance of snapping pictures of migrating white pelicans, nesting brown pelicans, river otters and more.
End your day with a stop in Vero Beach at Round Island Park. Nature trails crisscross the island, taking you through palm groves and seagrass to a spectacular sunset from a high lookout tower.
Again, there is a usage fee of $8 per vehicle day to enter Sebastian Inlet. The other sites are free. Pelican Island offers free ranger-guided tours every Wednesday from November through March.
5. Art for art’s sake
Art lovers will love Indian River County. The county is known worldwide among artists for its tropical atmosphere that can only inspire creativity.
The center for arts and culture is the historic arts district in Vero Beach with a wealth of galleries including The Laughing Dog Gallery and Gallery 14 which offer juried shows and their annual Summer Squared Exhibit and Sale.
You can even explore your own creative side at the Cork, Canvas & Company event at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Every Thursday you are invited to bring your own wine and light hors d’oeuvres, and local artists will guide you in creating your own masterpiece. Art supplies will be provided.
The theater world is not left out either. Get your tickets and catch a performance at America’s largest professional small town theater, the Riverside Theatre.
6. Visit to citrus groves
If you drive down any of Florida’s interstates or back roads, you’ll see hundreds of signs advertising local businesses that sell Indian River citrus, and there’s a reason – the sweet and juicy citrus grown in Indian River is world famous.
To truly appreciate the sweet taste of their legendary honey bells, red grapefruit and fresh-squeezed orange juice, you have to get it straight from the source in one of the county’s remaining citrus groves.
In 1950, traveling salesman Henry Schact decided to start a citrus grove. His Schact Groves continue his dream today with a wide range of citrus fruits in their Citrus Shop and local goodies and vegetables at the Farm Market.
Peterson Groves is one of the oldest in the county but has expanded to include locally produced honeys, jellies and gourmet sauces.
Meanwhile, Countryside Family Farms has taken the roadside citrus market a step further by hosting its annual Fall Festival and Maze. Held every October, the event features everything you’d expect from a fall festival, to rubber duck races and hay rides.
7. From casual to fine dining
After a full day of exploring and fun in the sun, you’ll find that Indian River County offers a fairly eclectic selection of restaurants to please any palate.
On the casual side, try Squid Lips Overwater Grill. As the name suggests, this fabulous restaurant sits on the water at the end of a pier in Fins Marina. What makes their dishes special is that they are prepared over an open oak fire, which locks in their juice and gives them a light touch of oak flavor. You’ll love the bacon wrapped scallops and smoked fish dip.
Then there’s Capt. Hiram’s Sandbar Restaurant. Described as “the essence of Florida infused with a Bahamian beat,” Sandbar sits right on the beaches of the Indian River. You can’t help but feel the tropics as you tuck into delicious sandwiches, seafood, and pasta dishes among the palm trees. Top off your meal with an adult drink like Roxy Rita or Painkiller.
For something with a lot of Caribbean flair, try Zafem Caribbean Restaurant, which serves the islands’ spicy flavors like conch creole and sautéed red snapper Thursday through Saturday nights.
On the upscale gastronomy side, the Vero Prime is a good choice. Guests call the restaurant Vero Beach’s premier steakhouse, but it’s more than that. With its intimate setting perfect for a romantic evening, Vero Prime serves the most incredible rack of lamb with rosemary demi sauce and my favorite shrimp scampi angel hair with roasted Garlic, rocket and diced tomatoes, all in a white wine butter sauce.
When visiting the Indian River beaches, please remember that the sand dunes help protect communities from the effects of storms and are also prime nesting sites for migratory birds and sea turtles. Use the designated walkways when heading to the sea and stay away from the dunes.
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