A December 2003 trip
to Vero Beach by Idler
Quote: A sampling of car license plates heading south on I-95 in December: Ontario, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, and Quebec. What gives? Last winter, we joined the southbound flock to discover the quiet charms of old Florida for ourselves.
Going CoastalDefined by water, Florida flaunts a string of "coasts" that vie for attention. There’s the Space Coast, the Gold Coast, the Emerald Coast, and the Sun Coast, just for starters. We settled on the Treasure Coast for its low-key appeal and proximity to serene beaches, wildlife refuges, and recreational areas.
Retirees: You Gotta Love ‘EmThose uninterested in Florida’s manufactured fun zones might instead consider visiting one of the low-key retiree communities. Since we came expecting to amuse ourselves, our interests often dovetailed with those of Florida’s senior citizens. A quiet stretch of beach and a comfortable place to stay were the first order of business. Add sunshine and a leisurely lifestyle and the picture is complete, not to mention that when I came down with the flu, I was just steps from a pharmacy. Plus, those restaurant specials catering to retirees have real budget traveler appeal.
Laid-back BeachesJack found the beach of his dreams on Jupiter Island after rejecting several (to my eye perfectly nice) beaches further north. At Coral Cove Beach, an offshore reef attracts colorful fish, while there is ample shade in the small tree-filled park. The only free public beach in the immediate area, Coral Cove is just up the road from the secluded mansions of Jupiter Island. Cycling along Beach Road, I caught glimpses through impressive gates of palatial homes surrounded by lush tropical gardens.
Breaking in the KayaksThe main reason we drove rather than flew to Florida was to bring along our new kayaks. With prime canoeing and kayaking areas such as Sebastian Inlet and Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge just north and south of us, we were in paddlers’ (and birdwatchers’) heaven.
Where’s Waldo?The spirit of Waldo Sexton, eccentric entrepreneur and folk architect, presides over the funky (in a genteel way) community of Vero Beach. We stayed at the Driftwood Inn, originally designed by Sexton in the 1930s, incorporating driftwood and other flotsam and jetsam into the rambling structure.
You Can Tip a Canoe (and kayak too)
You don’t need to bring kayaks along, as we did, to enjoy paddling along Florida’s rivers and coastal areas. Kayak rentals are available at Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge, Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Sebastian Inlet, and local outfitters for reasonable prices (averaging to per day). For novices, guided tours that include basic instruction are also available.
Check out citrus stands in this prime, citrus-growing area near the Indian River. Stopping at one stand, we bought bags of juicy grapefruit and oranges to take home. The owner threw in generous samples of hybrid tangelos and other fruit for free.
Weathering the Storm
Hurricane Frances recently slammed into Vero Beach, but initial reports indicate that the damage was less severe than had been expected. Still, nearby citrus growers took a huge hit. Many may be forced to sell to developers, which will hasten the demise of this pleasant remnant of old Florida.
I was glad we’d brought along our beach bikes for leisurely cycles around the area. Many of the Treasure Coast’s communities feature bike lanes, not to mention idler-approved, flat terrain, and the local drivers, many elderly, always gave us a wide berth.
Break It UpIt’s a marathon drive from Maryland, where we live, to Florida. We broke the trip by stopping for several days in South Carolina – at Myrtle Beach going down and Beaufort coming back. While this gave us fewer days in Florida, it proved less taxing overall.
…the toll road that runs parallel to I-95 in Florida is going to be faster. The one time we succumbed to "fast lane mentality," we got caught in one of the worst traffic jams we’ve ever been in on this road. It was particularly frustrating to watch nearby traffic on I-95 whizzing smartly along the whole time.
On the Other Hand
The A1A, running parallel to (sometimes joining) Route 1 is slow, but enjoyable. It occasionally crosses the Intercoastal Waterway, providing views of yachts and waterside homes, and remains pleasantly low-key until near West Palm Beach.
Our first stop was the Treasure Museum, which details how Spanish ships traveling with treasure from the New World made the treacherous journey along Florida’s coast on the way back to Spain. Storms and pirates took their toll, and, in 1715, a hurricane sank a Spanish fleet on the shoals near Sebastian. While much of the treasure was retrieved by the survivors and eventually made its way to Spain, the remainder lay buried in sand and silt until it was rediscovered in 1928. Gold doubloons, jewelry, porcelain, cannons, weaponry, and other items were brought to the surface, and today many of these artifacts are housed in the museum.
Our main purpose for coming to Sebastian Inlet, however, was to kayak. From the boat launch near the picnic pavilions, it was an easy paddle across the inlet to a world of mangrove hummocks and still waters. It was so shallow in some areas that big groups of white pelicans were resting on exposed sandbars. We could see the sandy bottom mere inches below us, and more than once we simply got out and waded. Rounding the edge of a mangrove hummock, we’d often startle wading birds fishing in the shallows. Although we could hear the distant drone of outboard motors, there was a stillness and sense of expectancy as we glided placidly along. We stopped in a sheltered spot, linked our kayaks together, and shared the lunch I’d packed, afterward lying back in our boats to sunbathe.
The fishing at Sebastian Inlet looked so promising that we wished we’d brought rods and reels. Along two long fishing jetties, fishermen hauled in impressive catches. Brown pelicans sat in rows along the pier, hoping for castoffs, while on the beach groups of rare wood storks seemed indifferent to passersby. Herons and egrets, as well as osprey, were among the many birds we spotted, and it was clear that plentiful fish and crustaceans make this area popular with angler and avian alike.
Towards sunset, after a long but satisfying day kayaking, cycling, and strolling around Sebastian Inlet, we walked across the pedestrian bridge spanning the inlet, watching as shafts of golden light pierced the clouds in an almost unearthly display. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 13, 2004
Sebastian Inlet State Park
9700 South A1A
Vero Beach, Florida 32951
I’m always amazed that I can get off the interstate in Florida, drive a few miles to a park entrance, and within minutes be in a world that seems as remote and timeless as any distant wilderness. Endangered species, such as sand hill cranes, bald eagles, and gopher tortoises make their home at Jonathan Dickinson, and the park is an important nesting site for sea turtles as well.
To Paddle, Perchance to DreamThe ranger at the entrance gives us a big smile as we drive up with kayaks on our car. She quickly gives us the low-down on the paddling scene, and it’s clear that she’s speaking from personal experience. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and it seems an eternity rather than the few minutes it actually takes to locate the boat ramp and unload the kayaks. We’re impatient to be out on the river.
There’s little activity late on a weekday afternoon, though a group of children noisily congregate at the playground near the concession area and a few people are launching canoes from the rental dock. Sound carries far out over the water, and as we paddle away from the dock, a young girl’s persistent call for her brother - "Jaaaay-son, Jaaaay-son, Jaaaay-son" - seems to follow us along the bends in the river.
Eventually, she gives up (or finds Jason), and there is only silence, punctuated by the splash of a fish or flap of a startled heron. The mangrove swamp is a mysterious place; among its roots and trunks lurk shy, watchful animals. I catch repeated glimpses of some unidentified brown bird wading beneath the mangrove canopy, no doubt hunting snails or crustaceans. However, the ospreys, with their nests atop dead cypress trees, are easily spotted. I wonder, briefly, if the ibises, egrets, and the other striking birds of Florida would seem as prosaic to me as cardinals and mockingbirds are back home if I lived here, or if they would retain that indefinable aura of the exotic.
Near sunset, we’re heading back to the boat ramp when we’re arrested by a striking evening ritual: dozens of black vultures are coming to roost in the cypress trees, an eerie, but somewhat comical, spectacle as they flap and jostle for position. I’ve seen vultures roosting before, but never in such numbers. We drift over and are greeted by a chorus of testy hisses and grunts, yet the vultures hold their ground. After a time, we slowly paddle away from this colony of carrion eaters and make our way back to the boat ramp, arriving as the last polychromatic display is reflected in the Loxahatchee’s still waters.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 13, 2004
Jonathan Dickinson State Park
16450 SE Federal Highway
Vero Beach, Florida 34947
We had just launched our kayaks into the Hillsboro Canal at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and were paddling alongside the levee, when I spotted the telltale snout, head, and back of a sizeable gator.
We kept a respectful distance, having read all the posted advisories discouraging visitors from approaching or feeding alligators. Still, it was something of a thrill, realizing that we were paddling through alligator territory.
A five-mile canoe trail runs through the refuge, which encompasses the remaining northern freshwater section of the Everglades. Visitors can boat, canoe, and kayak in the canals, or walk and bicycle along the levees. The refuge plays an important role in Florida’s water storage and flood control, but it is also a key wildlife habitat, attracting birdwatchers, wildfowl hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
I soon wish we’d brought binoculars with us, as we saw an incredible variety of bird life flitting through the saw grass and roosting in dead tree limbs. Red-shouldered hawks perched boldly on cypress branches all along the levee, while ibises, egrets, and herons waded along the edges of the canal.
It was a day of brilliant azure skies offset by fluffy white clouds, both above us and below us, mirrored in the still water. Soon, I’d succumbed to a Lethe-like stupor, mindful of little other than the sun on my shoulders and the delicate sensation of gliding over the water. It seemed I’d merged seamlessly into this world of tall grass and calm water, the tumult of the outside world becoming a distant memory…
KER-SPLASH! A sudden surge of churning water and violent snapping of reeds just in front of my bow shattered my reverie. For a second, I was stunned, and then reflex jolted me into action. Back paddle! Fast! One thing and one thing only could be making such a prodigious ruckus – an alligator. A big one. I hadn’t seen it, but it had certainly seen me. I’d shot backwards across the canal and was a good ways downstream before the agitated splashing and heaving subsided.
My heart was still pounding long after the ripples had faded from the water’s surface. While I knew that there are only a handful of alligator attacks in Florida each year, I couldn’t help but think I’d just had a better-than-average shot at becoming a statistic. Later, as I traded places with my son, watching as he and my husband paddled off together, I fought back a deeper fear. Luckily, it proved groundless when they returned safely just before sunset, slapping and cursing at a far more relentless and ever-present threat – mosquitoes.
A comic scene ensued, as we attempted to mount the kayaks on the roof of the car, all the while dodging and slapping the ruthless bloodsuckers. "Ow! Damn! Arghh! Hell’s bells!"
Lurking somewhere just offshore, I imagined, an alligator was watching the frantic dance of the human intruders. And smiling.
Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge
10216 Lee Road
Boynton Beach, Florida
It’s All About Waldo
The original owner and builder of the Driftwood, Waldo Sexton, may have died in 1969 but his spirit presides over this Sextonian vision of a Florida beach retreat. Some even claim he haunts another of his establishments nearby, the Ocean Grill. Sexton, who moved to Florida from Indiana in 1913, combined visionary flair with entrepreneurial zeal. He set out to promote Vero Beach, which was then a backwater bypassed by Henry Flagler’s resort-bound railroad to points further south. Ideas sprouted from Sexton like Athena springing forth from Zeus.
Among Sexton’s numerous projects and schemes were the McKee Jungle Gardens (recently restored), an ice cream parlor, numerous citrus groves, a dairy farm, a restaurant, and even a man-made mountain, where he intended to be buried. But Sexton’s business sense was offset by an eccentric’s mania for collecting – everything from driftwood to valuable antiques auctioned off for a song from the estates of the wealthy during the Depression.
Sexton originally built the Driftwood as a summer home for his family, incorporating odds and ends he’d amassed into the structure. Later he expanded the original four rooms to accommodate friends and visitors. His construction methods were spur-of-the-moment – he didn’t bother with blueprints but would simply direct the workers on site based on plans in his head. The resulting structures took on a magpie’s nest quality, with large pieces of driftwood forming support beams and glints of treasure set into the structures throughout – colorful tiles, statuary, stained glass windows, elaborate wrought iron lighting fixtures, and countless ships’ bells.
Tile at the Driftwood Inn
The Driftwood Inn is testimony to an endlessly creative mind, and in fact it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The Driftwood and several other buildings scattered throughout town are remnants of old Florida, a quieter time of simple pleasures. While some joke about "Zero Beach," deriding the town’s lack of liveliness, this is basically the way the locals like it. While swanky housing developments have arisen around the core of the old town, no one is all that interested in attracting tourist trade. Yet.
Everything Changes, But Not Always for the Better
I should add that not all of the current Driftwood Inn was planned or built by Sexton. In fact, in the 1990s the inn was expanded and modernized when it was converted into a timeshare facility. The newer rooms, while they may lack the whimsy of the original inn’s suites, have a casual Florida charm. We stayed in one of the newer rooms, and while we envied those with the original rooms with sliding doors out onto the beachfront balcony, there were so many Waldo-inspired touches just outside our door and throughout the compound that we didn’t feel seriously deprived.
Our suite consisted of a living/dining room and separate small bedroom area that could be sectioned off behind louvered partitions. This offered a modicum of privacy for my husband and me, with our son sleeping on the fold-out couch. The kitchen area contained a full-sized refrigerator and stove and the basic utensils and equipment, but it was cramped – only one person could fit in it at a time. The décor had a certain retro charm, with the light wood paneling I had forgotten about, but remembered as being popular in suburban dens of my youth in the 1960s. It fit right in with the overall weathered wood look of the Driftwood.
One much-appreciated feature was the ample storage space, with large shelves and a big closet set just inside the entrance – perfect for stowing our many sandy beach articles. There was also a large closet and convenient dressing area with vanity mirror and sink just outside the bathroom. All in all, it was a comfortable suite at a reasonable price. It felt more like we’d been given run of a friend’s beach place than staying in a hotel.
Tangible Remembrance of Things Past
On New Year’s Eve, the rock band performing at Waldo’s Lounge and Grill played Jimmy Buffet tunes and aging-hippie standards until just past midnight. Vero Beach, while actively courting well-heeled and soon-to-retire Parrotheads, doesn’t have much tolerance for late-night revels. My lack of sleep that night had more to do with having a head cold than boisterous partiers.
Rising before dawn, I went for a stroll to clear my head, padding quietly through the compound in the faint light. The pool area was deserted, the tiki torches long extinguished, and lounge chairs neatly stacked. Stray plastic cups and butt-filled ashtrays were the only signs of a party the previous evening.
Out on the beach, the sea glowed a muted lavender, with glints of orange and gold shimmering on the swells. A young couple walked hand-in-hand in the distance, while two fishermen cast their lines into the surf nearby. Aside from this, only the seagulls were out, but even they seemed subdued. Climbing the wooden steps up from the beach to the main section of the inn, I sat on a bench in the breezeway, listening to the tinkling of wind chimes and relishing the ocean breeze.
Fishermen at dawn, Vero Beach
I ran my hands over the deeply grooved initials carved into the mahogany table set in the breezeway, relics left by those who'd spent hours, days, or perhaps even months lounging here near the beach in years gone by. Surely I could hear the strum of a guitar, the crackle of a bonfire, and the clink of a rum bottle being passed from glass to glass if only I closed my eyes and let the past sidle up to me.