Meticulous types put off by minor flaws such as a loose tile in the bathroom or a few stray ants wending their way harmlessly across the kitchen counter are forewarned: this is not your kind of place. Those not given to white-glove inspections, however, may be charmed by the Driftwood Inn’s one-of-a-kind touches and laissez-faire charm. This is the beach, baby. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
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.