Exploring the Treasure Coast of Florida
By Glenn Swift
A stretch of sand along Florida’s east coast is known as the Treasure Coast, where tranquil sands and a rich history await.
In September 1696, a young Quaker merchant of Jamaica named Jonathan Dickinson was shipwrecked near the St. Lucie Inlet along with his family and other passengers and crew members. Dickinson encountered the local Ais Indians, a tribe that lived along the shores of the great lagoon called Rio de Ais by the Spanish, and now called the Indian River.
Although Dickinson never returned to the area, his name lives on in Jonathan Dickinson State Park, an 11,500-acre preserve near Hobe Sound that allows visitors to step back in time and see what this pristine area looked like before it was settled by Europeans. Located at the confluence of the Indian River Lagoon and the St. Lucie River in southeastern Florida, the St. Lucie Inlet includes the communities of Stuart, Jensen Beach and Hobe Sound. The inlet separates the barrier islands of Hutchinson Island to the north and Jupiter Island to the south. In stark contrast to the faster pace just to the south, these surf destinations feature a culturally vibrant, yet laid-back quality of life centered on Treasure Coast beaches, boating, fishing, community and the outdoors.
Dickinson was not the first European in the area, of course. St. Lucie first appeared on the maps of Spanish explorers in the early 16th century as Santa Lucea. And less than 20 years after Dickinson’s woes, a Spanish treasure fleet was shipwrecked. It was the first of many galleons carrying gold to wreck, giving the region its name, the Treasure Coast of Florida.
Because of the area’s isolated location and the treacherous reefs just offshore, the structure known as Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge was established to provide food and shelter to shipwrecked sailors. The nearby Elliott Museum boasts exhibits focused on art, history, and technology.
St. Lucie is known for its fishing. Dubbed the “Sailfish Capital of the World,” the peak months are December through March, then June and July, with more than a dozen tournaments filling calendars from October through January each year. In addition to marinas, deep-sea charter and professional guide services are readily available.
Featuring a remarkable amount of shoreline for its small size, Stuart boasts a charming, walkable historic downtown. The Lyric Theatre, a former silent movie house, anchors the heart of the restored downtown in neoclassical style and is the town’s most visible landmark. It has hosted an eclectic mix of classical and pop performances, from Vero Beach country singer Jake Owen to Ricci Martin, the Rat Pack member’s son.
The town’s old courthouse, now the Court House Cultural Center, contains scheduled art exhibits and sponsors the ArtsFest each March. The Stuart Heritage Museum, formerly the George W. Parks General Store, memorializes the town’s early 20th-century history and architecture.
The city is on its second name. When first settled in the early 1890s, it was called Potsdam, a name selected by German settlers. Following the 1895 arrival of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, the town was renamed after local landowner, Homer Hine Stuart.
Located about 10 miles south of Stuart is the village of Hobe Sound. With an eclectic assortment of Treasure Coast, Florida shopping spots, boutiques and galleries, Hobe Sound hosts cultural events that draw people from the entire Treasure Coast, like the Hobe Sound Festival of the Arts in early February. The town’s name comes from the Jobe Indians (the Spanish pronounced the name “HO-bay”), one of the Native American groups that lived in the area before the European settlement.
Hobe Sound is home to one of Florida’s finest nature preserves, the aforementioned Jonathan Dickinson State Park. This 11,500-acre refuge contains an abundance of tropical and subtropical wildlife and offers camping, canoeing, hiking, bicycling, picnicking and fresh and saltwater fishing. The 40-foot Loxahatchee Queen III offers two-hour-long exploration of the upper reaches of the Loxahatchee River, which is accessible only by boat and includes a ranger-guided tour of the restored camp of Trapper Nelson, the famous “Wildman of the Loxahatchee.”
Jensen Beach was once known as the “Pineapple Capital of the World” before a combination of deadly freezes, blights and fires destroyed the industry at the turn of the 20th century. The prototype Old Florida beach town, it has a roundabout and a handful of good (and unpretentious) restaurants including Conchy Joe’s (on the water) and 11 Maple Street (gourmet in an Old Florida house).
The town, which sits on the land side of the Intracoastal Waterway, is home to many local restaurants. Just up Indian River Drive, the town’s most famous eatery is the Dolphin Bar and Shrimp House, a seafood house boasting a spectacular river view. Known for years as Frances Langford’s Outrigger Resort, it was owned by Langford, a 1940s and 50s-era movie star best known as Bob Hope’s sidekick.
Conservation-minded Langford lived in the town for more than 50 years before her death in 2005. Ask any local, and he or she will tell of Langford’s generosity and then send you to nearby Frances Langford Park, which has baseball diamonds, a playground and fitness trails. Not only does the restaurant have photographs from Langford’s Hollywood career, but patrons waiting for a table can have a look at her vintage fishing reels.
To visit Jensen Beach’s oceanside beauty, head out on the causeway to Hutchinson Island. Treasure Coast beach lovers frequent Sea Turtle Beach, a wide, sandy beach named for the loggerhead and green turtles that lay their eggs there in late spring. Heading south on Hutchinson Island, you’ll come across Bathtub Beach, which is popular with families because a coral reef protects the shore and keeps the waves to a minimum.
Jensen Beach hangs onto its history and uses it to its advantage. Even though the pineapple industry collapsed by 1920, the pineapple is a permanent part of the town’s identity. The annual Pineapple Festival (complete with the crowning of Miss Pineapple) is held each November and remains Jensen Beach’s defining community event.