Discovering the real treasures of Florida’s Treasure Coast

I like destinations that surprise. And although I’ve been to many beach towns on the east and west coast of Florida, this was my first visit to Florida’s Treasure Coast. And it certainly won’t be my last. Locals call it “Florida’s Best Kept Secret” and after discovering its treasures, I totally agree.

Indian River County is located just 34 miles south of Melbourne and 87 miles north of West Palm Beach. This northern part of the Treasure Coast is made up of three delightfully unique towns: Vero Beach, Sebastian and Fellsmere. Vero Beach is magical with windswept beaches dotted with seashells and shorebirds. Sebastian is a quaint riverside fishing village and Fellsmere an idyllic, eco-friendly wonderland.

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About the Treasure Coast

This scenic area is aptly named as the burial ground of a Spanish treasure fleet returning from the New World to Spain. In July 1715, eleven of the twelve ships in this fleet were lost in a horrible hurricane near present-day Vero Beach. The galleons were filled with a huge hoard of looted gold, silver, gems and artifacts now worth billions of dollars.

Although much of the treasure had been recovered, there was still much to discover. Today, treasure hunters continue to search these Atlantic waters for gold, jewelry and other historical pieces. Locals have found sunken treasures just 10 feet from shore or washed up on the beach itself. And given that a Spanish wreck is just 100 meters from Wabasso Beach, it’s easy to get to for adventurous divers and snorkelers.

But the real treasures of the coast are not in the loot, but rather in its nature reserves, its ecotourism, its sublime coastline, its magnificent beaches, its thriving artistic community and its absolutely fascinating historical narratives.

Stay on a perfect beach

The Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa is an absolutely stunning place to stay in this beautiful area. This chic beachfront sanctuary is ideally located on a pristine beach with stunning ocean views and the most majestic sunrises.

Rooms and suites are beautifully appointed, and the hotel offers two impressive beachfront dining options. One of the best things about staying at Kimpton is its prime location, within walking distance of local restaurants and charming boutique shops. ‘Ocean Drive from Vero Beach.


Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa
Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa (Photo by Noreen Kompanik)

Discover the Pelican Island refuge

One of the best Vero Beach experiences was a visit to Pelican Island, the birthplace of our nation’s first federally designated wildlife refuge. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars.

Established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the 5,400-acre refuge encompasses the Indian River Lagoon. The main purpose of the sanctuary was to save one of the last remaining brown pelican rookeries on the east coast and to prevent egrets and other birds from becoming extinct due to over-hunting by plume.

As the refuge is the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States, it is also an ideal way to connect with nature. Pristine, scenic, and filled with over 30 different species of birds in addition to sea turtles, manatees, and yes, alligators, the refuge is heaven on earth for nature lovers. Paved trails make it easy to get around, and there are scenic lookout points to snap photos and see even more of nature’s blessings. It is truly remarkable.


McKee Botanical Garden
McKee Botanical Garden (photo by Noreen Kompanik)

McKee Botanical Gardens

This lush, exotic property on the National Register of Historic Places has been named by National Geographic as one of “22 Most Soothing Places of Surprise and Sanctuary in North America.”

I can attest to this description of this impressive garden paradise. Home to over 10,000 tropical plants, the scenic 18-acre grounds include stunning ponds, waterfalls, streams, trails, and a diverse collection of water lilies, orchids, and other native vegetation. We spent two hours wandering around the beautiful gardens and wished we had more time to explore. It’s really beautiful… and historic.

The property purchased in 1922 was originally called McKee Jungle Gardens. In the 1940s, it was one of Florida’s oldest and most popular attractions, attracting over 100,000 tourists a year. But as Central Florida continued to grow and expand, the garden’s popularity waned. McKee closed in 1976 and immediately fell dormant.

In 1994, this awe-inspiring place was resurrected and reopened to the delight of botanic garden enthusiasts around the world.


Explore the McLarty Treasure Museum
Exploring the McLarty Treasure Museum (Photo by Noreen Kompanik)

McClarty’s Legendary Treasure Museum

This intimate museum may not be large, but it is huge when it comes to its treasures. McLarty showcases gold, silver, copper and other riches salvaged from the 11 galleons that sank in these warm Atlantic waters. Original artifacts on display include weapons, equipment and personal items from the ships and their crews. Customers can even get their hands on a gold nugget worth half a million dollars.

Even today, rescuers continue to search offshore in hopes of recovering more of the lost bounty. Certainly the king of treasure hunters was Mel Fisher, the visionary and world leader in historic shipwreck salvage whose team uncovered $450 million worth of local treasures in 1985. We loved the museum exhibits and photos showcasing the many years of successful treasure hunting by this legendary and fearless man. .


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Early morning on the Indian River Lagoon at the Environmental Learning Center (photo by Noreen Kompanik)

Eco-tours at the Environmental Learning Center (ELC)

There’s no better way to explore fascinating ecosystems and estuaries than by getting right on the water. The ELC, as it is known locally, is a 64-acre lagoon island reserve located just off the Wabasso Bridge.

In 1988, a group of environmentally conscious local pioneers formed the Center to preserve the breathtaking and unspoiled island. Their mission then, as it is today, is to “educate, inspire and empower all people to be active stewards of the environment and their own well-being”.

This Indian River lagoon is home to a great diversity of flora and fauna and a popular spot for birdwatching. Canoe or kayak enthusiasts will love the guided tours meandering along the mangrove trails. Pontoon boat rides are also offered. Other activities include exploring by bicycle, meditating in the butterfly garden or even choosing a therapeutic walk in the moon forest. There are plenty of cool options in this incredibly scenic lagoon region.


Highwayman Harold Newton poinciana painting 1958, personal collection of Roger Lightle, Highwaymen Art Specialists, Inc.
Highwayman Harold Newton poinciana painting 1958, Roger Lightle Personal Collection, Highwaymen Art Specialists, Inc. (Photo by Noreen Kompanik)

Learn about legendary road bandits

Perhaps the most surprising part of my visit to the Treasure Coast was learning about the famous story of the legendary road bandits.

It was in the 1960s, in the Jim Crow South, when a group of black artists tried to present their works of brightly colored oil landscapes in local galleries. All the galleries turned them down, but these enterprising African-American artists (including one woman) persevered.

Instead, they took to the highways of Florida, selling their parts at highway stops for just $25-35. Today, these historic paintings sell for thousands of dollars and can be found in museums across the United States.

We had the privilege of going to the Florida Highwaymen Landscape Art Gallery to see Ray McLendon working on a painting. His artistry follows in the footsteps of his father, Roy McClelland, one of the first Highwaymen. The works these talented artists have produced and continue to create are incredibly impressive.


Wabasso State Beach
Wabasso State Beach (Photo by Noreen Kompanik)

Choose your perfect beach

What is it about the beach that instantly inspires us to breathe deeply, let go and relax?

With 26 pristine miles of alluring deserted beaches and 10 places to lay your beach blanket and umbrella, Vero Beach and Sebastian offer beachgoers some spectacular choices. Whether you enjoy surfing, paddleboarding, throwing Frisbee, building sandcastles, collecting seashells, or sunbathing, the area with its sea grape-covered paths and hidden enclaves offers plenty of space to unwind. connect with the surf. And unlike many beaches on Florida’s east coast, the waters of the Treasure Coast are crystal clear and tourmaline.

Poet Julia Alvarez once said, “Don’t plan everything. Let life surprise you from time to time.

My visit to Florida’s Treasure Coast did just that. He unexpectedly served up one surprise after another, much to my delight.

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