Growing up in Florida, I was able to visit much of the state through weekend road trips with my family. We often would pile into the car having just come up with a destination, then head out knowing we could find a motel and places to explore and new things to discover.
Now I travel the state finding pieces of the past to appeal to my nostalgia. One recent stop was in a place with enough of my past to evoke those emotions, but also combined with a sense of community expressed through art, nature and downright friendliness. I am already planning to return.
Martin County, on Florida’s east coast, is an escape from the congested beaches and bumper-to-bumper traffic found in many places. Here there is a distinctive vibe that embraces both the natural environment and the arts, in places that maintain the human scale and sense of community I remember from my youth. The small towns and cities are inviting and comfortable. But this modern version of Martin County is not stuck in the past. It celebrates all of the Florida lifestyle with recreation, beaches, shopping, fine restaurants and enchanting inns.
From the laid-back Atlantic coastal towns, to the open prairies, pastures and groves in the west, there are plenty of reasons to visit this county.
As you look at Martin County on a map it is rather square-ish, bound by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and by Lake Okeechobee on the west. There are several charming coastal towns sharing a similar vibe, but each is still distinctive. Then there is an outpost over near the “Big Lake” with its dramatically different Old Florida charm. Here’s a whirlwind tour from north to south to west to help plan your visit.
Starting on the northern border is the tiny town of Jensen Beach on the Indian River. It is easy to spot. You know you have arrived when you see brightly colored Key West-style cottages. Drive to the center of the small community to enjoy the galleries, studios, restaurants and boutiques of this artsy small town. For dining enjoy Pineapple Jack’s Bistro, named for the pineapple plantations that were once the area’s claim to fame, or try the highly regarded 11 Maple Street Restaurant. For lodging, consider the Jensen Beach Inn. It is a beautifully appointed inn with rooftop views and easy access to this walking town.
A few miles south is Stuart, with a thriving pedestrian-friendly downtown of shops, galleries and restaurants. Many of the buildings date to mid-20th century, updated, of course, but still maintaining quaint charm of decades past while melding nostalgia, history and art. Stuart shines either as a destination, or as a jumping off spot to dive into all that Martin County offers. Once the hub of Florida’s pineapple plantations, where the fruit was packed and shipped north by rail, the town still has local trains passing through, adding historic ambiance of an era when locomotives took produce north and brought the first wave of tourists to Florida’s east coast. In the center of downtown is Sailfish Circle where Stuart’s signature bronze Sailfish sculpture, created by local sculptor Geoffrey C. Smith, towers above the sparkling fountain. For lodging with genuine history and charm, consider the Sam Matthews House, a downtown inn offering gracious accommodations.
Just down the coast is Port Salerno. “Authentic Florida" truly describes this place, where the Indian and St. Lucie Rivers meet and flow into the vast blue Atlantic. It’s perfect for those who want to head to the harbor for a day on the water. Captains are standing by ready to book a world-class sport fishing charter or even an ocean cruise. Enjoy a beverage at one of the waterfront restaurants, and if you're hungry, get your fill of shrimp cooked any way you like at--where else?--Shrimpers.
On Martin County’s south side is the quaint community of Hobe Sound, where tree-lined streets and stunning beaches make this small town a real charmer. Art is evident in more than 22 public murals inspired by local artisans to create the feel of an outdoor art gallery. Boutiques, antique shops, jewelers, galleries and delicious restaurants create a special one-of-a-kind experience. Hungry? Ask any local and they’ll tell you that for food, no visit to Hobe Sound is complete without visiting Harry and the Natives, an offbeat, local hangout with unusual décor and music.
Miles of ranchlands, citrus groves, sugar cane fields and flatwoods separate the coastal towns with the other town in Martin County. On the west side is Indiantown, the county’s rural center, which has a charm all its own.
At its heart is the gracious Seminole Inn, a 1926 restored historical inn built during the Florida Railroad boom. In the lobby, greeting every visitor while 1920’s era music wafts in the background, is a 30-year old parrot named Crackers.
Here you can learn about history and hear of bygone eras, but what you really don’t want to miss is the restaurant, where the menu is legendary and Sunday Brunch is a must. Mainly known for its fried chicken, sweet potato casserole and “the best fried green tomatoes anywhere,” it also serves scrumptious homemade desserts, especially the peach cobbler.
Both sides of Martin County reflect a Florida that is disappearing. Friendly small towns, historical and cultural charm, and beauty in art and nature certainly make this place the priceless gem of the Treasure Coast. You’ll want to visit soon and see so much of what used to be.
For more information on your visit: Discover Martin County
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