This Florida beach town charms visitors with an all-natural, laid-back beauty.
Just when you’re sure you’ve seen all that Florida’s sand-spun shores have to offer, along comes Vero Beach. Located on a lush stretch of Atlantic coastline, 140 miles north of Miami and just over 2 hours southeast of Orlando, this quirky, sophisticated town is often unfairly overlooked. But not everyone misses its charms. Sea turtles, snowbirds and surfers alike are lured by its balance of nature, culture and healthy living—a rare combination for a beach town.
From November through April, the population of Vero Beach booms with part-time residents who flock here from out of state and abroad for the fine winter weather. The young, trendy set from Miami and Fort Lauderdale is discovering the town, too, for weekend escapes from busy South Florida. But at its heart, Vero Beach remains a kicked-back natural beauty.
The scattering of hotels and condos here rarely rises above a few stories. And mixed in with the waterfront mansions are original Florida bungalows that look like places where Hemingway might have lived. Follow a hand-painted sign to a riverfront fish market or a streetside stall with fresh coconuts for sale—in Vero Beach, you never know what you’ll find.
LIFE'S A BEACH
Vero’s best-loved public beach is South Beach Park, at the end of the 17th Street Bridge. This pretty stretch of sand is nothing like the building-lined Miami-area beach with the similar name. The parking lot overflows on warm sunny days, but you’ll find plenty of room on the beach once you move beyond the boardwalk lined with sea-grape bushes.
On another day, it’s worth the 25-minute drive north to see Sebastian Inlet State Park, where anglers crowd a long pier to fish, and board riders find one of the East Coast’s finest surfing spots. The wild beach here is backed by dunes thick with native plants.
Between these two parks is the 248-acre Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, where some 20,000 sea turtles lumber onto the beach each year to nest. (In June and July, rangers take visitors on nighttime walks to watch the turtles laying their eggs.)
“X” MARKS THE SPOTS
In 1715, a fleet of Spanish galleons loaded with untold riches was en route from Havana to Spain when the ships were sunk by a hurricane just off Vero Beach (hence the area’s nickname, the Treasure Coast). Salvage divers still ply the waters here while beachcombers sweep the sands with metal detectors, hoping to get lucky.
As it happens, the chance of finding something is temptingly real. The oceanfront McLarty State Treasure Museum sits on the site of the wrecks’ survivors’ camp, and displays weapons, belt buckles and pieces of eight (Spanish silver coins) from the 1715 fleet. But the most interesting exhibit is a binder at the welcome desk brimming with news of recent finds. “When the Spanish made jewelry, they really packed it in,” says docent Myrna Lisevic, pointing to a 2007 newspaper clipping about a local woman who found a 69-carat emerald while combing the beach for sharks’ teeth.
That emerald—along with many other treasures recovered from Florida wrecks—is nearby at Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum. Check out the kid-friendly pirate displays and take turns lifting an authentic Spanish gold bar.
Treasures of a different kind are displayed at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. The permanent collection is mostly early-20th-century American works, while visiting exhibits often tie in marine and nautical themes.
“Where’s the best place to get sweet potatoes to cook for him?” a customer with a lab pup under her arm asks an organic farmer at the Saturday-morning Farmers’ Market OceanSide Vero Beach. It’s set across from an oceanfront park, and live music fills the air as people sample everything from Indian River grapefruits and orange-blossom honey to edible organic flowers and smoked fish dip.
A short stroll away is the Laughing Dog Gallery, whose exquisite objects (hourglasses, jewelry, chandeliers) are created exclusively by American artisans. Stop by Stephen Bonanno Sandals for handmade footwear encrusted with shells and beads. Or drive across the bridge to the mainland’s revitalized historic district along 14th Avenue, where you’ll find paintings, one-of-a-kind clothing and jewelry by local artists at Tulaa Gallery & Boutique and vintage teapots at Tea & Chi.
INTO THE WILD
“I feel like a nature-show host on a kayak whenever I go out on a trip,” says Kristen Beck of Kayaks, Etc. Wearing a leather safari hat jauntily embellished with an osprey feather, she leads a 2½-hour paddle around Vero Beach’s watery wonders. The Indian River Lagoon, between Vero Beach and the mainland, is North America’s most diverse estuary—home to 700 species of fish, 300-plus species of birds and a third of the nation’s endangered manatees.
Beck also offers a tour along the St. Sebastian River (a few minutes from the beach), where palms curve from the banks, kingfishers dive and manatees bob to the surface around you. You’re practically guaranteed to spot alligators. (“They’re hunted for barbecues; they don’t want anything to do with us,” assures Beck.) The waterway has been on nautical charts since the 1500s, when Spanish sailors filled their casks with drinking water here. Wild descendants of the hogs they brought with them can be heard snuffling through the surrounding forest. “None of our animals are animatronic,” says Beck. “Welcome to the real Florida.”