By Chloe Berge
The musical trumpet of a giant conch shell sounds as the front of our boat, the Schooner Lily, knifes through the St. Lucie River. “It’s paradise,” says Luke, first mate on the decades-old wooden boat, motioning out over the water. The sailor moved here to Martin County, along Florida’s Treasure Coast, from the UK when he was 10 years old and he’s still smitten.
The sorbet sky and setting sun turns the calm waters gold and casts the palm-lined beach in silhouette. Our boat captain and Treasure Coast Sailing Adventures founder, Fred Newhart, explains that the estuary we’re travelling along has a high saline content, which means it’s teeming with wildlife, including manatees, pelicans, and peregrine falcons that swoop down from the sky towards us. Just as the last halo of light disappears from the horizon, a pod of dolphins leaps from the water, as if escorting us back to the harbour.
The Treasure Coast gets its name from the loot that’s still being discovered to this day from shipwrecked Spanish fleets that sailed the area in the 18th century. But spend a few days in Martin County and you’ll realize the real gems are to be found in the towering slash pine trees of its parks, its azure waters – home to sea turtles – and its warm, hospitable people. Indeed, they’ll be the first to tell you that in some ways, they wish they could keep their shores a secret. “When I drive into town, I love that you can still see the ocean,” says local resident Nerissa Okiye. “It’s a calm, peaceful place.” A four-storey building restriction means the county has been able to preserve its natural beauty.
Jonathan Dickinson State Park | Martin County Office of Tourism
My exploration of the coastal landscape begins at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, named after a 17th-century merchant who found himself shipwrecked in the area. Located in Hobe Sound, the 10,500-acre park is mapped with pine forests, mangroves and river swamps. Biking and hiking trails are flanked by bushy sand pine scrub and leggy slash pine trees that bloom with greenery at the very top, like leafy umbrellas. Rare Florida scrub jays (a close cousin to the blue jay) can be spotted nesting in the trees, and endangered species like the Florida mouse and gopher frog may scurry and hop across your path.
The park is also home to alligators and bobcats, but on the two-kilometre Kitching Creek Nature Trail you’re unlikely to cross paths with any. The mostly at trail winds through low pine atwoods and along Kitching Creek, a tributary of the Loxahatchee River, where you can pause for a meditative moment in front of its murmuring waters. A hike up Hobe Mountain, Florida’s highest natural point of land, will treat you to a view of waterways and farther a field, the Atlantic Ocean.
Loxahatchee River | Martin County Tourism Office
Outside of the park, I explore the county’s mangroves by boat. The naturalist guide at Riding the Waves decides to trust me to drive my own small catamaran through the Jupiter Narrows, a waterway anked by 2,000 acres of undeveloped public land. I zip around red mangroves, the roots of which are often seen decorated with oysters, which help to filter the water and keep the ecosystem healthy. Wading birds like herons and egrets dot the mangroves’ edge, and taller Australian pine trees shelter the nests of osprey, which feed off the plentiful fish found in the waters. We make a stop at Hobe Sound Wildlife Refuge Beach and tread down through the sugary white sand to dip our toes in the azure Atlantic. The area is nearly devoid of people, and this secluded stretch of beach isn’t limited to Hobe Sound.
Hutchinson Island | Martin County Office of Tourism
Not far from where I’m staying at the Marriott Beach Resort and Marina in Hutchinson Island, are some of Martin County’s most scenic slices of waterfront. Sea turtles build their nests in the sand under the shade of waxy sea grape trees– many of which you’ll see flagged and marked off to protect the animals – tall grasses dance in the wind, and sun-kissed surfers dip in and out of the ocean.
Before the blazing Florida sun is too high, I set out on a paddle board at Sailing Fish Flats with Zeke’s Surf and Paddle. “I’ve lived here all my life and I’m still amazed by all the creatures you see here,” says co-owner Leisa Bee as our boards skim towards a sandbar. The serene paddle is punctuated by the periodic splash of schools of small, shimmering silver fish that sail over the inlet’s surface like synchronized swimmers.
The deep, crystalline water affords views straight down to the sandy bottom, where manta rays swim alongside sea turtles and in between conch shells. Fluorescent comb jellies can often be seen glowing blue and red on the ocean’s floor, says Leisa. I’m not lucky enough to spot anything else on this outing, but floating on my board with only the sound of the wind and waves enveloping me feels like reward enough in itself.
When you go
Hutchinson Island Marriott Resort & Marina | Martin County Office of Tourism
WHAT TO DO: While you’ll want to get your toes in the sand and surf, Martin County’s rich maritime history also merits exploration. Built in 1875, the House of Refuge is the only remaining structure of its kind along the Florida coast and has a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The houses which once dotted the coast were manned by families who would look out for sailors in distress, take them in, and help them find their way back home. A walk through the original house gives a glimpse into the unforgiving life led by the families and sailors alike. Not far from there is the Elliott Museum. Named after inventor Sterling Elliott, the airy, two-storey museum boasts permanent exhibits detailing the history of the Treasure Coast, as well as technology and art.
WHERE TO DINE: To start the day, head to Bunkhouse Coffee in Jensen Beach for an acai bowl topped with fresh fruit and coconut flakes. In Port Salerno, head to The Twisted Tuna, a waterfront pub with postcard views of docked boats and palm trees. Order the smoked tuna dip (a local favourite) or blackened mahi-mahi tacos. If small-town Florida charm is what you’re after, head to The Gafford in Stuart and order the locally caught sword fish.
WHERE TO STAY: Wedged between the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean and the intercoastal waterway, Hutchinson Island Marriott Resort & Marina is a serene home base while in Martin County. Spread over 200 acres, the resort has inviting outdoor pools, two restaurants, an 18-hole golf course, 13 tennis courts, a fitness centre and a mini-spa.