On a Mission in Martin County

The surprising Florida shopping and culinary destination that's just a ride away

In the 20-plus years Nancy and I have been married, we’ve traveled across America and Europe for writing projects or merely for pleasure. No matter where in the world we travel, at every stop there always seems to be two goals: 1) Find a new place to eat and 2) Find a new place to shop.

Even when we return home to Florida, there’s always that lingering desire to find a destination where we can repeat steps one and two. Was there anywhere in our own backyard that we had ignored?

Enter: Martin County.

A new look at Old Florida

Some background: When we championed the renovation of a historic theater in our hometown a few years ago, we traveled to Stuart’s famed Lyric Theatre to see how ours could take shape. And, after buying our own B&B, we scoped out Martin County stores for furniture, and their B&Bs for “innspiration.”

We were more than ready to return to Martin County. It turns out that while we were busy fixing breakfasts and making beds, folks here were fine-tuning one of Florida’s most delightful shopping districts. While we were on research road trips, hip new restaurants and green markets had opened for business. From Jensen Beach to Palm City to Stuart, from Hobe Sound to Hutchinson Island to Indiantown, folks had recycled historic districts into trendy ones. Having renovated the aforementioned B&B, this touched our hearts. What else had we missed?

In downtown Jensen Beach, vintage real estate had been transformed into The Art Cottages of Jensen Beach. A century-old collection of motor court cottages had been repurposed into an outdoor mall of art galleries, home décor, fused glass, boutiques, and antique shops. Strolling along the avenue, we were delighted by the international array of shops and restaurants such as Crawdaddy’s, for New Orleans-style cuisine, and We Be Jammin’, a shop that’ll save us a trip to the islands with its funky and eclectic array of watches, rings, bracelets, and jewelry. We bought a whimsical “Life is Good” decorative surfboard for our bathroom, and Nancy found a swimsuit cover that she “absolutely needed.”

We couldn’t help but notice a larger wood-frame house at 11 Maple had been converted into a restaurant called, appropriately, 11 Maple Street, where a variety of flowering bushes climbed the white picket fence and framed the entryway. Intrigued by its exterior, the scent of what was cooking in the kitchen led us to ask for a table for dinner.

The interior had rustic, antique decor featuring bare brick walls, rich wood sills, and complementary gentle touches of flower and lace. Nancy ordered the blue crab cake with fried green tomatoes—a Southern staple—served with a carrot reduction that was the perfect sauce for the acidity of the tomatoes and the taste of the blue crab. I splurged on the wood-grilled Spanish octopus, which was topped with roasted shiitake mushrooms, Kabocha squash, and more. It might have been a while since we had been to Jensen Beach, but we already knew we’d be back for more tastes.

We knew there was more to see—more cities, more coastal drives, more stores…. It was time to head south to Stuart, where we were staying.

A most distinct district

Luna Downtown in Stuart, Florida

Having given our own B&B a British Colonial theme, we’re always curious how others design their B&Bs. Built in 1913 and billed as “A Historical Tropical Inn,” the Sam Matthews House piqued our interest.

The classic Key West-style home was in a residential neighborhood just minutes from the beach. We loved the home’s gingerbread trim and the pineapple cutouts in its picket fence. Paddle fans with palm frond blades and bursts of tropical flowers in the garden sparked a few new ideas. Nancy especially loved the lighthearted touch of a claw-foot tub in the garden, its running shower constantly filling the tub to create an original fountain.

But what really knocked our socks off—what revealed how truly cool Martin County had become—was just a few blocks away. Downtown Stuart is, in a word, exciting.

We sensed the vibe as we approached the next morning. An electric trolley rolled past, shuttling passengers to shops and boutiques. Hundreds of people were dining at outdoor cafés, fragrances floated from open doors and into the sidewalks luring us into places like Simple Pleasures Bath & Body, where soaps and lotions and exfoliating scrubs were displayed. A few years ago, we had cruised to Panama, where I purchased a few bars of oatmeal soap. Ever since the last bar vanished down the drain, I’ve been hunting in vain for replacements. And now, thanks to Stuart: Found it!

For a light snack, we headed into the Osceola Street Café and ordered from the small plates menu. I had the crab stack with avocado, cucumber, mango, and cilantro. Nancy ordered the Catalan shrimp with tomatoes, savory Kalamata olives, garlic butter, and grilled ciabatta. Osceola Street Café is only a short jaunt from the Lyric Theatre, which brought us here so many years ago. It was a lovely reminder that while some things have changed, including the ambiance in Martin County, some things should stay the same.

The hits kept coming. There was a cigar shop (Smokin’ Premiums), hot sauces (Sauce Shack), chocolates and ice cream at Kilwins and Hoffman’s (is this what heaven smells like?) and, at Earthtones, a fantastic array of cool clothing, hats, hammocks, sandals, and novelties including one of Nancy’s favorite signs: “Anyone caught exiting through this door will be asked to leave.” This was too good to pass up. It’s now hanging by our front door.

Underscoring the fact that this is a beach town was Gumbo Limbo, whose shelves were filled with an array of eclectic home décor items. There were accessories for the kitchen and bath, as well as candles, cards, jewelry, wine, prints, purses, glasses, picnic baskets, and original paintings by local artist Lori Lynn. A few doors down, Gumbo Limbo Coastal Kidz featured items geared for a younger clientele.

Hanging with the locals

From Stuart, our next destination was Hobe Sound to visit Jonathan Dickinson State Park, one of Florida’s best. Driving south, at the intersection of US 1 and Bridge Road, we noticed a restaurant with a flood of cars. Remembering our two travel goals, I pulled over.

There’s nothing we love more than funky Florida restaurants that reflect the personality of the owner, and it turned out that Harry & The Natives is that place.

Polaroid snapshots were laminated beneath our tabletop, vintage posters, and prints along with aquatic odds and ends hung on walls and ceilings. Dozens of couples and families were dining at a spacious covered patio where a live band played hits from the 70s. (You’ve never seen anything until you’ve watched a group of women dancing to “I’m A Man.”)

Back at our table, we agreed that everyone in Martin County seemed to practice friendliness as an art. We looked back over the day and realized that was true of every server and store clerk. The story was the same here at Harry’s. From the moment we received a menu to the time we paid our tab, hospitality was the main entrée.

From Harry’s impressive menu, we settled on the chicken jambalaya with rice, sausage, shrimp, onions, peppers, and a spicy Cajun sauce. It sounded great, it looked better, and its taste exceeded our expectations. The only thing that could top this main dish would be an amazing dessert. We should have known…

Nancy and I have probably looked at several thousand menus across the world, but not one of them ever gave us the option of ordering 1st Place Orange Pie. Sharing the texture of a key lime pie, but with a gentler orange taste was like eating a creamsicle with a crust.

Although it had been years since we’d been there, in just this short time, Martin County reminded us why we had traveled there in the first place.

And reminded us why we’d be back.

Next, get your fix of art in Martin County.