Florida’s Hidden Gem

Martin County offers authenticity, beauty, and truly great outdoors

What fuels my passion as a traveler is simple. Something different every day. Exploration is beautiful, and I love getting immersed in destinations near and far.

When I journeyed to Martin County to explore its great outdoors, my day was anything but routine. I found rivers and lagoons and wildlife centers and sanctuaries. There were boat rentals, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. Plus, there was a national wildlife refuge and a historic state park. And there was fishing—plenty of it.

This trip delivered far more than expected. Including a little something called the Atlantic Ocean.

A new look at Old Florida

With the Atlantic to the east, the Intracoastal Waterway (Indian River) snuggled up beside it, and the St. Lucie River filling in the blanks, I could connect the dots of Jensen Beach, Hutchinson Island, Stuart, and Hobe Sound simply by traveling down the coast. With more time (and, trust me, next time there’ll be more time), I plan to explore Martin County’s four other distinct communities: Indiantown, Tequesta, Palm City, and Port Salerno where, I hear, there’s a great seafood festival.

Other favorite regional festivals include October’s historic Indiantown Rodeo, a nearly 70-year-old RCA/WPRA event that has been a popular (and traditionally sold out) display of dust and muscle and skill and horsemanship. At November’s Stuart Air Show there are aerobatic planes, experimental aircraft, and restored warbirds displayed on the ground and speeding across the sky, with entertainment, parties, fireworks, and festivities throughout the weekend.

But, back to now. Over my car radio, I heard my belly grumble to remind me that I’d skipped breakfast. I headed straight to Jensen Beach Boulevard where, mixed in with an assortment of restaurants and shops, was Jan’s Place, a bakery/restaurant that turned out it to be my place as well. The decor was kitsch and the lighting fixtures didn’t match, but from the moment I walked in, I was treated like a regular.

From a lengthy menu, John (who earns high marks as one of the best servers ever) brought me the one thing I really wanted. The char-grilled cheeseburger was perfect in aroma, temperature, and taste. It was—I kid you not—the best cheeseburger I’ve ever had. Forget breakfast. This was the most important meal of the day. The fries were crisp and the sweet tea never ran dry. I was too embarrassed to ask for one to go (John had already refilled my glass three, maybe four hundred times), but when John noticed I was leaving empty-handed, he ran back to get me yet another sweet tea for the road. Perfect service. Perfect meal.

Now I was ready to roll.

Where the roads lead

Florida's Hidden Gem

Attracted by a nearby store that promised “Sand Fleas • Mullet • Shrimp • Live Bait Fish,” I dropped into the historic Snook Nook, which has been helping people land the catch of the day since 1949. I didn’t have time for a fishing excursion, but based on the line of folks buying live bait and gear, I think the Snook Nook can start planning their centennial celebration.

The popularity of fishing in Martin County became even more evident as I headed across the Jensen Beach Causeway onto Hutchinson Island. I saw people fishing from beneath the span at a waterside county park—it never stopped. I saw people fishing from piers. I saw them fishing from bridges. People were on the shore casting lines into the surf. They stood on sturdy rocks and swaying boats and wooden docks, and dropped lines for more than 800 species of fish, including sailfish—after all, this is the “Sailfish Capital of the World.”

When I landed at Jensen Beach Park on Hutchinson Island, I was reminded of long-ago family vacations on the beach. Along the shore, umbrellas looked like a rainbow planted along the endless white sands. As I splashed in the translucent aqua waters close to shore, beyond the sandbar a few boats bobbed in deep blue sea.

Curious about its unusual name, I dried off and got back into my car to continue south to Bathtub Reef. Rounding the bend on MacArthur Road there, the reef was yet another fascinating surprise. Running the length of the waterfront and stretching well beyond the bay, the hard-packed coral, which peeked out of the water in places, was being explored by swimmers and snorkelers. For this lifelong Floridian, it was an amazing sight. I was eager to see more.

This land is your land

As I drove over a series of bridges that took me over rivers and inlets and into different communities, I was locking together pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle that gave me a clearer picture of Martin County. This was made especially true when, earlier, I reached the crest of the causeway. Not only could I see the turquoise Atlantic, I could look north across the county line where a row of towering condos stretched for miles. But before me and far to the south the view was unimpeded. County planners, it turns out, wisely chose to limit buildings to four stories so everyone can see the ocean. Every visitor can savor this extraordinary view.

With time running low, I decided to use my last few hours of daylight in Hobe Sound. Just south of the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge (which I’d save for a later visit), I arrived at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. It was the right decision. Within its 11,500 acres—more than 25% of Martin County is parks and green space—is gathered the very best of Martin County’s outdoors. Even better is that this park captures the interest of kids, couples, families, and seniors. It has something for bicyclists, anglers, campers, birdwatchers, equestrians, and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Driving past palmettos and scrub pine, I headed to the far end of park. A pontoon boat, the Loxhatchee Queen, was waiting for passengers, its guides ready to point out the lucky wildlife that call this place home.

A weather-beaten boardwalk led to the Hobe Sound Mountain Tower, which was rooted atop a massive sand dune. Up, up, I climbed—from the top, the view was unobstructed. Catching my breath, I looked in all directions. I stood there for quite a while, marveling at the expanse of low, level earth. There was the endless Atlantic and the lengthy Intracoastal. In the west, Martin County.

The sun was dropping and my heart was pounding.

Martin County had shown me Florida as I had never seen it before.

When I got home, I started perusing the internet for an excuse to return. I found two. In November there’s the Stuart Seafood Festival as well as the Pineapple Festival in Jensen Beach. I think my palate and I will need to investigate both.

Discover more of Martin County.