Discovering ‘Old Florida’ in Martin County

No theme parks. Few chains. Lots of quiet. Welcome to Florida’s gentler side.

Story by Jennifer Merrick, Vacay.ca Writer

STUART, FLORIDA — Martin County, situated 140 kilometres (87 miles) north of Fort Lauderdale on the Atlantic coast, offers visitors a chance to discover what some refer to as “Old Florida.”

It’s an authentic Florida that emphasizes its rich natural heritage and history.

Here are some highlights of visiting this area.

The 1,000-year-old Cypress Tree

“Look down the boardwalk to your left and up. That’s what a 1,000-year-old Cypress tree looks like,” said Chuck Barrowclough, our guide at the Barley Barber Swamp.

For a few moments our normally boisterous group was silent as we took in its majesty. Adorned with Spanish moss and with vines wrapped around the silver-barked trunk, it’s the star attraction of this 400-acre nature reserve that shelters a diverse eco-system and indigenous flora and fauna.

We were thrilled to spot alligators and bald eagles, but the ancient tree enthralled us most. I couldn’t help but think what stories it would be able to tell if it could. Remarkably, this worthwhile tour is free although donations are encouraged to continue its conservation work.

Stories with Your Fried Chicken?

Though the cypress couldn’t tell its story, we found someone at our next stop that regaled us with tales of a Florida of yesterday. Jonnie Flewelling, innkeeper of the Seminole Inn, has strong family ties to the area.

Her grandmother was the first post mistress of Indiantown, and the family still retains post office box number one. Flewelling is a gifted storyteller and her accounts of the Seminole natives, early rancher “crackers” and of her inn riveted me. The Seminole Inn has been welcoming guests since 1926 and has been in the Flewelling family for 40 years. Stays can be as relaxing as rocking on the wooden chairs on the porch or as adventurous as hunting for wild hogs.

What the property is perhaps best known for is its country brunch.

“We draw people in from Jacksonville to Miami and often book out,” Flewelling says. After partaking in southern fare that included biscuits, meatloaf, collard greens and the crispy fried chicken, I could understand why.

“My mother stood over me for 20 years before she let me make it myself,” Flewelling says of the meal.

These recipes, and more importantly the stories that permeate every detail of the Seminole Inn, are perfect examples of an Old Florida experience.

America’s Happiest Seaside Town

Voted America’s happiest seaside town by Coastal Living Magazine, Stuart embraces the classic Florida pace of life, and it would be challenging not to be cheery when exploring its many charms. And we were definitely smiling as we wandered down Osceola Street popping into its colourful shops and galleries. The grins were especially big when we stepped into Kilwin’s Chocolates, where the smell of caramel and fudge greeted us.

Later, we contentedly strolled along Stuart’s Riverwalk and admired the stunning mile-long Roosevelt Bridge across the St. Lucie River.

Superb seafood also tends to put me in a good mood and we certainly found that at Spoto’s Oyster Bar, where we enjoyed uber-fresh mahi-mahi, calamari and oysters. Ahhh … happiness, indeed.

Recycling Your Dinner

The oysters that I had relished the night before turned out to be part of a recycling initiative, which we learned about at Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center. This program collects discarded shells from restaurants like Spoto’s and uses them to create new oyster reefs, which prevents erosion and purifies the water.

“The community really comes together on this project,” said our guide and told us there were hundreds of volunteers who help out.

Oyster reef restoration work is just one of their many educational and research programs at this 57-acre marine life nature centre located on Hutchinson Island. Displays like the Stingray Touch Tank, Sea Turtle Pavilion, Game Fish Lagoon and nature walks through the Mangrove Forest are hands on, interactive, and just plain fun for kids and adults.

Surf’s Up

We spent our final evening in Martin County in the tiki-covered courtyard at Kona Beach Café listening to live music and enjoying margaritas and fish tacos. Owner Frank Wacha, sometimes referred to as the unofficial mayor of Jensen Beach, is as laid back as the community itself.

“I went surfing this morning,” he told us, which is especially impressive considering a recent shark bite. Everything about Wacha and the Café is authentic, inviting and reminiscent of the charms of Old Florida.

MORE ABOUT VISITING MARTIN COUNTY

Getting There: Most visitors fly to either Orlando or Fort Lauderdale and drive to their destination in Martin County (approximately two hours from either airport). We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Stuart and were impressed with its convenience, helpful service and full breakfasts.

More Info: Visit the websites of Discover Martin County (www.discovermartin.com) and Visit Florida (www.visitflorida.com) as you plan your trip.