On July 31st, 2015, divers struck gold when they found 4.5 million dollars’ worth of Spanish coins off the coast of Vero Beach, 170 miles southeast of Orlando. It’s just a fraction of the loot that was lost when 11 ships laden with jewelry and precious metals capsized during a hurricane in 1715, exactly 300 years earlier, on their return to Spain.
Those riches have been washing up on Florida’s mid-eastern coast ever since, and it’s why this region, which encompasses St. Lucie, Indian River and Martin counties, is known as Florida’s Treasure Coast.
Though we didn’t unearth any gold coins on our recent trip, we did discover a treasure trove of vacation gems. Here were some of our favourites.
Indian River County
“We are now entering Osprey Alley,” said Captain John, and we were treated to the sight of several large nests and their feathered inhabitants. We marvelled at mothers taking care of their fledglings, fanning them to keep them cool. These graceful water birds were just one of many wildlife sightings on this unforgettable airboat tour of Blue Cypress Lake. We also spotted alligators, turtles, eagles, great blue herons and the adorable two-day-old moorhens.
Lunch was also memorable at Capt. Hiram’s Resort’s Bahamian-styled Sand Bar. Surrounded by palm trees, our feet sunk in the warm white sand, it was the ideal island ambiance for noshing on conch fritters and mahi-mahi tacos. The best part is you can eat as much as you want because the magic mirror in the women’s washroom makes you appear 20lbs thinner. “I want to take it home,” murmured one patron while admiring the distorted, but oh so flattering view.
Our next boating excursion was straight out of a James Bond movie on the aptly named yacht, ‘Moonraker’. Fully equipped with kitchen, showers, a BBQ and even a hammock, this 40-foot catamaran sailboat can be chartered for a couple of hours or an entire day. We sailed on a sunset cruise, a picture-perfect introduction to Vero Beach, a destination often referred to as Florida’s Hamptons. We capped off this fine evening at Ocean Grill, a local institution known for its seafood, ocean view and stately atmosphere.
Hawaii aside, there’s nowhere more southerly in the US than the Florida Keys, an arc of a hundred tiny islands curving towards the Caribbean, just 90 miles south. The feeling is just as tropical: here, teal-blue waters lap at mangroves and soft mudflats, and pastel houses line sherbet-bright beaches.
As midwinter tightens its icy grip across the pond, the Keys enter their sunniest, driest time (though waters are rarely less than warm any time here). Make a beeline to one of the Keys’ prettiest stretches, Islamorada, a chain of five beach-fringed islands surrounded by unbroken vistas of blue. It’s hard to get much closer to the sea than the Pines & Palms Resort, a cluster of white-painted cottages surrounded by palm trees right on the beach.
If you can drag yourself out of your hammock, it’s also a good base for experiencing the area’s water-based pleasures: snorkelling among schools of tropical fish, barracudas and even sharks and sea turtles in the midst of one of the USA’s few coral reefs. Another option is a tour on an electric boat, gliding silently through mangroves and lagoons; or take a canoe to Indian Key Historic State Park, a ghost island where jungle trails lead among ruins, and dolphins and rays ply the waters.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Many of the pastel-hued suites and cottages of Pines & Palms have balconies or patios right on the beach, and there’s also a pool. The resort can arrange activities such as bike rentals and snorkelling. Robbie’s offers the listed tours.
AirCanada, Norwegian, Swiss, Thomas Cook Airlines and US Airways fly to Miami from London and Manchester. It’s then 90 mins by minibus to Islamorada.
Europe is a place where people come from,” wrote Henry Morrison Flagler more than 100 years ago. “Nobody should actually go there.” The self-made American developer, railroad magnate, oil baron, and partner of John D. Rockefeller in the creation of Standard Oil, built the magnificent Breakers in 1896, importing master European artisans to create his twin-towered, Medici villa—inspired extravaganza.
Today, the ultra-affluent enclave of Palm Beach has other top-drawer mega-resorts to be sure, but the 140-acre Breakers was the first to envision Florida’s then wild and alligator-infested swamplands as the playground destination of choice for the North’s most socially prominent families.
Rebuilt after a fire in 1926, it is possibly the most remarkable beachfront hotel on the eastern seaboard, having secured its priceless sliver of real estate way back when competition was nonexistent. A heroic $145-million lily-gilding renovation has recently put it back on the map.
Vaulted ceilings, frescoes, Venetian chandeliers, 15th-century Flemish tapestries, and a friendly, snap-to staff of 1,300 combine with a cool Floridian palette of sea foam greens, aqua, and seashell pinks to create the ultimate warm-weather resort. Gorgeously manicured, fountain-splashed grounds are shaded by more than 3,000 regal palms (representing thirty species) and include two 18-hole golf courses (one of which was Florida’s first) and twenty-one Har-Tru tennis courts.
Meandering pathways lead down to a half-mile of private beach, the breezy location of the hotel’s Beach Club and Mediterranean-style 20,000-square foot indoor/outdoor spa.
Still the pacesetter for theme parks around the globe, the brainchild of entertainment giant and genius animator Walt Disney is an ever-expanding universe of make-believe and escapism, celebrating magic, technology, nature, and, of course, Mickey Mouse. In the 30-plus years since it opened its doors, the 30,000-acre former cow pasture has developed into four distinct main theme parks, each of which nurtures its own personality.
The Magic Kingdom (opened in 1971), the lighthearted fantasy world that revolves around Cinderella’s Castle, is home to two of Disney World’s most famous (and very different) attractions: It’s a Small World and Space Mountain. Epcot (1982), the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, is an educational theme park where thrills are mostly of the mind, with attractions such as the very popular Spaceship Earth. At Disney-MGM Studios (1989), visitors walk right onto a “Hollywood that never was and always will be” movie set that blends nostalgia with high-tech wonders (don’t miss the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror).
The 500-acre Disney’s Animal Kingdom (1998) is Disney World’s largest and newest theme park, with more than 1,000 animals (from giraffes to lions) roaming in a natural, Serengeti-like setting. Three themed water parks fill out the Worldly options.
There are countless less expensive (and less fantastical) hotel options in the Orlando area, but make the magic last by staying in one of the Disney-owned and-run hotel/resorts. The benefits are numerous, including sheer logistics:They’re close to the principal attractions and are linked by complimentary boats, buses, or monorail.
Of Disney’s luxury options, the re-created gabled vintage of the Victorian-style Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa is one of the most elegant and least contemporary in atmosphere, evoking the breezy days of a turn-of-the-century summer resort.
Sometimes called the “Hearst Castle of the East,” the Italian Renaissance-style Villa Vizcaya was completed in 1916 as the extravagant wintertime retreat of Chicago industrialist James Deering, known for his deep pockets and keen European sensibility.
A thousand continental artisans labored for five years to create the estate and its world-famous bay-front gardens in then-undeveloped Miami (whose population at the time was less than 10,000), incorporating a rich collection of antique doors, gates, paneling, ceilings, fireplaces, and decorative arts brought home from Europe by the owner and his architects.
Deerings’ fascination with 15th-through 18th-century art and architecture is obvious in every detail of the lavish mansion, forty-two of whose seventy rooms are open to the public. It’s a remarkable paean to late Renaissance architecture, authentic enough to convince visitors that it’s been standing here overlooking Biscayne Bay for 400 years.
Of Vizcaya’s current 28 acres (all that remains of the original 180), 10 are dedicated to formal gardens planned by Deering’s Florentine-educated landscape artist. Adaptations were made to accommodate South Florida’s brilliant light and subtropical climate, but the stone fountains, grottoes, statuary, and plant life still evoke a Mediterranean grandeur of centuries past and make a favorite spot for wedding photos. The waterfront tea house, with its little footbridge, is a traditional proposal spot.
As Miami continues to nurture its role as an international crossroads, the hot-spot neighborhood of South Beach remains its vibrant, glamorous, multicultural core, open 24/7. Much of the neighborhood’s visual allure derives from palm-lined Ocean Drive, along whose length (from 5th to 21st Streets and east to Alton Road) lies the largest concentration of tropical Art Deco architecture in the world, some 800 pastel treasures from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this electric concoction of teal, lavender, pink, and peach buildings houses outdoor cafes, shops, nightspots, condominium apartments, chic hotels, and world-class restaurants, but the real artwork here is the parade of people.
If all the world is a stage, Ocean Drive is its casting couch, its sidewalks and eating places fairly choked with alarmingly good-looking people. It’s all best appreciated from Ocean Drive’s Cafe Cardozo (in the Cardozo Hotel at 13th and Ocean Drive), a kind of 24-hour reviewing stand that allows you to step out of the path of the year-round tourist crush and take in the sights.
To really escape the rollerbladers, buffer-then-thou poseurs, and Euro invaders, retreat to the cool oasis of the ultra-hip but classy Tides Hotel, a Deco queen from 1936. All of its oversized seaward-facing rooms are done in a quiet, good-taste style and have telescopes for “beach combing.” The Tides’s small but excellent lobby-level restaurant, 1220 at the Tides (the hotel’s address) is a total scene-and-cuisine experience.
Before SoBe, Joe be, touts Miami Beach’s (and possibly the nation’s) number-one crab institution, referring to its decades of renown prior to the rebirth of its trendy neighborhood, South Beach. Word spread quickly when the family-run place first opened; in 1913, and the line to get in has been long ever since. On the menu, the stone crab: A delicacy of sweet meat that is as much a symbol of Miami as the palm tree or the state seal, and especially delectable because of its limited-season availability (mid-October to mid-May).
At Joe’s, they come in four different sizes (from medium to jumbo) and the standard order is an ; imposing mound of crabs, served with drawn butter or a piquant and creamy mustard sauce, coleslaw, creamed spinach, and cottage-fried sweet potatoes. For dessert, the Key lime pie is the real thing. Freshness and quality are paramount, but if you can’t indulge in person, Joe’s will FedEx you your fix, overnight. That helps explain why they sell about 200 tons during the average crab season, with 1 ton alone served on a good day in the 450-seat indoor restaurant, manned by a formally attired staff. Tender and sweet, Joe’s crabs aren’t cheap, even though they come from local waters—Damon Runyon once said they were sold by the karat. Go anyway and find out what all the hype is about—but be prepared to wait.
The dust has long settled since Miami’s 1990s explosion of designer-hotel openings and renovations, but today the boldly stylish trailblazer of the lot, the Delano, still percolates at the epicenter of Miami’s social scene.
Opened in 1995, the yin-yang collaboration of hotelier Ian Schrager and designer Philippe Starck immediately attracted the style conscious of the world to this spare, all-white, tropical 1947 oceanfront landmark (named after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the patriotic spirit of that postwar time). To see why, enter the movie-set-worthy dark-wood lobby through 30-foot diaphanous white curtains and prepare for your jaw to drop. Designed in a manner even minimalists would consider minimalist, the hotel possesses an elegant simplicity full of surreal twists and turns, all of it both refreshing and confounding to its roster of international fashionables or anyone fed up with the neighborhood’s ubiquitous Art Deco theme.
The style is carried over to the white and light guest rooms, but emphasis is on the public areas—the lobbies, restaurants, and bars. The fantasy swimming pool is the cool-pool of choice in South Beach and one of the hotel world’s most famous, with classical music piped in underwater and cafe chairs and tables set up in the ankle-shallow end. And even now that Madonna is no longer a partner, the casually formal Blue Door restaurant is still a coveted booking.
Linked in name and image—and in real life, by a bridge—Sanibel and Captiva are part of the hundred littoral islands basking in the sun off the west coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. They share a reputation as one of the world’s best shelling locales, with palm-stenciled sunsets, tarpon fishing that’s unparalleled in North America, and what is left of laid-back Old Florida. This may be the only warm-weather vacation spot where tourists pray for a storm, since a good northwest wind will fill the sandy white beaches with shells from some of the 400 species of marine life that have made these two small islands world-class treasure troves. So eager have the shell-happy been that taking live shells away is now banned. But shell collectors doing the “Sanibel Stoop” or “Captiva Crouch” at low tide are welcome to claim uninhabited shells, such as angel’s wings, jewel boxes, king’s crowns, or lion’s paws, although many choose to leave their finds behind, explaining it’s the memories they enjoy collecting, not the shells themselves. The island’s shell culture culminates with Sanibel’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the only museum in the country dedicated solely to shells.
Those bothering to look up will find further confirmation that nature is king at Sanibel’s J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where foot-and bicycle trails and kayak and canoe routes crisscross the nearly 7,000-acre preserve; this is bird-watching at its finest.
If you’re not feeling detached enough from the mainland and its everyday demands, visit Captiva and Sanibel’s three most interesting neighbors in Pine Island Sound, car-free islands accessible only by boat. Cayo Costa State Park is an uninhabited barefoot Eden with deserted beaches whose shelling is arguably the best around. Cabbage Key, a 100-acre, down-home, real-life Margaritaville, is said to have inspired Jimmy Buffett’s classic “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” And genteel tum-of-the-century- looking Useppa Island is a Gatsbyesque (and privately owned) enclave that was once the refuge of Teddy Roosevelt and his tarpon fishing friends, and today warmly welcomes day-trippers and overnighters for excellent seafood lunches at the Collier Inn. Catch-and-release tarpon fishing originated here, though today the capital of the sport is nearby Boca Grande (on what is sometimes referred to as Gasparilla Island).
Sometimes you just don’t have time to fly to the South Pacific. But when the pressing need for a shot of Robinson-Crusoe-goes-tropical calls, the Gauguin-like experience of Little Palm Island fulfills all expectations. A sleek 1930s-style motor launch brings guests to the hotel’s private 5-acre island in the lower Florida Keys, where the first impression is one of exotic perfection. There are fourteen thatched-roof bungalows, sitting on stilts and shaded by rustling palm trees, populated by an international mix of pampered guests lolling in rope hammocks or scattered about the rare-for-the-Keys sandy white beaches like so many washed up sea shells.
The tropic – style accommodations are rustic (there are outdoor showers) but grand (indoor bathrooms have Jacuzzis), and TVs and telephones are purposefully absent to help guests get away with getting away. Little Palm Island is a special place, and it’s not hard to imagine it as it was until the 1960s: an elite fishing camp favored by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, among others. The hotel will gladly arrange a number of interesting off-island excursions, like a day trip to historic and picturesque Key West or nearby Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, where snorkelers and divers can explore the last living coral reef in North America. There are plenty of other activities available, but most guests choose to do nothing more than indulge in sacred inactivity, nursing a Rumrunner or Gumby Slumber and watching another Technicolor sunset while awaiting the next remarkable meal.