If you are looking for a Florida vacation without the hustle of big, touristy beach cities but with plenty to do and see, then make plans to visit a true hidden treasure on the Florida Atlantic Coast — Indian River County.
The Indian River is located between Cape Canaveral and West Palm Beach and is part of the Treasure Coast, an area where many shipwrecks — some dating back to the early 1700s — sank with their valuable cargo still on board.
The county truly lives up to its moniker of “Shoreline, Not High Rises” with miles and miles of white sand beaches, surf, and the quintessential tropical foliage and vibe that gives it its other moniker, “Gateway to the Tropics.”
Here are seven reasons to make Indian River County your next vacation destination.
1. Surf’s Up
Indian River County is the perfect place to catch the waves and do a little surfing. The location is under the radar of most surfers who would rather flock to Cocoa Beach and Miami’s South Beach.
A favorite destination is Sebastian Inlet State Park. The park boasts over 3 miles of shoreline with ample uncrowded access to the crashing waves. The standout spot is called the Monster Hole, which is actually a shoal formed by a manmade sandbar that serves up 10-foot waves.
There is an $8 per vehicle day-use fee charged to enter the park.
2. The Path Of The Paddle
Indian River County is the home of several classic Florida kayaking experiences.
Bring your kayak or rent one and paddle Blue Cypress Lake. The lake is lined with spectacular bald cypress trees, their knees jutting out of the water and their limbs draped in majestic flowing Spanish moss. Along the 21-mile-long shoreline, countless ospreys and their nests will be seen as well as the beautiful red-hued roseate spoonbill and an occasional alligator keeping a watchful eye on you.
Another not-to-miss destination is the paddle into the Indian River itself on the Jungle Trail. This trip begins at the Jungle Trail Kayak Launch at the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and leads you through mangrove flats before reaching the open water of the Indian River, where you can paddle for miles to explore several islands including Egret, Roosevelt (named after Theodore Roosevelt) and Pelican Island itself.
3. Snorkeling To A Shipwreck And Treasure Hunting
One of the truly fun experiences you can have in Indian River County is scuba diving, but you don’t have to don air tanks to see an incredible sight — the wreck of the SS Breconshire, an English-built steamer that sank in these shallow waters in April 1894 on its way from Tampa to New York. You can actually snorkel to it.
Located only 200 yards offshore and 20 feet beneath the surface, the action of the currents has taken its toll on the 300-foot vessel, having been broken up by the battering of the waves, but there is still much to see.
The bulk of the ship is still very much alive, having become a limestone reef that plays host to a wonderland of sea life — angelfish, stingray, sea urchins. Over 400 species of marine life will be found here. You may even be joined by a graceful loggerhead sea turtle passing by.
The perfect time to visit the wreck is when the water is clearest between May and July. You should bring along and deploy a diving flag to be safe and let boaters know you’re in the water.
Indian River County is part of the Treasure Coast of Florida, an area where over the centuries many shipwrecks have occurred with their valuable cargo lost at sea.
Treasure hunters have dived to the wrecks to get their share of the bounty, but we landlubbers may still find a few coins and shards of pottery along the shoreline. So bring along your metal detector and try your hand at it.
4. Picture Perfect
If you are into photography, then grab the camera bag and head to Indian River County. The landscapes, nature, sunrises, and sunsets are truly magnificent.
Start your day with a glorious sunrise and do a little beach and ocean photography at Sebastian Inlet State Park. The park features over 3 miles of beach with crashing surf along the north jetty and sea oats gently waving in the breeze along the dunes.
Then head over to explore America’s first wildlife refuge, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. The 5,400-acre refuge was established in 1903 near Sebastian, Florida by President Theodore Roosevelt and has several trails that take you through beautiful mangrove habitats and salt marshes. The best time to visit is from November through April when you will have your best chance at snapping pics of migrating white pelicans, nesting brown pelicans, river otters, and many more.
Wrap up your day with a stop in Vero Beach at Round Island Park. Nature trails lace the island, leading you through groves of palms and seagrass to a spectacular sunset from a tall observation tower.
Once again, there is an $8 per vehicle day use fee to enter Sebastian Inlet. The other sites are free. Pelican Island offers free ranger-led tours every Wednesday from November through March.
5. Art For Art’s Sake
Art lovers are in for a real treat in Indian River County. The county is renowned worldwide by artists for its tropical atmosphere which can only inspire creativity.
The hub for arts and culture is the historic art district in Vero Beach that has a plethora of galleries including The Laughing Dog Gallery and Gallery 14, which features juried shows and their annual Summer Squared Exhibit and Sale.
You can even explore your own creative side at the Vero Beach Museum of Art’s Cork, Canvas & Company event. Each Thursday, you are invited to bring your own wine and light hors d’oeuvres and local artists will guide you as you create your own masterpiece. Art supplies are provided.
The theater world is not left out. Get your tickets and catch a play at the largest small town professional theater in America, the Riverside Theatre.
6. Visiting Citrus Groves
Traveling down one of Florida’s interstates or backroads, you will see hundreds of signs advertising local businesses selling Indian River citrus, and there is a reason — the sweet and juicy citrus grown in Indian River is world-famous.
To really appreciate the sweet flavor of their legendary honeybells, red grapefruit, and fresh squeezed orange juice, you need to get it right from the source at one of the county’s remaining citrus groves.
In 1950, traveling salesman Henry Schact decided he wanted to start a citrus grove. His Schact Groves continues his dream today with quite the selection of citrus in their Citrus Shop and local treats and vegetables at the Farm Market.
Peterson Groves is one of the oldest in the county but has expanded to include locally produced honey, jellies, and gourmet sauces.
Meanwhile, Countryside Family Farms has taken the roadside citrus market a step further by hosting their annual Fall Festival and Maze. Held every October, the event has everything you would expect in a fall festival right down to the rubber ducky races and hayrides.
7. From Casual To Fine Dining
After a full day of exploring and having fun in the sun, you will find that Indian River County has quite an eclectic array of eateries sure to please every palate.
On the casual side, try Squid Lips Overwater Grill. As the name implies, this fabulous restaurant sits on the water at the end of a pier at Fins Marina. What makes their dishes special is that they are cooked over an open oak wood fire that seals in their juices and gives them a slight hint of oak flavor. You’ll love their bacon-wrapped scallops and smoked fish dip.
Then there is Capt. Hiram’s Sandbar Restaurant. Described as “the essence of Florida enhanced with a Bahamian beat,” the Sandbar is located right on the beaches of Indian River. You can’t help but feel the tropics as you dine on mouthwatering sandwiches, seafood, and pasta dishes among the palms. Top your meal off with an adult beverage like the Roxy Rita or Painkiller.
For something with plenty of Caribbean flavor, try the Zafem Caribbean Restaurant, which serves up the spicy flavors of the islands like conch creole and sauteed red snapper Thursday through Saturday evenings.
On the fine dining side, a great choice is Vero Prime. Patrons call the restaurant Vero Beach’s premier steakhouse, but it is more than that. With its intimate setting perfect for a romantic evening, Vero Prime serves up the most incredible rack of lamb with rosemary demi sauce and my favorite, shrimp scampi angel hair with roasted garlic, arugula, and diced tomatoes, all dripped in a white wine butter sauce.
When visiting the beaches of Indian River, please remember that the sand dunes help protect communities from the effects of storms and are also prime nesting grounds for migratory birds and sea turtles. Use the designated walkways when heading to the ocean and stay off the dunes.