While too many of Florida’s waterfront cities have succumbed to claustrophobic overdevelopment, tacky tourist traps, and high-rises, Vero Beach remains the breath of fresh air. Though classified as a city, Vero, with a strict policy that no building can exceed four stories, feels more like a seaside village. It’s the rare place we didn’t know still existed in the Sunshine State.
Unique in many ways, Vero is a quietly sophisticated coastal hamlet where blue collar workers happily coexist with billionaires. Among its offerings: a world class art museum, top shelf street shopping, scenic natural wonders, and the best Atlantic beach south of Georgia. While most flock to Miami, Orlando, Tampa or the Keys (let them), Vero’s under-the-radar charms makes it the real resort getaway. It’s unsurprising that Oprah recently strolled the town’s Ocean Drive shopping district in broad daylight completely unnoticed.
I first visited Vero and the surrounding Indian River County in 2003, and each passing year I discover new pleasures in this unspoiled corner of Florida.
Ocean waves on Vero Beach (photo by Xaque Gruber)
1. NATURAL WONDERS
Looking for peace of mind? It’s astonishing to me the lack of people on Vero’s perfect beaches. Walking long stretches of white sand, you’re likely to meet more pelicans, sandpipers, and turtles than humans. Speaking of turtles, over one fourth of the world’s sea turtles nest in Vero and surrounding beaches as they have since the dawn of time.
In fact, a late night turtle nesting tour is a must for any nature lover. In early June, I was fortunate enough to witness a coffeetable-sized Mama sea turtle lay her annual 120 eggs (which look just like ping pong balls) into the sand as shooting stars lit up the night sky overhead. Afterward, we watched the massive turtle schlep back into the blackness of the ocean for another lap around the Atlantic. The babies hatch two months later to begin their life at sea, and though few ultimately survive, the ones that do return to Vero Beach to the very spot where they were hatched. Incredible.
The Sea Turtle Nesting Tour at Sebastian Inlet State Park:
Sea turtle nesting on Vero Beach (photo by Vero Vine)
At the turn of the 20th Century, many species of Florida’s seabirds were nearing extinction as a result of plume hunting. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt established our first National Wildlife Refuge with Indian River County’s Pelican Island, rightfully placing the area’s magnificent natural splendor in the country’s spotlight. Today the three acre island remains a special sight, and the adjoining 900 acre Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge teems with the most beautiful and unusual variety of wild birds I’ve ever seen. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/pelican_island/
The Indian River Lagoon, which runs between the mainland and the barrier island, is the most biodiverse lagoon ecosystem in Earth’s Northern hemisphere. Home to more than 3,000 species of plants and animals, it’s best explored by kayak with Florida Outdoor Center’s nature guide Kristen Beck. On my recent kayak voyage, a friendly dolphin swam over to check me out. http://www.kayaksetc.com/
If you’ve never taken an Airboat Tour, you’re missing out on an up close and personal Florida wildlife extravaganza. We glided over the marshy waters of the Blue Cypress Recreation area with Captain Lawrence Kyzer on his Florida Cracker Airboat. Alligators of every size swam around us navigating through cinematic swamps bursting with blooming lotus blossoms. If you’re lucky, you’ll also see osprey nesting, herons devouring catfish, and swamp rabbits darting about. Yes, swamp rabbits are real.
The Indian River Lagoon at sunset (photo by Xaque Gruber)
And if you prefer to experience Vero’s waterways with a cocktail in hand, allow Captain Bruce Jackson and his Moonraker (a forty foot luxury Manta catamaran sailboat) to deepen your appreciation for nature. The Moonraker’s crew will serve whatever food or drink you bring aboard. Smooth and relaxing sunset or moonrise cruises depart from the Vero Beach City Marina. Perfect for celebrating any occasion.
The Environmental Learning Center, a 64 acre natural lagoon island preserve located off the Wabasso Bridge is an excellent place for the whole family to visit and learn about Florida’s complex intracoastal ecosystem. http://www.discoverelc.com
One of Vero’s most lushly wondrous outdoor spaces is McKee Botanical Gardens, which National Geographic listed as one of the 22 Most Soothing Places of Surprise and Sanctuary in North America. Their annual life-size dinosaur exhibit is the closest thing you’ll experience to Jurassic Park. http://www.mckeegarden.org/index.php
Lifesize Parasaurolophus at McKee’s Botanical Garden (photo by Xaque Gruber)
2. DELICIOUS DINING
Vero’s restaurants hold special thrills for seafood lovers with fresh local fish that you might never have heard of – and won’t likely find in other parts of the country: permit, pompano, cobia, unicorn filefish, tripletail, snook, fresh water crappie, or any one of the 15 species of Grouper.
The finest Grouper dish to be had in Vero is at The Tides (3103 Cardinal Drive), Chef Leanne Kelleher’s intimate, upscale dining destination. It’s no wonder they’ve collected dining awards for their pan seared potato crusted local grouper – with jumbo lump crabmeat, roasted shiitake mushrooms, shallots, and Indian River citrus beurre blanc. If seafood’s not your thing, you cannot go wrong with any of the entrees at The Tides. And the wine list has received the Award of Excellence from The Wine Spectator for 15 consecutive years.
Are you a crab or lobster fan? Roll up your sleeves, get your bib on, and hit the no frills The Crab Stop (2263 14th Ave) – a crab and lobster feast without peer.
Other recommended area restaurants include Citron at the Village Shops, Maison Martinique, Scampi Grill, Osceola Bistro, and The Ocean Grill designed by one of Vero’s most colorful founders, Waldo Sexton. All use locally sourced ingredients and deliver course after course of culinary bliss.
The Ocean Grill (photo by the Gent Family)
And there’s an embarrassment of riches in Italian dining: Trattoria Dario, Amalfi Grille, and Avanzare. Or try Pomodoro (3055 Cardinal Drive) for the best eggplant parmigiana you’ll ever taste.
For Asian cuisine, Siam Orchid (762 21st Street) covers many bases and does it well: sushi, Thai curries & soups, and Japanese dishes.
My favorite brunch spots are The Lemon Tree (3125 Ocean Drive) for quality comfort fare and The Patisserie (1910 Old Dixie Highway) featuring the best breads, soups, coffees, sandwiches and gourmet pastries in town. http://www.patisserieverobeach.com
In need of a beer? Orchid Island Brewery (2855 Ocean Drive), Vero’s only microbrewery, is a small family run pub offering delicious home-brewed ales infused with Indian River County citrus. http://orchidislandbrewery.com
Just a bit north on Route 1 is the charming riverfront district of Sebastian, home to one of the area’s hot spots, Captain Hiram’s, featuring fresh local seafood and tasty cocktails all with a Caribbean flair. Not your average eatery, Captain Hiram’s (named for a real life soldier who perished at Normandy) is a hotel, gift shop, banquet hall with sweeping water views, outdoor concert venue, and even a wedding stage at water’s edge.
Sunset view from Captain Hiram’s (photo courtesy of Captain Hiram’s)
If Caribbean cuisine’s your thing, Mo-Bay Grill, also on the Sebastian riverfront, is the best Jamaican food in the area, which makes sense since Chef Wesley Campbell was trained on the island nation. Highlights include Jamaican Jerk chicken, oxtail stew, curried goat, plaintains, conch or codfish fritters – all mouthwatering. I’m getting hungry just writing this. http://mobay-grill.com
One of Indian River County’s great claims to fame is their exquisite citrus, and it does not disappoint. For unparalleled harvests, stop by Poinsettia Citrus on Route 1 or Peterson Groves and Nursery (3375 66th Ave). A tucked away gem is White Rabbit Organic Farm featuring the freshest organic produce (located on a dirt road at 7195 37th Street – payment is the honor system).
Fine art, quality theatre, cinema, and opera, Vero has all of these in spades. The town’s historic downtown features at least a dozen fabulous art galleries. Worth exploring is the monthly First Friday Gallery Stroll held from 6 – 9pm the first Friday of every month. http://mainstreetverobeach.org/stroll.html
I was stunned when I first visited The Vero Beach Museum of Art (3001 Riverside Drive) because for a relatively small town this is one impressive place. Meticulously curated exhibits, painting and sculpture collections, film screenings, library, and art classes for all ages – there is something for everyone. This is the nation’s largest art museum created by private funds, which speaks to the art-mindedness, dedication and affluence of Vero citizens. http://www.verobeachmuseum.org/
The Vero Beach Museum of Art (photo courtesy of Vero Beach Museum of Art)
Directly across the street from the Museum of Art is The Riverside Theatre, Florida’s largest professional Actor’s Equity theatre. It features a distinguished array of Tony Award winning musicals and plays, impressive lecturer series, stand up comedy at their Comedy Zone series, Howl At The Moon dueling piano cabaret shows, and an adjoining children’s theatre.http://www.riversidetheatre.com/
The Vero Beach Opera Guild offers opera concerts in venues all around town including onscreen at Vero’s Majestic 11 Cinema. Metropolitan opera soprano Deborah Voigt, has partnered with the VBO Foundation to mentor young opera singers and she also hosts an international vocal competition in Vero. http://verobeachopera.org
Film lovers have much to rejoice about with the annual Vero Beach Wine and Film Festival, which made its inaugural splash in June 2016. http://vbwff.com
The Majestic 11 (940 14th Lane) offers Hollywood’s latest blockbusters for a five dollar movie ticket. AMC Indian River 24 Stadium Theatre features a roomy multiplex experience at the Indian River Mall (6200 20th St).
For foreign and classic film buffs check out the Vero Beach Museum of Art’s specially curated monthly film lineup as well as the museum library’s extensive film collection to rent. Yes, the best video rental store membership in town is in the heart of the art museum!
This is not a town of cheap tourist shops. In fact the shopping selection in Vero rivals nearby Palm Beach. Noteworthy are the upscale boutiques on and around Ocean Drive as well as the elegant and unique Village Shops on Route A1A. http://villageshopsverobeach.com
The courtyard of Citron at The Village Shops (photo by Vero Vine)
Nearby Indian River Mall has Dillard’s, Macy’s, and 70 specialty stores. The Vero Beach Outlets (1824 94th Drive – just west of Highway 95) features over 60 designer and brand name stores boasting big discounts.
The Ocean Drive Farmer’s Market (ranked #11 in the U.S. by Clean Eats Magazine) happens each Saturday from 8am to 12Noon. Vendors offer a wide array of delicious food options, fresh produce, gift items, baked goods. Worth investigating. http://www.verobeachoba.com/#!farmers-market/cev
5. BEAUTIFUL BEACHSIDE HOTELS
What do Gloria Estefan and Walt Disney have in common? For one, they’ve both built fab four star resorts in Vero Beach overlooking the Atlantic.
Estefan’s Costa D’Este rises like a white art deco sand dollar and brings a uniquely stylish splash of South Beach Miami panache and fine cuisine to Ocean Drive. http://www.costadeste.com
Costa D’Este (photo by Boucher Brothers)
Just north of Costa, the minty seafoam-colored Vero Beach Hotel and Spa is a lovely fortress of tranquility with two ocean-view eateries: the relaxed poolside Heaton’s Reef, and the casually elegant Cobalt. http://www.verobeachhotelandspa.com
View from the pool at the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa (photo by Kimpton Hotels)
Two hours southeast of Orlando’s theme parks is Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, a spacious, comfortable hideaway, complete with a topiary of the crocodile from Peter Pan to greet you. https://verobeach.disney.go.com
Disney’s Vero Beach Resort (photo by Disney’s Vero Beach Resort)
Traveling to Indian River County is getting easier than ever thanks to the Vero Beach Regional Airport offering direct flights to Newark via Elite Airways. If Orlando is too far, then try airports in nearby Melbourne or Palm Beach. Both offer plenty of flight options. http://verobeachairport.org/
Uncrowded and beautiful, Vero Beach is the jewel of Florida’s Treasure Coast. One visit and you’ll understand its motto: sunrises not high rises. Enjoy!
Last rays of daylight over Vero Beach (Photo by Xaque Gruber)