April 26, 2013

Vero Beach: Off the well-trodden tourist trail

You can order Gloria Estefan’s ropa vieja at either end of an hour-and-a-half drive on I-95, but only in Vero Beach does it come with a side dish of an uncrowded, white sand beach.

You can order Gloria Estefan’s ropa vieja at either end of an hour-and-a-half drive on I-95, but only in Vero Beach does it come with a side dish of an uncrowded, white sand beach.

Estefan and her husband, music producer Emilio, opened Costa d’Este, a 1950s-style beach hotel and restaurant, in 2008 in this beach town off the most well-trodden tourist trail.

While the Estefans own several Miami-area restaurants, only in Vero can diners also experience the kind of unspoiled beach town even Florida residents always hope to find and rarely do.

Sophisticated but eco-conscious, high-end yet homey, this once-snoozy Indian River County town of citrus barons and Waspy retirees began adding a touch of gloss to its sandy facade around the time the Estefans arrived. New resorts, excellent restaurants and upscale boutiques followed.

Here’s what to expect:

Nature: Eight public beaches along 26-miles of shoreline, fishing and boating on the wide Indian River lagoon and a birder’s paradise at the Pelican National Wildlife Refuge — the nation’s first national refuge, designated in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Quiet glamour and eccentric charm: The Estefan’s Costa d’Este Beach Resort brings mid-century seduction to the beach, by reconstructing a 1970s hotel with dark woods, white walls and a Morris Lapidus homage of a peekaboo concrete entry wall.

The Vero Beach Hotel and Spa and Caribbean Court both offer laid-back luxury while the 1930s Driftwood Resort is a pastiche of wave-washed timbers, tiles and architectural remnants builder Waldo Sexton salvaged from Palm Beach’s razed Mizner mansions.

A famous jungle: Once one of Florida’s most popular tourist attractions, McKee Jungle Gardens opened in 1932 in a tropical hammock its owners deemed too beautiful to level for citrus groves. Designed by William Lyman Phillips before he created Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, the renamed McKee Botanical Garden’s 18 acres hold thousands of orchids, water lilies, huge trees and several quirky buildings built by co-founder, Waldo Sexton, including the Robinson Crusoe-style Hall of Giants and the Spanish Kitchen made of pieces from Sexton’s salvage piles.

History and surfing: Ride or stroll on Jungle Trail, an old citrus growers’ track hugging the western shore of the barrier island, known here as Orchid Island. Although the sand road today skirts a golf course community instead of scruffy surfer shacks and grapefruit groves, it provides a nearly 8-mile glimpse of Old Florida.

Heading north, A1A takes you along the private billionaires’ enclaves of John’s Island and Windsor, before ending at legendary surf spot, Sebastian Inlet, where pro surfer Kelly Slater learned to ride the waves. On the park’s grounds, the McLarty Museum contains Spanish treasure and artifacts on the site of the survivors’ camp from the hurricane-wrecked 1715 Spanish treasure fleet.

In downtown Vero Beach, the Indian River Citrus Museum offers a history of the state’s most famous crop, with original and replica orange crate labels for sale.

Restaurants and shopping: From Cuban fusion at Waves in the Costa d’Este Resort to farm-to-table fare at Michael’s Table, Vero’s restaurants are riding the waves of regional trends. For a splurge, Maison Martinique in the Caribbean Court is gaining fame for its French haute cuisine. Bobby’s Restaurant and Lounge is always jammed with the happy hour crowd.

On the beach, shop for artisan jewelry at the Laughing Dog Gallery, housewares at M Maison and beach wear at Twig. And check out the mainland’s resurging downtown at the Kilted Mermaid craft beer and wine bar and the art galleries popping up in the 1900 block of 14th St.

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