The Indian River Lagoon is a wide waterway with a road on each side. On its east, it’s A1A, with beaches and coastline, and on its west side, Indian River Drive, a less visited route.
Because the lagoon is wide enough to discourage the building of lots of bridges, the western shore is different from the beach communities. You’ll find a low-rise, slowed-down Old Florida flavor here, especially on the scenic 20-mile drive between Stuart and Fort Pierce.
Put the two routes together — a drive north on the west side and a return trip along the oceanfront — and you have a weekend getaway with plenty of places to explore.
The route: Start in Stuart, about 110 miles north of Miami on I-95 or Florida’s Turnpike. From there, take A1A east and head north on Sewall’s Point Road/North Indian River Drive, which hugs the shore of the lagoon for the next 20 miles with great views. You’ll end up in Fort Pierce and then you’ll return with a drive along A1A back to Stuart.
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Stops along the way. Leaving from Stuart:
• Jensen Beach has picturesque cottages, many painted tropical colors and looking like a scene from Florida in the 1950s, plus a small but historic riverfront downtown.
• If the timing works, have lunch at Conchy Joe’s in Jensen Beach, with its big chickee roof, spectacular lagoon views, local seafood and reggae music.
• To stretch your legs or have a picnic, look for Walton Road and head two miles west to Savannas Preserve State Park. The nature center here is worth a quick visit for its display about Jensen Beach’s heyday as “Pineapple Capital of the World.” There are hiking trails and picnic tables too.
• Watch for lovely little Old Fort Park, site of the original “Fort Pierce” during the Second Seminole War and a burial mound built by Ais Indians.
Things to do in Fort Pierce: Fort Pierce has made the most of its location on the Indian River Lagoon. The City Marina downtown is a great place to hang out. There are views and benches, a chickee hut bar/restaurant, fishing boats and, if you’re lucky, visiting manatees. From the marina, you can take a boat trip into the lagoon in search of dolphins, manatees and birds on the Indian River Lagoon and Swampland Boat Tours.
You can learn more about the region’s underwater residents at two nearby facilities. One block from the marina, the Fort Pierce Manatee Observation and Education Center appeals to visiting families.
Close to downtown on the South Causeway Bridge, the Smithsonian Marine Station is a tiny outpost of the Smithsonian Institution. There’s a large living reef exhibit and a variety of smaller tanks and interactive touch tanks. You can see everything in about 25 minutes but it’s worth the $4 admission.
There are two causeways to the beach — one on each side of the inlet.
You’ll take the North Causeway to the beach for another notable museum — the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum. It’s here because from 1943 to 1946, thousands of volunteers were trained in Fort Pierce for Naval Combat Demolition Units and Underwater Demolition Teams. It’s a small museum packed with stuff a military history buff will find fascinating.
Another remnant of the Word War II training days is Little Jim Bridge Bait & Tackle, a funky general store and boat ramp on the route to the Navy Seal Museum. It’s a good place to rent a kayak and explore the wildlife-filled waters.
The return drive along the beach: From Fort Pierce, take the South Causeway and head back south via A1A, taking time to stop at a beach for a walk or swim. You won’t have a hard time finding one — there are miles of gorgeous beaches.
If you have time, rather than returning to the expressway at Stuart, take a side trip south on A1A toward the St. Lucie Inlet. Highlights here include the House of Refuge, a picturesque historic building that tells the story of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, and Bathtub Beach, which has an idyllic lagoon created by a near-shore reef. Bathtub Beach is a great place for both snorkeling and for tots to swim protected from waves.
Looking for more to do? The Elliott Museum is located on A1A in Stuart and has an eclectic collection of fascinating stuff — from Frances Langford memorabilia to a 1943 kitchen to a variety of interesting automobiles.
Bonnie Gross is a co-founder of FloridaRambler.com, a guide to the natural and authentic Florida.