Florida Travel

A refuge for shipwrecked sailors in Stuart

A LASTING HAVEN:  Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge in Stuart.
A LASTING HAVEN: Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge in Stuart. Bonnie Gross

The earliest visitors to South Florida just sort of dropped in. Didn’t make any reservations; didn’t bring many clothes.

Of course, that’s because they were shipwrecked.

So many sailors were stranded on Florida’s wild and unpopulated Atlantic Coast that 10 life-saving lodges were built between 1876 and 1886, evenly spaced along the coast. They were called Houses of Refuge, and only one remains — Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge in Stuart.

Located at the southern end of Hutchinson Island two hours north of Miami, the House of Refuge is a great getaway because the lovely 1876 wooden cottage tells a fascinating piece of Florida’s history. It also is located on a stunning beach with coquina rocks and a shipwreck you can snorkel 100 yards off shore.

The House of Refuge system was unique to Florida, built because of the high loss of life and property along the Florida coast, where reefs and hurricanes were great hazards to sailing ships.

The southernmost house was on Miami Beach (there’s a marker on Collins Avenue); the northernmost in what is now Daytona Beach. Each was manned by a single keeper and his family. In between, signs on the beach pointed to them.

Somehow, despite its prime beach location, Gilbert’s House of Refuge has survived. It became a U.S. Coast Guard station and important lookout for German U-boats during World War II.

After the war, it sat abandoned on the beach for eight years, when the county purchased it and 16.8 acres of beachfront land as government surplus. The whole parcel cost $168!

Today, the site has been restored and is probably more beautiful than it ever was in the past. It is located on a picturesque section of beach called the St. Lucie Rocks, an outcropping of Anastasia limestone similar to what you see at Blowing Rocks on Jupiter Island. But now the house is surrounded by an award-winning garden of native plants and flowers. The site offers spectacular views of both the ocean and the Indian River Lagoon.

▪ Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge, 301 SE MacArthur Blvd., Stuart; 772-225-1875; www.houseofrefugefl.org. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Admission: adult, $8; children 6 to 12, $6. Daily tours of House of Refuge at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. You can tour the House of Refuge in about 45 minutes, but it combines well with other area activities, from museums to beaches.

▪ Tip: A joint ticket with the Elliott Museum, a nearby eclectic history museum operated by the same group, costs $18 for adults; separately, they are $8 for House of Refuge and $14 for the Elliott Museum. The Elliott Museum has an impressive collection of antique cars, boats, baseball memorabilia and items from local history, including a Votomatic booth from the 2000 presidential election. www.elliottmuseumfl.org.

If you’re not a history buff and question the $8 admission to the House of Refuge, you can enjoy the building and its location from the exterior for free. There is limited free parking there and the rocks, beach and building are scenic enough to be worth a visit.

To snorkel the wreck of the Georges Valentine, learn more here: http://novastardesign.com/house/diving-site-geroges-valentine-shipwreck-hutchinson-island-stuart-florida.htm.

Bonnie Gross gives tips on visiting the natural and authentic Florida at www.FloridaRambler.com.