Within two hours of Florida hotspots like Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando, Martin County is a hidden enclave boasting beautiful beaches, lakes, and picturesque natural parks, perfect for unwinding and reconnecting. In fact, Costal Living magazine called the town of Stuart the “Happiest Seaside Town for 2016” -- the first time a Florida town took the top spot. The area was also named the nation’s #3 best small town by Smithsonian Magazine, and landed the #9 spot in House Beautiful’s “50 Most Beautiful Small Towns in America” list. The natural beauty and attractions here offer lots of variety — minus the crowds that you'll find in its popular next-door neighbors.
With seven distinct small towns in the county to play in—Port Salerno, Stuart, Palm City, Jensen Beach, Indiantown, Jupiter Island, Hobe Sounds, and Hutchinson Island—you’ll have no shortage of itinerary options. To get you started, here are just a few ways to kick back and explore the best of the Treasure Coast.
Right off the coast of Martin County lies Hutchinson Island, situated between the Atlantic Ocean and Indian River. The barrier island is one of the more untouched in the area—which means it’s home to plenty of wildlife as well as secluded shores and pristine white sand beaches that are perfect for sunbathing, snorkeling, and surfing. Hit the surf here at Jensen Beach, Stuart Beach, or any of the many other beaches in the county. (Snorkelers flock to Bathtub Reef Beach, thanks to the honeycomb reef rocks just off the shore shore.)
2. Get Cultured.
Catch a performance at Lyric Theatre in downtown Stuart, originally built as a silent movie house in 1926. After closing during the Depression, the 500-seat theater was later used for church services before plays, orchestras, and movies came back to the space in the ‘80s. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the spot continues to serve as an important meeting place for the community. Plus, it boasts fantastic acoustics, which means quality sound no matter type of program you’re able to catch here.
Over at the Elliott Museum, art and history meet technology for an immersive experience into the wild. Permanent exhibits take a review of everything from the evolution of cars through time to the history of the Treasure Coast, while rotating exhibits might include a collection of insect watercolors or a look at creatures who live in the deep, dark sections of the ocean.
3. Get a lesson in oceanography and wildlife from the pros.
If you love the marine way of life, there's no better place to learn than the 57-acre Florida Oceanography Coastal Center, run by the non-profit Florida Oceanographic Society founded in 1964. The center, located on Hutchinson Island, hosts daily educational events like a one-mile nature guide to the lagoon, an introduction to the five species of sea turtle found in Florida, and a stingray program with the opportunity for some hands-on interaction. The website also lists seasonal projects in the local community for those who might want to get their hands dirty, from snorkeling for collecting data on seagrass to bagging oyster shells for helping to restore the reefs.
The Hobe Sound Nature Center a non-profit organization that's operated in association with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is another great spot for educational fun. Under the guidance of three professional interpretive naturalists and instructors, visitors can take in on- and off-site presentations centered around native wildlife -- or venture off to hike on estuaries, barrier islands, and the sand pine scrub. It's also one of the few organizations in the state that's permitted to conduct nighttime walks to see nesting sea turtles, late May through mid-July. Throughout the rest of the year, find lecture series, eco-tours, and other activities that promote environmental awareness.
4. Book the kids a camp-cation.
Forget the macaroni frames and lanyard; Martin County's new, alternative camp programs get kids engaged in everything from fishing to sailing, while mom and dad kick back with a cocktail. The Specialty Immersions Summer program on Hutchinson Island offers Saltwater Fishing 101, where kids learn about fishing tackle, methods, and techniques; and at Snorkeling and Reef ID, they are taught the basics of snorkeling and identifying local species. The US Sailing Center of Martin County is one of only three Community Sailing Centers in the country and offers beginner to advanced sailing training for kids ages 5 to 17. Elliott Museum Summer Camps, from June through July for kids aged 6 to 14, focus on creativity; classes in acrylic painting, ceramics, and photography take place in a real working studio with guidance from professional artists. Trust us — your kids will be glad you left them behind.
5. Take a ride in an old war plane.
With some 40,000 spectators a year, the Stuart Airshow (November 4 to 6) is the largest of its kind in Southern Florida. Perfect for people of all ages, there are dozens of aircraft, representing aviation through the decades, on display; along with WWII weapons, a full battle reenactment, and the chance to take a ride on a helicopter and on the Warbird Texan aircraft. The event also features live music and performances, firework displays, and carnival rides. Even in its twenty-seventh year, the show never fails to impress. Tickets are $25 at the gate or $15 pre-sale, and $5 for kids and veterans.
There are a whopping 75-plus parks and sites of interest to choose from in Martin County. A good introduction is Halpatiokee Regional Park, the largest in the county, where you can take advantage of the weather by kayaking and mountain biking. If you’re traveling with family, be sure to set aside a day or two for Indian RiverSide Park in Jensen Beach, featuring play fountains, a lagoon, and a fishing pier. For the mini history buff, tours are available at the onsite historic Mansion at Tuckahoe and Capt. Henry E. Sewall House. There’s also the Children's Museum of the Treasure Coast and the U.S. Sailing Center—one of only three community sailing centers sanctioned by the U.S. Sailing Association—where all ages can find sailing lessons and other recreational fun.
Martin County is nicknamed the Sailfish Capital of the World, thanks to its spectacular offshore fishing. It's known, too, as a prime region for sport fishing, with more than 800 species of fish within a 10-mile radius of the St. Lucie Inlet—the most bio-diverse estuary in North America. Beyond the inlet, you’ll also find more than 100 artificial reefs, all prime for fish and diving. (Of course, Martin County is also the northernmost point of the Florida Reef, which collectively is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. and third largest in the world.) And that’s not even to mention the 20-plus marinas and a dozen charter companies scattered throughout the county. Best of all, the climate is fishing-friendly year round—so you can look forward to sailfish in winter, sea trout in fall and spring, and mahi mahi in the summer.
In Stuart's pedestrian-friendly downtown, you'll find streets filled with more than 50 locally owned boutiques, antique shops, and art galleries. Scour the shops for shipwreck treasure coin jewelry and custom charm beads, then stop in galleries showcasing Florida wildlife sculptors, blown glass, and pottery crafted onsite.
Martin County is a veritable mecca of dozens of golf courses, including ones designed by greats like Jack Nicklaus, Chi Rodriguez, and Tom Fazio. For teeing off with a view, hit a course close to the sand and sea—or go further from shore where you’re surrounded by lush palm trees and tropical foliage. We especially recommend Palm City, home to top spots like Piper's Landing Championship Course and Hammock Creek Golf Club (crafted by Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus Jr.). In the area, there’s also the nearly century-old Martin County Golf Course, part of the Florida Historic Golf Trail.
10. Celebrate the local flavor.
Flood the streets from November 11 to 13 for the massive Jensen Beach Pineapple Festival, inspired by Junkanoo—a Bahamian street parade with heart-pounding music, native dance, and costumes. The highlight is the authentic Bahamian market, where you can buy locally made crafts and dance to island music. Due to its large attendance, the festival has also become the region's most prominent music festival. This year's headliners include Smash Mouth, country artist Drake White, and Lincoln Brewster.