Florida’s Treasured Coasts

From north of Palm Beach down to Miami you’ll find a bounty of history, cuisine, nature and culture. Text and photos: Maureen Littlejohn

If you take a drive in Florida from the Atlantic coast town of Stuart, north of Palm Beach, down to Miami, you’ll find that all that glitters is golden.

Stuart, an hour-and-a-half’s drive north of Fort Lauderdale, is a sleepy and surprising little gem. The area is known as the Treasure Coast because Spanish fleets carrying chests of riches were wrecked here in the 1700s. That gold may be gone, but there’s plenty to discover.

Sunset in Stuart, Florida

On a food tour with Laura Richardson of The Flavor Excursion I sipped full-bodied brew at Stuart Coffee Company then traipsed past the Lyric theatre, a former silent movie house that has been restored and features top notch performers. Riverwalk Oyster Bar was next where we sampled oysters and a variety of delicious seafood. As we walked along the boardwalk facing the Indian River Lagoon, Richardson noted that restaurants take their empty oyster shells, place them in biodegradable bags and put them into the river. This practice encourages new beds of oysters to grow. The lagoon is one of the biggest and most biodiverse estuaries in the Northern Hemisphere and it’s important to keep it clean.

“One oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day. They are bringing back the beds which had been destroyed due to sugarcane farm runoffs,” she explained.

On our walk, Richardson regaled us with tales of the town’s most infamous pirate, Pedro Gilbert, who was known for raiding ships and setting them afire with the crew trapped inside. Eventually he was caught and executed.

Our group needed a pick-me-up after this gruesome story and stopped at Café Martier, located in the 1919 Post Office Arcade, for fresh fruit sangria. A speakeasy during Prohibition, it has been restored to its 1920s glory by owners Lisa Councilman and husband Vince Gallagher. Just ask and they’ll show you the secret doors that closed it off from the old post office.

Wanting to dig into the food scene a little deeper, I headed to Kai-Kai Farm in Indiantown, just outside Stuart. Owned by Diane Cordeau, originally from Montreal, and her husband Carl Frost who grew up in Palm Beach County, the 40-acre farm produces in a variety of heirloom vegetables prized by local chefs. They also have an event space for farm-to-table dinners. Cordeau worked as flight crew for Air Canada for 25 years and Frost was formerly in real estate. After sailing around the world for 10 years, they decided to study horticulture, bought the former citrus farm and started growing their own crops.

“We are famous for our cherry tomatoes, known as wild everglade tomatoes. The chefs don’t come here for my blue eyes,” exclaimed Cordeau.

Back in town, I learned a bit more about the region’s efforts to rejuvenate its waterways at the Florida Oceanographic Costal Center. Dedicated to education, research and advocacy, the center’s exhibits went into depth about the oyster bed reclamation. There was also a stingray touch tank and a large pond with rescued sea turtles.

By the time the sun had set it was time for a Port Salerno Ghost Tour. Led by Patrick and Patricia Mesmer I learned about the Ashley Gang, thought of as local Robin Hoods but, as Patricia pointed out, “They also killed people.”

Creeping along the streets and shoreline, our group was outfitted with electromagnetic field detectors and infrared thermometers that noted temperature changes. At a tree where an unfortunate young woman had hung herself more than a century ago, my thermometer registered almost 0 degrees Centigrade. And the night had been balmy.

The next day, shaking off my ghost-hunting shivers, I headed for the Palm Beaches and the start of the Gold Coast. Why gold?  The strip between Palm Beach and Miami was (and is still) known for its “golden” real estate opportunities.

Delray Beach is one of 39 communities in Palm Beach County. Lunch was at Delray Beach Market. It is the largest market in South Florida with 27 vendors offering delectable food and local makers such as Selphf Made selling body care products. 

Looking for a little culture I made my way to the Arts Warehouse where I found a haven for creators. One of its coolest tenants is Amanda Perna, a clothing and accessories designer, author and illustrator, who has been in countless fashion magazines and featured in New York Fashion Week and L.A. Fashion Week.  She worked with big name corporate companies including Calvin Kline in New York, then decided to start her own business in Delray nine years ago. Why Delray?

“I wanted to add a little sunshine to what I did,” she said.

Her designs are not for wallflowers.

“I’m a little off kilter. I love to play with fashion. Every day should be a party.”

A little outside town was the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens where I found 16 acres of manicured vegetation including a contemporary interpretation of a historical garden. The plant species mimicked  those in Japan but could abide the Florida climate. Reading about the history, I learned George Morikami came to the region in the 1900s with a group of colonists from Japan. He died in 1920s but his horticultural vision lived on. These days Palm Beach County owns and operates the gardens.

Now it was time to hit Miami. My first stop was at Sugar’s rooftop bar at the East Miami Hotel. Hip and happening, it was up 40 floors with great views of surrounding towers. Owned by the Swire Group, a conglomerate with offices in London and Hong Kong, the rooftop also featured the Hong Kong-inspired Tea Room lounge.

Miami is all about sun and fun, so I decided to up my adrenaline with a little sea cruise. Music cranking, and waves splashing, we thumped and sped around the waterfront getting great shots of the city skyline. My heart was still racing by the time we docked.

As a calming antidote, I decided on a tour of the murals of Wynwood Walls. Danny Antelo, with Wynwood Buggies, was my guide. He told me that in 2004 American real estate developer Tony Goldman started the project after doing the same thing in New York and Philadelphia. “He saw the empty warehouse walls here and filled them with graffiti art,” explained Antelo.

Goldman viewed graffiti as a form of art and expression.

“Twenty years ago this was a bad neighbourhood. Now it is the second most visited site in Florida after Disney World. It gets three to five million visitors a year.”

Nearby I found a spot to have a drink and unwind. Bakan had more than 500 tequilas and mezcals on hand and my margarita was stiff, cold and delicious. The cacti-lined lounge also offered a Mexican menu and I peeked into the open kitchen to watch tortillas being made. Sipping my drink I reflected on all I had experienced. From history to nature, food to art, the state’s Atlantic side served up a variety of riches.

Treasure Coast to Gold Coast, this slice of Florida lives up to its names.

Where to Stay
Stuart: Marriott Hutchinson Island Beach Resort, Golf & Marina. Relaxed, stylish and casual.
Ask for a room in the Sandpiper Tower, near the beach.
Delray Beach: The Aloft Delray Beach. Hip and modern with great on-site restaurant and bar.
Ideal spot to walk to the town’s beautiful sandy beach.
Miami: JW Marriott Marquis Miami. Sleek and sophisticated.
Located downtown, close to Wynwood Art District, Brickell City Center and Miami Design District.

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