Florida’s Hidden Gem-Martin County offers authenticity, beauty and truly great outdoors
By Gary McKechnie
What fuels my passion as a traveler is simple. When I’m on the road, every day is different. With discoveries to be made, those are the days when routine gives way to anticipation. Exploration is beautiful, and I love getting immersed in destinations near and far.

When I journeyed to Martin County—a quick trip from where I live—to explore its great outdoors, my day was anything but routine. I found rivers and lagoons and wildlife centers and sanctuaries. There are boat rentals and kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. There’s a national wildlife refuge and a historic state park. There was fishing, and plenty of it.

It was a road trip that delivered far more than expected.Including a little something called the Atlantic Ocean.

I could connect the dots of Jensen Beach, Hutchinson Island, Stuart, and Hobe Sound simply by traveling down the coast.

A new look at Old Florida

With the Atlantic to the east, the Intracoastal Waterway (Indian River) snuggled up beside it, and the St. Lucie River filling in the blanks, I could connect the dots of Jensen Beach, Hutchinson Island, Stuart, and Hobe Sound simply by traveling down the coast. With more time (and, trust me, next time there’ll be more time), I plan to explore Martin County’s four other distinct and unique communities: Indiantown, Tequesta, Palm City and Port Salerno where, I hear, there’s a great seafood festival.

Other favorite regional festivals include October’s historic Indiantown Rodeo, a nearly 70-year-old RCA/WPRA event that has been a popular (and traditionally sold out) display of dust and muscle and skill and horsemanship. At November’s Stuart Air Show there are aerobatic planes, experimental aircraft and restored warbirds displayed on the ground and speeding across the sky, with entertainment, parties, fireworks, and festivities throughout the weekend.Jan's Place signage.

But, back to now. Over my car radio, I heard my belly grumble to remind me that I’d skipped breakfast. I headed straight to Jensen Beach Boulevard where, mixed in with an assortment of restaurants and shops, was Jan’s Place, a bakery/restaurant that turned out it to be Gary’s place as well. The décor was kitsch and the lighting fixtures didn’t match, but from the moment I walked in, I was treated like a regular.

From a long and lengthy menu, John (who earns high marks as one of the best servers ever) brought me the one thing I really wanted. The char-grilled cheeseburger was perfect in aroma, temperature and taste. It was—and I kid you not—the best cheeseburger I’ve ever had. Forget breakfast. This was the most important meal of the day. The fries were crisp and the sweet tea never ran dry. I was too embarrassed to ask for one to go (John had already refilled my glass three, maybe four hundred times), but when John noticed I was leaving empty-handed, he ran back to get me yet another sweet tea for the road. Perfect service. Perfect meal.

Now I was ready to roll.

After all, this is the “Sailfish Capital of the World.”

Where the roads lead

Attracted by a nearby store that promised “Sand Fleas • Mullet • Shrimp • Live Bait Fish,” I dropped into the historic Snook Nook, which has been helping people land the catch of the day since 1949. I didn’t have time for a fishing excursion, but based on the line of folks buying live bait, tackle and gear, I think the Snook Nook can start planning their centennial celebration.

The popularity of fishing in Martin County became even more evident as I headed across the Jensen Beach Causeway onto Hutchinson Island. I saw people fishing from beneath the span at a waterside county park—it never stopped. I saw people fishing from piers. I saw them fishing from bridges. People were on the shore casting lines into the surf. They stood on sturdy rocks and swaying boats and wooden docks and dropped lines for more than 800 species of fish, including sailfish—after all, this is the “Sailfish Capital of the World.”

Beach lined with blue chairs and umbrellas.When I landed at Jensen Beach Park on Hutchinson Island, I was reminded of long-ago family vacations on the beach. Along the shore, umbrellas looked like a rainbow planted along the endless white sands. As I splashed in the translucent aqua waters close to shore, beyond the sandbar a few boats bobbed in deep blue sea.Curious about its unusual name, I dried off and got back into my car, letting the breeze from my rolled-down window finish drying my hair, to continue south to Bathtub Reef. Rounding the bend on MacArthur Road there, in plain sight, the reef was yet another fascinating surprise. Running the length of the waterfront and stretching well beyond the bay, the hard-packed coral, which peeked out of the water in places, was being explored by swimmers and snorkelers. For this lifelong Floridian, it was an amazing sight.

I felt as if I had discovered the Lost City of Atlantis. I was eager to see more.

At high tide, guests can even rent motorized four-passenger Carolina skiffs to head even further upriver to their favorite fishing spots.

This land is your land

As I drove over a series of bridges that took me over rivers and inlets and into different communities, I was locking together pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle that gave me a clearer picture of Martin County. This was made especially true when, earlier, I reached the crest of the causeway. Not only could I see the turquoise Atlantic, I could look north across the county line where a row of towering condos stretched for miles. But before me and far to the south the view was unimpeded. County planners, it turns out, wisely chose to limit buildings to four stories so everyone can see the ocean. Every visitor can savor this extraordinary view.

With time running low, I decided to use my last few hours of daylight in Hobe Sound. Just south of the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge (which I’d save for a later visit), I arrived at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. It was the right decision. Within its 11,500 acres—more than 25% of Martin County is parks and green space—is gathered the very best of Martin County’s outdoors. Even better is that this park captures the interest of kids, couples, families and seniors, and has something for bicyclists, anglers, campers, birdwatchers, equestrians and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Boat dock at sunset.Driving past palmettos and scrub pine, I headed to the far end of park where the River Store rents canoes and kayaks for excursions on the Loxhatchee River. At high tide, guests can even rent motorized four-passenger Carolina skiffs to head even further upriver to their favorite fishing spots. A pontoon boat, the Loxhatchee Queen, was waiting for passengers, its guides ready to point out the lucky wildlife that call this place home.A weather-beaten boardwalk led to the Hobe Sound Mountain Tower, which was rooted atop a massive sand dune. Up, up, I climbed—from the top, the view was unobstructed. In the neighboring county to the south, a line of towering buildings blocked the sea.

Catching my breath, I looked in all directions to see the land in various shades of green and brown and white. I stood there for quite a while, marveling at the expanse of low, level earth. There was the endless Atlantic and the lengthy Intracoastal. In the west, Martin County and, beyond, my home state.

The sun was dropping and my heart was pounding.

Martin County had shown me Florida as I had never seen it before.

When I got home I started perusing the Internet for an excuse to return. I found two. In November there’s the Stuart Seafood Festival as well as the Pineapple Festival in Jensen Beach. I think my palate and I will need to investigate both.

Discover more of Martin County.

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