From East to West, I Adventured Through Martin County’s Unique Ecosystems

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On an early spring jaunt through scrub forests, limestone cliffs, and biodiverse lagoons, Liz Newman discovers first-hand what happens when a community works together to preserve an environment. Start planning your own Florida vacation and Discover Martin County here.

As I scaled the first of many steep bridges that connect the barrier islands of Martin County, Florida, admiring the whitecaps that slap way above the ankle (a rarity on the Gulf side of the state), it occured to me that this is one of the most remarkable regions in all of Florida.

Though it’s just north of the glittering high rises of Palm Beach, Martin County is refreshingly untouched. Environmentally conscious bohemians and some of the most affluent people on the planet alike call this place home, and it’s their shared commitment to preservation that makes it so special.

Take the Old Colorado Inn in downtown Stuart, for example. An unusual hotel, it’s composed of nearly half a dozen two-story historic bungalows that now act as guest houses. Every home is completely preserved down to the original Dade County pine floors, cedar beams, cozy attic nooks, and antique hardware. The proprietors here put me up in the Lyons House, which is the oldest house in Stuart and a Florida Literary Landmark. Named for longtime Stuart News editor Ernest Lyons, it gives literal meaning to the term “old school:” It was built in 1890 as the site of Stuart’s first schoolhouse. I immediately felt at home.

The Old Colorado Inn is officially the most enchanting place I’ve ever stayed. Florida, like many places in the world, occasionally bulldozes the authentic and whimsical for the shiny and new—or worse, attempts to replicate true character. This is wonderfully the opposite.

Downtown Stuart is super walkable, with delightful family-owned boutiques and restaurants—which makes it easy to live like a local. Its free electric trolleys are also a fun transportation option and the best (and fastest!) way to get to Shepard Park on the St. Lucie River in time for a sunset sail on the historic Schooner Lily.

Passengers on this magnificent, fully restored vessel—originally built in the early ’70s to haul cargo between Maine and Martha’s Vineyard—come prepared. Upon boarding, coolers filled with wine, snacks, and more wine were unzipped and cups were passed around, making the entire evening feel more like a casual sail with friends than a tourist activity. Which makes sense because most of the passengers weren’t actually tourists; they were primarily snowbirds soaking up the last days of crisp Florida temperatures.

Almost 40 imperiled species depend on the 73 acres of protected land here for survival.

The next morning my guide and I left bright and early for Hobe Sound, home of Blowing Rocks Preserve, Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Nathaniel P. Reed Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, and Jupiter Island, one of the most beautiful Florida neighborhoods I’ve ever seen. Jupiter Island is accessed via Bridge Road, which is completely covered in a breathtaking natural canopy courtesy of the banyan trees that line both sides.

Blowing Rocks Preserve is a protected stretch of limestone shore distinguished by the giant waves that crash against it. Managed by the Nature Conservancy, it’s the largest Anastasia limestone shoreline on the Atlantic Coast. But the numbers only tell half the story. The area’s stats are undeniably impressive: Almost 40 imperiled species depend on these 73 acres of protected land for survival. Upwards of 25,000 invasive plants have either been treated or removed to conserve the area. It’s the largest Anastasia limestone shoreline on the Atlantic Coast.

Nathaniel P. Reed Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge contains the largest contiguous section of undeveloped beach in southeastern Florida and is considered one of the most productive sea turtle nesting areas in the southeastern United States. The refuge is a sanctuary for nearly 40 species listed as either threatened, endangered, or of special concern. It is also an oasis for people who wish to experience what the early days of Florida must have been like. This biodiversity is supported by a large remnant of sand pine scrub, nearly 10 miles of mangrove communities along the Indian River Lagoon, and 3.5 miles of Atlantic Ocean beach. The beauty and uniqueness of Nathaniel P. Reed Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge inspires others to protect our wild places for future generations.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park is the largest park in southeast Florida and was our second stop of the day. Its twisty Florida pines and winding, secluded paths can be explored on foot, bike, or even horseback, but one of the best ways to see it all is to hike the set of stairs that weaves through sand pine scrub to Hobe Mountain Tower, which at at 86 feet above sea level, is the “highest natural point south of Lake Okeechobee”. At the top, there’s a panoramic view of the Atlantic, Intracoastal Waterway, Jupiter Island, and of course the massive park itself.

There won’t be a high-rise in sight to obstruct your view, since a Martin County ordinance says no structure can be above four stories.

Without ecology, we have no economy.

The last activity of the day was an ecology cruise with passionate wildlife guru and educator Captain Nancy Beaver. Founder of Sunshine Wildlife Tours, she has more than two decades’ worth of experience on Indian River Lagoon, the most biodiverse estuary in the Northern Hemisphere.

We had barely launched her 35' pontoon boat “Sirenia” when she started reeling off facts about the area. One of her most notable lessons was that Martin County is one of the first counties in the state to issue a fertilizer ordinance. This means the magnificent waterfront homes, with equally magnificent lawns, are forbidden from using toxic herbicides like nitrogen or phosphorus during the months of May-September. This keeps runoff from polluting the lagoons and the 4,000+ species that live in them.

“Without ecology, we have no economy,” Nancy explained.

We chugged along to Bird Island, which as the name aptly implies, is an island chock full of fifteen species of birds, including bright pink roseate spoonbills and American wood storks (the only stork native to North America). I watched pelicans feed their young in the treetops—quite a sight as it requires the baby pelicans to stick their entire heads inside their mothers’ mouth. As if on cue, Nancy said, “We’re born with same instincts as animals, but unlike animals, we spend our lives unlearning them.”

On my third and final day, I bid farewell to my beloved Lyons House and made my way over to the Hutchinson Island Marriott. This unique resort offers a wide array of activities from an 18-hole executive golf course, tennis, a mini spa, and a 77-slip marina. Situated on 200-acres, it’s bordered by the Atlantic Ocean beaches and Intracoastal Waterway.

There, the coolest school bus that has ever graced the road arrived to take us out on a morning paddle. Salvaged from a junkyard, the Ohana Bus is plastered with bright colors, psychedelic stickers, and even a disco ball.

Josh, one of Ohana Bus’s founders (and a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard) is everything you want in a paddleboard instructor: salty, barefoot, and adorned with tattoos and surfing scars. He immediately put me at ease, making me forget I hadn’t been on a paddleboard in years. We proceeded to SUP through mangroves and sandbars, and I am proud to report that I didn’t fall once. But there was plenty of that to come in the more adrenaline-filled activity of the day: conquering the EFoil with Next Level Watersports.

Let it be known, I elected to do this. I read about this revolutionary electric powered hydrofoil that essentially helps you fly on the water like a magic carpet and jumped at the chance to try it.

The energy was intoxicating. I wanted to be part of it forever; this microcosm of Martin County.

You wouldn't know it watching my instructor Jake glide on the board so effortlessly that it looked like he was taking a leisurely stroll at 25mph, but this is much harder than it looks. To get this thing flying, you steer the board using your body weight and adjust your speed with a wireless remote to control the throttle. For the non-experts, think of it as trying to rub your belly, pat your head—and do five other things—all at the same time.

Back on dry land with my “board burned” legs that admittedly made me feel pretty tough, my photographer John and I stopped at Ohaha Surf Shop owned by the Ohana Bus crew. I immediately felt like I had stepped into a movie scene. It was bustling with dogs and dreadlocked surfers sipping beers. The energy was intoxicating. I wanted to be part of it forever; this microcosm of Martin County.

It’s easy to get down and feel that beautiful places like Martin County are dwindling because of how we (humans, that is) are treating our planet. But this trip showed me that Florida is thriving not in spite of human involvement—it’s thriving because of it. Martin County proves that we can preserve the world by working together to let it be.

Start planning your own Martin County adventure here.

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