By Jan Norris
Looking for a beach and nature retreat? Straddling two counties, Hutchinson Island is a 21-mile-long barrier island with beaches galore. It abuts one of the most important coastal estuaries in the state, the Indian River Lagoon, home to scores of wildlife species and marine life.
As part of the Atlantic Flyway, it’s a birders’ paradise, with year-round birdwatching and plenty of sightings of water, marsh and brush birds.
Exploring nature in the lagoon and ocean
It’s here you’ll have a chance to be hands-on with sea creatures a marine nature center. The Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center sits on 57 acres and is the site of research and education programs that benefit the fragile coastal ecosystem around the Indian River Lagoon.
Center volunteers can help impact the environment in several seasonal programs. The FOCC is currently working to regrow oyster beds lost to fresh-water discharges in the coastal estuaries. Guides for exhibits, sea turtle program presenters and trail tours are needed on an ongoing basis.
Visitors who merely want to learn can get in on their nighttime sea turtle walks, held throughout the summer. A lecture and visit to the beach to watch for nesting loggerhead turtles takes place at night, led by turtle guides. Kids can get in on the summer camp programs held throughout mid August; see their web site (www.floridaocean.org) for more information.
Those curious about nuclear energy can stop in at the St. Lucie Nuclear Energy Plant‘s Visitor’s Center. A number of interactive exhibits are here, along with a view of manatees in the cooling ponds. They also have a turtle exhibit and sponsor nighttime turtle walks on the beach during the summer led from the Energy Encounter center at the plant.
Fishing is a high sport on the island, with a number of side roads and pull-offs to set out a line, either from the bank or by wading out into the lagoon. Drift or charter fishing trips can be booked at either the north or south ends of the island at the marinas. There also are sightseeing boats and kayak and boat rentals to create your own water excursion.
Marriott a full-service resort
Where to stay? At its south end sits Sewall’s Point, near the St. Lucie Inlet. Here’s where the Hutchinson Island Marriott reigns as resort king.
It’s the former Indian River Plantation, set on 200 acres, with its own 18-hole golf course, a marina, and plenty of beaches.
Sandpiper Beach Villas are directly beachfront, with a casual feel and beach-house amenities; special weekend and longer stays are offered throughout the summer.
It’s family-oriented, with plenty of activities for adults and kids. From the resort, you can take bikes and ride the island, or rent kayaks to explore the lagoon. The nearby Bathtub Reef Park affords snorkelers a look at reefs made by tubeworms. Rocks on the reef break the surf, making the shore safe for little ones.
Tennis courts – 13 of them, and volleyball courts are set up for guests at the resort. On Thursdays, it’s family movie night. The resort will arrange for parasailing, wave runners, and boat rentals from the property as well.
Packages for summer are from $139.95, and a free gas card also is part of the deals.
Mellon Patch Inn and B&B casual
If a resort is too big, consider the Mellon Patch Inn Bed and Breakfas on the north end of the island. The Key West-style cottages, in cheery colors, are individually decorated and start at $119 a night. The inn features wi-fi in common areas, and several different room arrangements to accommodate families or couples. Some have balconies – and all include breakfast.
Parties and weddings are coordinated and catered in-house for a one-stop event vacation – there’s even a notary on the premises if you want to go bare bones and get hitched on the beach at sunset in your bathing suit.
Diners on the island have dozens of choices for casual far and bars along the island, or they can choose to hit Zagat’s top rated restaurant in the area, 11 Maple Street in Jensen Beach. Farm-to-table cuisine is presented in an old Florida home turned restaurant by Mike and Margie Perrin, long-time chef-owners.
A number of casual seafood waterfront restaurants that locals love are around as well, including Finz Waterfront Grille, Conchy Joe’s and others. On the Fort Pierce end, find the Tiki Hut at the marina, or go downtown to S&S Takeout on Depot Drive, where organic and local foods are served in a small café and take-out setting.
The island’s more laid-back than many areas, but coming from the frenzy of the metro areas, it’s a true respite.
IF YOU STAY
- Hutchinson Island Marriott, 555 N.E. Ocean Blvd., Stuart
- 772-225-3700; www.marriott.com
- The Mellon Patch Inn Bed and Breakfast, 3601 N. A1A, Fort Pierce
- 772-462-6699; www.themellonpatchinn.com
For other places to stay in Florida, check out the web site about Florida’s small inns and B&Bs at INNsideFlorida.com.