Aspen Times Weekly Escape Artist: Discovering the charm of ‘Old Florida’ |

Aspen Times Weekly Escape Artist: Discovering the charm of ‘Old Florida’

Florida. You Either love it or hate it. For the haters, it is a crowded, overdeveloped evil consequence of commercialism, for others it is a relatively easy-to-access paradise. I’ve been traveling to Florida and many of its coastal communities for almost four decades, and have seen the best (deserted Sanibel beaches in the 80s) and the worst (Fort Meyers on a Friday night). But if you take the time, there are still plenty of quiet beachfront communities left to discover that have worked hard to maintain and preserve the feeling of this one-time quiet paradise.

For me, the beauty of “Old Florida” is found on the Atlantic Coast between the cities of Melbourne Beach and Vero Beach. This stretch of barrier island is separated from mainland Florida by the Indian River, where on a recent visit, I watched a pod of dolphins relentlessly tease a flock of floating pelicans in the warm water. This 121-mile long lagoon is host to many different species, and protects the land to the east from the sprawl of humanity.

The beaches along this coast 90 minutes southeast of Orlando are where the “Space Coast” meets the “Treasure Coast.” By morning you can watch rockets take off from the Cape Canaveral peninsula, then comb the beaches later in the day for pristine shells or remnant shells of loggerhead turtle hatches.

At the northern end of this stretch is the Port d’Hiver Bed and Breakfast. A beautiful example of renovated, historic Floridian architecture, with 10 impeccably designed rooms, filled with beautiful touches in a tranquil setting. While serene and private, it is just footsteps from the beach, great small restaurants and lots of local characters.

One great thing about Florida is that access to the beaches is a right for all. Here is the exact site where historians now believe Ponce de Leon actually landed, not St. Augustine, where he named Florida for “land of flowers.” He would not be disappointed to return to his landing point, which has been protected and where wild vegetation still grows.

Moving south along A1A, there is the Barrier Island Sanctuary, a beautiful modern eco-education facility right on the beach where there are hands-on exhibits on the barrier island environment, animals – think ACES at the ocean. I bring my children here on every trip. And when they are ready for something new, there is Sebastian Inlet, where world-class surfers and novice fishermen mingle. A state park on the west side of the bridge has a mellow spot for small kids to swim, take a hike, enjoy a picnic or you can walk out onto the jetty and watch the watersports. Did I mention there are no crowds or strip malls anywhere in sight?

Traveling over the Sebastian Inlet Bridge toward Vero Beach, there is the understated, but fun McLarty Treasure Museum. Inside is an impressive collection of findings from the 1715 Plate Fleet Wreck that took place on the shores adjacent to the museum. It also shows the hardships of life in early Florida, where the surviving Spanish families lived and learned from the local native tribes.

The end of this beautiful stretch is at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort. Before you roll your eyes, remember this, if you are looking for a beautiful, easy and entertaining beach vacation for you and your children, this is a balanced combination of both. It has none of the Disney crowds, but still a bit of Disney magic in a beautiful “Old Florida” setting.

Visit now, before the protected lands of this special area suddenly become exposed or vulnerable to development. You know how it goes, every special place is always soon discovered.

Amiee White Beazley writes about travel for the Aspen Times Weekly. Reach her at or follow her @awbeazley1.

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