Vero Beach Florida: Far From Miami's Crowds

Aerial view of Vero Beach Florida. Verobeach.com photo. Vero Beach Hotels
Aerial view of Vero Beach Florida. Verobeach.com photo.

Fun for Even the Old and Unhip in Vero Beach

Skipping the waves on Jasmin Island, in Vero Beach Florida. Photos by Max Hartshorne. Vero Beach hotels
Skipping the waves on Jasmin Island, in Vero Beach Florida. Photos by Max Hartshorne.

By Max Hartshorne,
GoNOMAD Editor

Vero Beach and the rest of Indian River County Florida are a far cry from the fashionista-laden, self-conscious show-off atmosphere that can make Miami a bummer. And the beaches are just as nice, even if they're not topless.

Ok, ok, there are those who love Miami's hipness. That cool South Florida feeling, those many Cubanos, and that sizzling nightlife. Contrast that with 'Zero Beach,' as some locals jokingly referred to the city of 21,000.

Here the lights go out at 10 pm, and there's more emphasis on outdoor activities like kayaking or early morning beach strolling.

Boris Gonzalez, proprietor of the Caribbean Court a boutique hotel in Vero Beach, FL.
Boris Gonzalez, proprietor of the Caribbean Court a boutique hotel in Vero Beach, FL.

Our day began on a hot Vero afternoon, driving the long and straight Highway 60 from Orlando, past endless traffic lights till we reached a big bridge. We looked down and followed sailboats lazily navigating the calm waters below.

We were entering Orchid Island, a barrier island with the Intracoastal waterway flowing on one side and the wild Atlantic on the other.

Boris Holds Court

Our accommodations were with Boris Gonzalez, whose family is well-known here for the large landholdings and Cuban roots.

With his partner Elizabeth Kennedy, Boris has created a cozy boutique hotel called The Caribbean Court, which stands out for its cool decor and updated ambiance.

One of the first things we did upon arrival was sit for some strong Cuban coffee and meet Boris, who was born in Havana and educated and raised in Spain and later the U.S. Elizabeth also runs a busy catering company in Vero.

Fishing under the bridge across the Intracoastal waterway in Vero Beach.
Fishing under the bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway in Vero Beach.

This dynamic pair has created a big buzz on the sleepy island with their Havana Nights piano bar, a compact little bar with mojitos on the menu and a hip clientele.

It's packed on the weekends. Elizabeth told us that Vero is called by some 'the Hamptons of Miami,' where big-city folk come to relax and unwind. Vero is a two-and-a-half-hour drive up the East coast, but really a world away, she said.

Hurricane's Legacy

One thing that's hard to avoid during a visit to Vero are stories about the lingering effects of Hurricanes Francis and Jeane, both of which rampaged this entire island and wiped out most of the beachfront property within three weeks in September 2004.

As a result, almost every beachfront building is new. The people who lived through it still talk about how ferocious the winds and the water were that fall day.

Built Dade County Strong

The sand bar at Capt. Hirams, Sebastian FL.
The sand bar at Capt. Hirams, Sebastian FL.

The upside to all of the required rebuilding was that the structures are now built to comply with the so-called "Dade County" regulations, which requires substantially tougher construction, steel reinforcements, and a host of other good ways to keep nature from destroying what man builds near the sea.

One high-rise condo sits eerily still, appearing to be in fine shape -- but inside the walls and wiring are wrecked and the building is condemned.

I got a chance to see Orchid Island up close on the seat of a bike I rented from Orchid Island Rentals. The bike was a 'pedal forward' model, that makes pedaling a little easier.

Taking in art at the open galleries on Friday night in Vero Beach FL.
Taking in art at the open galleries on Friday night in Vero Beach FL.

It was a great way to get to see the town and the fisherman who ply the waters under the bridge over the Intercoastal waterway. Rentals are $20 per day or $47 per week, and well worth it if you want to see the best parts of the island.

Up to Capt Hirams

About ten miles up US 1 north is Sebastian Inlet, a famed fishing spot and the home of Captain Hiram. All of the folks around here love this local institution, where owner Tom Collins built a sprawling outdoor bar, restaurant, hotel, and entertainment venue. Now his son Will Collins has taken over, and he's still bringing in the great bands.

Birds abound on the Indian River, which is less than three feet deep. I saw this while I was kayaking.
Birds abound on the Indian River, which is less than three feet deep. I saw this while I was kayaking.

Rock concerts at Hiram's regularly bring in hundreds of partiers, who enjoy the music in a funky, Jimmy Buffett style outdoor bar strung with lights in the palm trees and a true Bahamanian sand floor. There are rooms with both water and stage views.

The Inn at Capt Hirams

Across the street is a quieter option, the Inn at Captain Hirams. The beach is south on Rte 1, then east on Rte 510 to the public Wabasso Beach park

Boaters flock to Hirams and tie up right out at the docks. It's fun to have a drink and watch the activities on the water, with vessels large and small passing by on the Intracoastal Waterway.

The boardwalk at Vero Beach, which was destroyed in hurricanes in 2004 and was rebuilt.
The boardwalk at Vero Beach, which was destroyed in hurricanes in 2004 and was rebuilt.

While the beaches on Orchid Island are clean, wide and family-friendly, another way to get to know the place is to take to the water.

The woman to call is Kristen Beck of Kayaks Etc, a former member of the US Whitewater paddling team and an excellent guide for any level paddler. She knows these waterways and the Indian River well and can take you to see birds, manatees and the quiet of nature right outside of Vero.

Vacation Advice: Go to Vero!

After we returned from our trip I was asked by a recently separated mother of two girls about suggestions for a family vacation.

"Vero Beach," I answered quickly, since it's easy to reach, relatively inexpensive, and has beautiful free beaches and plenty of good accommodations.

Inside the French Quarter, a New Orleans style cuisine restaurant in Vero Beach, FL.
Inside the French Quarter, a New Orleans style cuisine restaurant in Vero Beach, FL.

I told her about the kitchenettes at the Driftwood, and the funky fun of Captain Hiram's in Sebastian Inlet, just ten miles north.

I told her how magical it was paddling on the shallow Indian River, with so many birds and even manatees all around, how quiet and lovely this stretch of the Florida coast can be.

It was an easy recommendation to make, thinking back on how much fun I had here.

A good place to find out all about the town is VeroBeach.com.

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