These coastal towns and islands are hidden gems for families. Shhh, keep it on the down low.
St. Lucie County in Florida is often referred to as the Treasure Coast. While we were visiting this region on the Atlantic, we heard several local legends that explained the nickname and all referred to the pirate treasure that was found or is still buried in the area. My family left though with another reason for the designation — we think St. Lucie County is named the Treasure Coast because it truly is a gem of a destination for vacationing families.
Photo courtesy: Visit St. Lucie Florida
Upon arrival in St. Lucie County, the first thing that you’ll want to do is check into your hotel and check out the beach. Our family stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Hutchinson Island (10978 S. Ocean Dr., Jensen Beach), which is located on an island (as the name implies) with spectacular ocean views. Our room had two queen-sized beds as well as a sleeper sofa. While the rooms don’t have balconies, the large windows facing the beach do offer an opportunity to view the Atlantic. The hotel sports has an outdoor pool and hot tub, plus the beach is located just steps away. My boys were fascinated by the sea turtle nests that were marked off on the beach by volunteers, but the off-limit area proved to tempting for my toddler! For that reason, we spent more time in the pool than I had anticipated, but I didn’t hear any complaints from my older boys.
After settling in, drive to the mainland for dinner. St. Lucie County is actually comprised of several islands and towns on the mainland, so travel can take a bit longer than anticipated; but remember, most of your drive will feature ocean views! My sports-obsessed boys were thrilled to head to dinner at Duffy’s Sports Grill (1608 NW Courtyard Circle, Port St. Lucie), a Florida chain. The restaurant has huge televisions showing sports of all kinds as well as a menu with options besides wings and hamburgers. My husband and I enjoyed homemade meatloaf and a chicken rice bowl, while the kids rushed through dinner to get to dessert. The kids’ menu offers a make-your-own ice cream sundae or cupcake option. The sundae was fairly standard with ice cream, chocolate sauce, gummy bears, and whipped cream, but the cupcakes stole the show. Each of my two younger boys received three (yes, three) cupcakes with two kinds of frosting and gummy bears. If I had known how big the cupcakes were, I wouldn’t have ordered two! In the end, everyone shared in the fun.
After dinner, head to the ballpark. The St. Lucie Mets are a minor league affiliate of the New York Mets and play their home games at First Data Field (525 NW Peacock Blvd., Port St Lucie). The season kicks off in April and runs through early September. In addition to great baseball, minor league games are known for between-innings entertainment and zany antics; the St. Lucie Mets are no exception. Our family was entertained with different contests as well as fun crowd songs like the YMCA. Another hallmark of minor league baseball is the opportunity to interact with the players. My boys spent several innings perched near the dugout, trying to catch a foul ball or a tossed ball after the inning. Sadly, they didn’t catch one, but they still enjoyed being that close to the players. When we were visiting, former NFL quarterback-turned-baseball player Tim Tebow was on the St. Lucie Mets’ roster, and we got swept up in Tebow-mania. Cost: Tickets start at $7; Kids (2 & under) are free.
Photo courtesy: Visit St. Lucie Florida
On your second day in St. Lucie County learn to surf with Central Florida Surf School. If you’ve ever dreamed of hangin’ ten, this activity is for you. Central Florida Surf School instructor and co-owner Lisa Mead met us at the Fort Pierce Inlet State Park for a safety lesson and information on the basics of surfing before we hit the water. My tween had visions of surfing the waves right away, so he may have sulked a bit through the safety talk and the initial surfing lesson on dry land, but it paid off once we actually hit the ocean. Lisa taught us the basics plus a few of her secret tricks for getting up. After carrying the boards down to the beach, my two oldest boys approached the water and immediately forgot all the safety rules. Thankfully, Lisa was on hand to patiently remind the boys about the proper way to paddle and handle the surf boards and, before long, both boys looked like they’d been surfing for at least a few days. We may live in Michigan, but both of my boys already have asked about surfing again. Cost: rates start at $70 per person for 90 minutes.
KidTripster Tip: The beach area at Fort Pierce Inlet State Park is a hidden gem itself. If possible, schedule extra time after your lesson to just play.
After all that paddling, you’ll be hungry, so head to Archie’s Seabreeze (401 S. Ocean Dr., Fort Pierce), the perfect beachfront eatery. The majority of seating is outdoors with plenty of shade. On Saturday afternoons, there’s live music playing, and the whole vibe makes you feel like you’ve arrived in the Caribbean. The restaurant offers a great variety of food that’s served quickly. We particularly enjoyed the hamburgers and chicken sandwich special, but everything that we ordered was tasty. While we waited for our food, the kids enjoyed checking out the various pirate statues around the restaurant and taking in the other eclectic décor.
After you’ve spent time in the ocean, it’s time to explore St. Lucie County and the Treasure Coast by boat. Captain Chop and his crew with Indian River Lagoon and Swampland Boat Tours (1 Ave. A, Fort Pierce) promise a 90-minute adventure in the Indian River Lagoon on a pontoon boat named Gator. During our time on the water, we were able to spy several different animals including manatees and dolphins, but the highlight may have been the staff itself. While teaching passengers about the animals and the ecosystem, the crew also managed to entertain a diverse group of ages, including several hard-to-please teens and tweens. While I don’t remember many of the 310 different species of birds that call the area home, I do remember the fun that we had on our cruise. Tours leave three times daily but can sell out, so buy tickets in advance. Cost: Youth (12 & under) $15; Adult $23.
After your boat tour, it’s time to head back to the hotel and hit the beach or pool. After everyone is worn out from the day, get dressed and head to Chuck’s Seafood and Steakhouse (822 Seaway Dr., Fort Pierce) for a relaxing meal. Located right on the water, Chuck’s is famous for its fried shrimp and fresh seafood, but the steaks are great, too. We sat on the back deck and enjoyed the views of the ocean and sunset as well as the live music. The outside deck even has room for kids to dance. The night that we were there, the singer was playing older music but whipped out the theme song to SpongeBob Squarepants after noticing our kids.
Photo courtesy: Indian River Lagoon Boat Tours
On your last morning in St. Lucie, wake up early for a hearty breakfast at Captain’s Galley (825 Indian River Dr., Fort Pierce). We arrived around 8 a.m., and there was already a wait for tables at this local favorite. After eating here, we understand why. Captain’s Galley offers traditional breakfast favorites as well as some Southern options like grits and biscuits and gravy. The portions are large, and most items easily can be split between two people.
After breakfast, make your way across the bridge to the boat launch for a motorized kayaking tour with Motorized Kayaking Adventures (613 North Beach Causeway, Fort Pierce). Let’s start by getting one thing out of the way - you don’t have to worry about alligators while you are on this tour. Honestly, I had a rather large fear that I would capsize and run into a gator as soon as we booked this activity, but our guides were quick to let me know that this area of the Indian River isn’t home to any alligators (or other scary Florida animals that a family from Michigan fears). With that concern addressed, the kayaks used on this tour are fully motorized, but you also will have a paddle in case you get stuck or need to push off from a mangrove tree. The motor isn’t incredibly powerful, but it does help make this activity possible for anyone who can’t paddle for an extended period of time. The tour takes approximately two hours and goes through several sections of the Indian River. While you’re out, your guides will point out different animals and explain more about the ecosystem. The Indian River Lagoon is the most biologically diverse estuary in the USA with over 4,000 species of plants and animals. Animal sightings are not guaranteed, but the combination of the river and the motor alone thrilled my kids.
KidTripster Tip: The kayaks accommodate two people (or one adult and two small children) with the larger person in the back steering. If a child is going with a parent, the parent will have control of the motor, which is a good thing to know in advance. My tween wanted to drive the kayak but wasn’t able to because he was traveling with me. If I had told him about that in advance and let him know he could be the “keeper of the paddle,” we may have had less sulking when the tour started.
Photo courtesy: Motorized Kayaking Adventures
The Treasure Coast is located on the eastern shore of Florida between Vero Beach and Jupiter. Port St. Lucie is about a 1-1/2-hour drive north of Ft. Lauderdale, a 2-hour drive southeast of Orlando, and a 2-1/2-hour drive southeast of Tampa.
Former journalist Jamie Farber lives in West Michigan with her husband and three sons. Her English degree somehow has led her to a career planning Disney vacations with Mickey Travels.