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Melbourne, Florida

Melbourne lies in the heart of an area you’ve probably long felt you’ve known about. Actually, you likely know very little about this special place. It’s yet another of the Sunshine State’s unexpected surprises.

At the northern end, the Mosquito Lagoon shimmers and ripples among mangrove islands and shallows. A thin strip of sand separates it from the Atlantic. Looking around, you feel like you’re in prehistoric times but then you notice, shimmering in the mist to the south, the behemoth buildings of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. To get closer to it, you pass through a beautiful canal full of birds, fish, manatees and other wildlife. It has the unlikely name of Haulover Canal, which comes from the time when cargo passing down the Intracoastal Waterway had to be hauled over land to get from Mosquito Lagoon to the Indian River.

The Indian River is one of the easiest and most pleasant parts of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Its navigational area stretches for 135 miles from the Haulover Canal just north of Titusville all the way to Jupiter inlet. Small boats zip about in the shallows to the north of this stretch. It’s separated from the ocean by a strip of land populated by beaches, hotels, restaurants, night spots and, yes, the Kennedy Space Center. Even this strip of land is divided for a short distance by the Banana River.

Much of the Indian River can be run with autopilot, and it’s one of the few places on the ICW where sailboats are actually able to sail — and sail well. The river is part of a 156-mile estuary running roughly from 27 to 29 degrees north latitude. It opens to the sea through five inlets: Ponce de Leon, Sebastian, Fort Pierce, St. Lucie and Jupiter. At Ponce Inlet the waters flooding in from the ocean are a bit muddy. These remind me of the waters of the mid-Atlantic coast. The climate is that of North Florida and lower Georgia — very nice but not what people often think of when they think of Florida. Those who’ve traveled from north to south on the Indian River, however, know that an amazing change is in store.

Shortly before you reach Jupiter Inlet, the ICW waters become clear and turquoise as they flow around your boat. These are waters from the nearby Gulf Stream, totally different from what you’ve grown accustomed to coming down the coast. The waters are tropical in appearance, as is the sky. The colors of water and sky, the clouds, the winds, even the smell of the air all morph from the characteristics of more northern waters to subtropical. The transition is stunning. The first time we made this trip, we knew we’d finally fulfilled our dreams of sailing south.

A short tour
The small city of Melbourne rests in the midst of this boating paradise — not tropical but very seldom cold in the winter. It’s not the only city in the area; neighboring cities include Cocoa, Titusville, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce and Stuart.

There are several marinas in the Melbourne area. On the west side of the ICW and just to the south of the Melbourne Causeway, you’ll find Melbourne Harbor Marina — (321) 725-9054, www.melbourneharbor.com. Tucked neatly up in the basin at the mouth of Crane Creek, it’s at the heart of the restored downtown Melbourne area. The docks are nice, the harbor protected. With the Chart House Restaurant, Ichabod’s Dockside Bar and Grille, and the pleasant surroundings of the marina, it’s easy to forget that a few blocks of walking brings you to Melbourne’s many restaurants, bars and shops, from funky and fun to very upscale. To reach this area from the marina, you’ll cross the tracks of the famed Florida East Coast Railway, originally built by Henry Flagler as he strove so hard to make Florida’s lower east coast into — of all things — a tourist Mecca.

As you reach the tracks you’ll see to your right (northerly) the old train station, now used for shops and the Depot Cafe. You’ll find yourself at a small park with New Haven Avenue veering off to your right and Melbourne Court to your left. Between, around and on these two streets are numerous shops, ice cream and candy boutiques, and restaurants, all imbued with an “Old Florida” ambiance. (More on Old Florida in a moment.) Unique names of some of the establishments in this area include the Island Pasta Company; The Gauzeway, specializing in cotton gauze clothing (the Melbourne Causeway over the Indian River is nearby); Croissant Chateau; a Kilwins; and the Continental Flambe restaurant.

And there are special events to take in, such as the Friday Fest (second Friday of the month), the Farmer’s Market every Tuesday from November through April, and an arts festival in the spring. The Henegar Center for the Arts (www.henegar.org) in the old Melbourne High School presents plays and other performances. You can get a calendar of events and a list of places from the Melbourne-Palm Bay Area Chamber of Commerce — (321) 724-5400, www.melpb-chamber.org.

When we visited we particularly enjoyed Meg O’Malley’s, about two blocks down New Haven Avenue. We’ve been to plenty of Irish pub/restaurants, but this had the right feel, the right food and definitely the right beer. Throw in some live entertainment, and it gets even better. The experience was even more special because we were in the company of Fionnbarra O’Muraehda (translated: “Fair-headed warrior from the Sea,” or Finnbarr P. Murphy to those of us who “Americanize” it). Finnbarr, it so happens, is the owner of Eau Gallie Boatworks on Young Street — (321) 254-1766, www.egbw.com.

Eau Gallie Boatworks, as Finnbarr describes it, is a “boutique boatyard.” It’s in the protected basin at the mouth of the Eau Gallie River on the western bank of the Indian River, just to the south of the Eau Gallie Causeway. Small in land size, it’s nevertheless large in accomplishment with Finnbarr’s indomitable “we can solve your problem” attitude. Irish stubbornness comes in handy with tough boat repairs. And while he has a cadre of workers, he doesn’t hesitate to dive into a bilge or under an engine to do whatever it takes to make sure the problem is solved.

And there’s another aspect to the yard: I once stood in mute amazement as I actually heard a Sea Ray owner, without any prompting, thanking Finnbarr for his help and his friendly attitude as the man paid his yard bill. I’m not accustomed to hearing things like this from boat owners (myself included) at this normally awful moment of truth.

The yard has a working railway and a marine lift on a rail. The lift is specially designed so that the cross beams at the top can be lifted out of the way, allowing the lift to “walk” over particularly tall boats or over a boat already in the yard to pick up another boat.

The road leading down to the yard from Young Street used to be the mule trail where the animals, tethered to the railway, pulled boats from the water. Now, of course, modern machinery does the job, and the yard has a large, enclosed work building that houses a machine shop, woodworking equipment and other facilities for solving boat problems. Everything about the yard appears neat, in place, orderly and cared for. Extreme measures are taken to avoid any adverse environmental impacts on the river — not just because it’s the law but because the owner cares.

The marina docks to the east of the yard are a separate business, the Eau Gallie Yacht Basin. It has a few transient slips, and you can make reservations by calling Karen’s Canvas at (321) 254-0032, a well-established canvas shop on the premises. These and the yard docks used to be part of an old Hatteras facility and are said by some to be perhaps the oldest docking/yard facility on Florida’s east coast. These facilities, to my mind, demonstrate one of the more interesting qualities of Melbourne.

The “old” part of town

The yard and marina are nestled among and coexist with fine homes and old buildings in a historic area of Old Florida. Part of the fascination of the area lies in the fact that most of the “historic” homes and buildings date back only to the mid-1800s. This is because Florida basically “stopped,” for most intents and purposes — first in St. Augustine and then the Melbourne area, as well as the other end points of Henry Flagler’s railroad as it inched its way down the coast.

Key West rollicked along on its own down at the end of the chain of keys, and Miami and Fort Lauderdale held down the fort of civilization near the bottom of the mainland, but they were linked to the rest of the world primarily by boats. In between there wasn’t much to be found in the early days except marsh and forest until the railroad, reaching farther and farther south, brought with it people and growth. What would be considered very recent history in places such as Williamsburg or Plymouth or St. Augustine is very old history in this part of Florida. This, to me, gives the area a unique perspective that’s at the same time historical but also refreshing. You’ll find this throughout the Melbourne area.

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