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Vero Beach, Fla.

The rewards of visiting Florida’s Treasure Coast are many, from sunsets to stellar marina access

More and more Intracoastal Waterway cruisers are discovering a hidden treasure along Florida’s central east coast: Vero Beach City Marina. A short marked channel just northeast of the Merrill Barber high-rise bridge leads from the ICW to the transient-friendly facility on Bethel Creek.

Vero Beach City Marina's moorings and docks occupy the deep, protected waters of Bethel Creek, just off Intracoastal Waterway Mile 952. Anchoring is not allowed in the creek, but up to three boats can raft on a single mooring.

Mangrove islands on the west block ICW wakes and protect the marina from all but strong northeast winds. The moorings and docks accommodate boats to 118 feet in depths to 8 feet. Tides range around a foot, and current is negligible.

“As wonderful as City Marina is, don’t write anything good about it, or we’ll never get in next year,” says Al Greymont of Falmouth, Mass., who was cruising south on his Nordhavn 43. “We’re just passing through, but are staying longer than we planned. From now on, Vero Beach will be one of our destinations.”

“The crew here is fabulous; everyone’s so congenial,” says his friend Steve Denyer of Cape Cod, Mass., who is cruising south aboard his Bristol 42 trawler. “And the free bus transportation is phenomenal.”

Residents proudly call the Vero Beach area the “Treasure Coast” and not just because 40-some years ago treasure hunters plucked 18th century coins from the surf. The gold and silver that washed ashore on “Money Beach” was from an 11-galleon fleet that was destroyed in a 1715 hurricane while en route to Spain with New World treasure. The cargo littered the beach and near-shore waters from Sebastian to Fort Pierce.

These days, “Treasure Coast” also encompasses the natural beauty, friendliness, cultural amenities and relaxed small-town atmosphere of Vero Beach, which occupies both banks of the Indian River. The city of 20,000 has been ranked a Top Beach Town, Best Art Small Town in America, Best Small Town in Florida and 12th Best in the Nation.

However, Kelvin Taylor, retired City Marina assistant manager, says there are three other reasons why more than 3,000 cruising boaters spend 21,000 nights each year in this wooded, park-like municipal facility on Vero’s barrier island, Orchid Island. “They come because of our 13 spotless hot showers, our large laundromat [six washers, seven dryers], and the free Go-Line buses that take you most anywhere you want to go,” he says. “Our marina is where the fruit loading dock was years ago. Now the city has grown away from the river, and the liquor store, supermarket, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, medical facilities and such are several miles away, but an easy trip by bus.”

The Go-Line circles through the marina twice an hour, Monday through Saturday, first looping over to the barrier island’s Atlantic beaches and Oceanside retail district, then heading to the mainland. Both oceanfront parks — Jaycee on the north and Humiston on the south — have shady palms, playgrounds, large picnic areas and public access to the sugary sands and surf. Jaycee Park has a lifeguard. A quarter-mile boardwalk ends at the Seaside Grill, a great place for breakfast, lunch or ice cream with an ocean view.

Jaycee Beach Park stretches for miles.

Humiston Park has a larger playground, but shorter boardwalk. Next door you’ll find Nino’s Café, which fills up quickly at meal times. Locals rate it among the best Italian restaurants, and its pizza the best in the county.

Between those parks are six blocks of bicycle rentals, unique upscale boutiques, art galleries and quaint restaurants along Ocean and Cardinal drives. Dining options range from tiny cafes (where locals gather for breakfast or lunch) to The Lemon Tree (family meals graciously served) and The Tides (elegant gourmet cuisine). Several offer live entertainment.

From the marina, the first mainland bus stop is Royal Palm Pointe, where among the 57 shops you’ll find Vero Marine Center’s Ships’ Store (a Grady-White dealer), Mr. Manatee’s Casual Grill and the highly regarded Lobster Shanty Restaurant. All three have docks for patrons. Royal Palm Pointe is a short dinghy ride across the Indian River from City Marina. With its life-guarded interactive fountain, picnic areas and fishing dock, it’s a relaxing spot to watch ICW activity. Keep in mind that officials warn against tying up to the dock because debris from the 2004 hurricane season still fouls the shallow waters.

Stops for Publix, the liquor store, movie theater and strip malls come before downtown’s Pocahontas Park. There, 10 other bus routes fan out across the county, serving Home Depot, Wal-Mart and the mall. Next to the park, the Chamber of Commerce offers brochures and maps of the attractions in this 12-square-mile city. Across Pocahontas Park, displays in Vero Heritage Center’s Citrus Museum show how settlers in the late 1800s founded the Indian River citrus industry. The fruit is known around the country for its quality.

Nearby, the circa 1903 railroad station houses the Indian River County Historical Society Exhibition Center. Artifacts range from the prehistoric era through the citrus and early tourist booms to today.

For those who’d rather not hop on the bus, striking out on foot is also an option. The marina docks flank Vero Beach Yacht Club. MacWilliam Park’s ball fields, picnic areas, canine play area and boat ramps are just beyond. Walk under Barber Bridge to Riverside Park — 26 acres of boat ramps, tennis and racquet ball courts, fitness and jogging trails, picnic areas, playground, fishing spots and riverfront benches. Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary, honoring members of all branches of the military, is a peaceful, contemplative preserve reached by footbridge.

The Vero Beach Yacht Club stands between City Marina's north and south docks.

Riverside Park’s jewel is the Vero Beach Art Museum, largest in the region and the city’s center for cultural activities. The imposing 55,000-square-foot edifice features a sculpture garden, education wing and five galleries displaying fine art, especially works by American and Floridian artists. The museum also presents lectures, seminars, performances, college-level courses and art shows. Periodically, it opens its student artists’ studios to visitors. Chelsea’s offers gourmet lunches on the patio or in the Wahlstrom Sculpture Garden.

This courtyard is part of Chelsea's restaurant.

Next door, Riverside Theatre/Children’s Theatre — the Treasure Coast’s only professional theater — presents such performances as cabarets, musicals, dramas and contemporary plays.

The sun sets over the Indian River.

Many boaters dinghy the short distance from the marina, under the high-rise bridge, and to Riverside Café, especially at sunset. The casual waterfront watering hole and restaurant suspends service for five minutes so patrons and staff can watch the sun set across the Indian River. Stopping to watch the sunset is indicative of the pace of life in Vero Beach, especially around the marina, where residents take pride in the small-town atmosphere. Homes nestle neatly beneath live oaks, colorful flower beds line retail district sidewalks, and old-style lamps light the fishing pier beneath the bridge.

There’s more to see farther afield if you’ve got a car. Almost every weekend in-season, an organization or church sponsors a performance — from symphony orchestra and opera to jazz and rock ’n’ roll. The Tampa Bay Rays minor league baseball team plays through the summer at Holman Stadium, near the Vero Beach Municipal Airport. Several golf courses are nearby. The Environmental Learning Center lets you explore such habitats as a dry hammock, salt marshes and a mangrove forest. McKee Botanical Gardens, opened in 1932, is an 18-acre historic garden of subtropical jungle plants.

However, boaters needn’t leave the marina to enjoy Vero Beach’s natural beauty and friendly folks. “I love watching the dolphins feed around our mooring, and it’s fun kayaking through the mangrove islands,” which separate the marina from the Indian River Lagoon, says Linda Freeman of Tiverton, R.I., who with her partner, Ed Feeney, was making her first trip south aboard their 42-foot Hatteras.

Dolphins are common in the Indian River Lagoon.

“This is the best marina in Florida,” says Bud Suverkrup, who kept his boat here for 16 years. “Even though I’ve sold my boat, they still let me come in and drink their coffee.”

Most consider the marina, the people and the dolphin treasures to savor.

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.