Destination Fort Pierce, Fla.

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Take a detour off the Intracoastal Waterway to this angler’s paradise on the Indian River, where a new channel leads to the City Marina

Take a detour off the Intracoastal Waterway to this angler’s paradise on the Indian River, where a new channel leads to the City Marina

 

Whether you’re cruising the Intracoastal Waterway or coming in from offshore, Fort Pierce, known as The Sunrise City, is ideally situated on Florida’s east coast where the Indian River intersects all-weather Fort Pierce Inlet.

“The inlet is our best asset,” says Dean Kubitschek, 46, general manager of Fort Pierce City Marina at ICW Mile Marker 966.

“Fishermen like having great fishing only 10 to 20 miles out. We’re convenient for ICW boaters and for those who use Fort Pierce as a port of entry or jumping-off point for the Bahamas and beyond.”

A shorter, more direct new channel connects City Marina with the ICW, dredged since hurricanes Frances and Jeanne slammed Fort Pierce in 2004. The storms demolished the marina’s inner basin and swept away its outer docks, which extended into the Indian River. Despite losing half its dockage, Kubitschek says the facility is “up and running at full speed.”

“In fact, our late October transient business was the best since the hurricane,” he says. City Marina’s rebuilt inner basin now contains 137 slips for yachts to 90 feet. It now offers Kleen marine diesel fuel and has installed free WiFi, cable TV and weatherfax.

Plans are progressing for new outer docks sheltered by three to-be-created mangrove islands that also will reduce the current and provide marine habitat. “Our seagrass bed studies and computer models were successful, so we are beginning tank model tests re-creating our environment and possible weather conditions,” he says. “FEMA has begun its environmental assessment.”

Kubitschek has welcomed boaters to Fort Pierce for 10 years and says the City Marina specializes in overnight transient dockage. He likens the marina and its two waterfront restaurants to a hotel. “Our guests get fuel, tie up, eat, then walk downtown to [world class entertainment at] Sunrise Theater, services, other restaurants and shops.” Think day spas, jewelry, fine art, antiques, gourmet foods, even a pet boutique — all with personal service.

The public library is across the street from the marina, and the Manatee Education Center, Visitor Center and Backus Museum are next door, across tiny Moore’s Creek. For $1 you can ride the city bus to the mall or a movie. The rebuilt, city-owned Indian Hills golf course is a mile from City Marina.

“Our marina is also the key in downtown revitalization,” Kubitschek says. New waterfront parks and promenades surround City Marina, and three adjacent buildings under construction will add a hotel, offices, condos and more stores. However, Kubitschek maintains that the small town ambience that attracted him will remain. “Fort Pierce is in control of development and has raised the bar for quality of projects,” he says.

The marina’s Waterfront Park hosts dozens of events, from Saturday morning Farmers’ Markets and monthly First Friday Fests to annual boat, art and Corvette shows. Some 13 fishing tournaments are held each year, and spectators gather at the marina for the weigh-ins of trophy fish.

Harbortown Marina on Taylor Creek (ICW Mile Marker 965) also offers dockage and has a rental car agency on site. Several smaller marinas may have slips, and local yards offer full repairs.

When hunger strikes, you can dine overlooking the Indian River and marina, downtown or along Seaway Drive or U.S. 1. Among local favorites are City Marina’s Original Tiki Bar and Cobb’s Landing Restaurant, Captain’s Galley, Pizzoodles (Italian), Café La Ronde (gourmet) and Tropical Wave Café (fusion cuisine). Outdoor tables at Java Charlie’s and the pre-1880 P.P. Cobb General Store encourage people-watching. Several establishments feature live entertainment.

The Visitor Center offers brochures and a tour of the early-1900s Seven Gables House. The adjacent A.E. “Bean” Backus Art Gallery and Museum showcases works by the late local artist and the “Highwaymen” school of artists he mentored. You might see manatees feeding in Moore’s Creek, especially in winter, when they seek respite from the ocean’s colder waters. (Manatees can contract pneumonia in waters below 68 degrees.) The creek’s multiple-ramp launching area is closed from November through March for their safety.

Climb the Visitor Center’s tower for a better view of the grass-eating “sea cows.” Better yet, tour the indoor exhibits and aquariums. The half-ton, slow-moving mammals have no natural predators, though they are endangered by boat collisions, habitat loss and entanglement in lines. The center’s interactive displays and narrated Indian River Lagoon nature cruise also cover other local marine life.

From the marina you can cross South Bridge to South Causeway Island Park for sandy beaches, picnic grounds, a playground, fishing piers and two museums. One, St. Lucie County Marine Center, features Smithsonian exhibits on the aquatic life of Florida’s six ecosystems, from deep ocean to the Indian River Lagoon.

“This is the closest you’ll get to see these habitats without putting on a mask and snorkel,” says Laura Diederick, marine biology educator.

Other displays show how Fort Pierce’s economy was and still is dependent upon the Indian River Lagoon. The 156-mile estuary that covers a third of Florida’s east coast nurtures more than 4,000 species of temperate and tropical plants and animals, drawing anglers and ecotourists alike. Technically it’s not a river because it has no flow, only tides. Because the lagoon is endangered by development, several exhibits encourage conservation activities. Tuesday is free day, with a guided tour at 2 p.m.

The other museum, St. Lucie County Historical, depicts how Fort Pierce grew from an 1837 army fort to its current population of 39,000. The 11 permanent exhibits begin with American Indian villages. Others illustrate how the civilian settlement, incorporated in 1901, prospered through commercial fishing, shipping, citrus and pineapple farming, and raising cattle. You’ll see how a winding inlet connected Fort Pierce to the sea until 1898, when a local senator had it straightened. It had silted shut by 1911, and the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the present inlet in 1921, creating the causeways to North and South Hutchinson islands with the spoils. Those island sands once were strewn with gold from 11 Spanish galleons wrecked in a 1715 hurricane. (You can view recovered pieces of eight and other artifacts.) And during World War II some 150,000 frogmen, landing craft crews and the predecessors to the Navy SEALs trained on these same beaches. The Navy UDT-SEAL Museum on North Hutchinson Island traces the history of the Navy SEALs and its ancestry (www.navysealmuseum.com ).

To reach North Hutchinson Island’s still-pristine beaches you can anchor in the inlet off the State Recreation Area. On weekends, you can dinghy or wade to a pontoon-boat restaurant that anchors off the beach and sells burgers, ice cream and soft drinks. The ocean beach attracts swimmers, sunbathers, surfers and kite-sailors.

Take the trolley or a car to South Jetty Park, three miles from downtown, which also has a sandy Atlantic beach, as well as a picnic area, restrooms and fishing pier. From the jetty you watch the sun rise out of the ocean.

These days The Sunrise City’s fortunes also are rising, as Fort Pierce recovers from the hurricanes of 2004 and reinvents itself while welcoming cruisers and anglers.