Just down Route 510 from Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, I quickly u-turn when I see a sign for “Jungle Trail.”
I encounter cottages fronting the creek. Signs here proclaim “Century Farm” and “Coconuts 4 Sale.” Ah, the real, old Florida that we all love, right here in Vero Beach, one of the swankiest of Florida’s coastal resort areas.
But the main attraction along this “trail” isn’t that quirky charm. It is a clapboard cottage and nature trail (not quite “jungle” but it will do) at the Captain Forster Hammock Preserve. Early “cracker” Capt. Frank Forster docked his vessel the Dood there, named the place Orchid and made a living selling produce to passing Flagler trains. (The preserve is one of many in the Vero Beach area; across the creek is the county’s Environmental Learning Center.)
I am visiting Vero Beach the weekend of the Long Night Moon, when the moon is the lowest in the sky. I am here with my 4-year-old daughter, Annie, and after our scenic side tour, we head to Costa d’Este resort, on Ocean Drive, and we marvel at the waterfall pouring off of the hotel’s porte cochere.
It looks every inch the classic Florida hotel; owners Gloria and Emilio Estefan have overseen everything, down to the restaurant menu at The Wave Kitchen & Bar, which has a sister operation to the Estefan’s Cardozo Hotel in South Beach. The minimalist interior is kid friendly; Annie rushes to the beaded screen in the lobby and giant mermaid murals (the mermaid looks suspiciously like Gloria).
After checking in, we head to the pool bar terrace to watch the moon, which is bright enough to look like the sun. As we observe, an attendant tells us that tonight we might see the shadow of an old boiler of a sunken ship, right offshore. For Annie’s sake, I pretend.
For dinner, we go next door to the Driftwood Inn and Restaurant, a 1937 hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places because it’s made of both driftwood and old pieces of Florida buildings collected by the late Waldo Sexton. Sexton co-founded McKee Jungle Garden (now McKee Botanical Garden) to attract drivers on U.S. Route 1, and he started the restaurant Ocean Grill, which sits at the end of Beachland Boulevard.
The next morning, we head to City Park. Though the Riverside Children’s Theatre doesn’t have a matinee this day, across the road the Vero Beach Museum of Art has a kid-friendly sculpture park that Annie calls “slidey-pole land” (though I told her she couldn’t). Admission for children 17 years and under is free. Her verdict? “Can we come back here another day?” Of course, I say, as we head to Casey’s Place for a burger.
Across the Indian River, there are even more places to eat. Royal Palm Pointe has a group of restaurants, including Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty and River Deck, Dockside Grille and Mr. Manatee’s Casual Grille. At the end of the row is Royal Palm Pointe Park, where I watch passing yachts while Annie runs the perimeter of an interactive fountain and compass rose mosaics.
The Vero Beach Book Center and Children’s Store is an old theater with impossible-to-find European toys and books. On the wall are signatures of visiting authors and illustrators including R.L. Stine, Eric Carle and Tomie dePaola. In the center is a stage for readings; look there for the signature of Julie Andrews.
Indian River County’s citrus packing houses still line U.S. Route 1 with brands like Hale Indian River Groves. Telling that story is the Indian River Citrus Museum, with a playground down the street.
That afternoon, we visit the beach by the hotel, though beach access along A1A is easy, and there are a string of state, county and city parks including Wabasso Beach Park, Jaycee Beach Park, Sexton Plaza, Avalon State Park, Queens Island Park, Humiston Park and Sebastian Inlet State Park.
On the way home in Fort Pierce on U.S. 1 is Dale’s Bar-B-Q. I stop because of the glowing neon sign that takes you back to 1962, when it opened. Inside, the restaurant wins Annie over with a shrimp kids’ meal. Dale’s, and the entire Vero Beach area, win me over when a waitress takes a few moments and shows Annie the giant stuffed elk on the wall.