Strolling through Stuart’s Shops, with a Side of Florida History
By Janet K. Keeler
Stuart is a place that’s difficult to really know in a day, but one day in this Florida Treasure Coast town is plenty of time to get started. That may sound like overblown tourism hype, but you’ll understand as we start to peel back the layers of one of Florida’s most distinctive riverfront cities.
A casual visitor will find enough to fill up an afternoon, especially along SW Osceola Street in historic downtown Stuart, pop. 16,000. The St. Lucie River is just a block over and cradles the city like a horseshoe. The Intracoastal Waterway is just a jump to the east and the Atlantic Ocean a bit farther on the other side of the barrier islands. Water, it could be said, is a way of life here. Locals and visitors can fish, boat and paddle to their hearts’ content.
No doubt, SW Osceola Street is the coolest (and most posh) stretch of Stuart. A couple dozen stores, restaurants, snack shacks and a beautiful vintage theater line the street.
There’s more around the block, too, on SW Flagler Avenue. Gumbo Limbo Gifts bills itself as coastal chic and a cruise through the shop turns up upscale home accessories, including plush pillows, beautiful linens and paper products and plenty of cleverly designed plates for cheese, dip and other hors d’oeuvres. Monkee’s of Stuart has no connection with the pop group of the 1960s and everything to do with stylish clothes, shoes and accessories. With another simian nod, the Funky Monkey is also a good spot for clothes.
It’s not totally fancy on Osceola. The Dirty Hippie, with an entrance on SW Seminole Street, too, is all tie-dye and vinyl. Enjoy a stogie at Smokin Premiums and buy a few to take home. There are a handful of spots to stop for ice cream or frozen yogurt, including Signature Sweets.
The street names Osceola, Seminole and Flagler are nods to Florida history, two named for the Indian tribes and the other for the American industrialist and railroad magnate who helped open Florida to tourists and new settlers.
If you want to experience more than shopping and eating in Stuart, start your day at the Stuart Heritage Museum, where the city’s history is told inside a 1901 building that’s housed several businesses including a general store, Mrs. Peter’s Smoked Fish House and a feed supply outlet. You’ll learn here that Stuart proudly proclaims itself as the Sailfish Capital of the Year. The impressive dancing fish runs in great numbers along the Treasure Coast in the winter luring sport fishermen from around the world.
Then there’s a bunch of photos and other artifacts that have pineapples as their focus. What’s up with that? It goes beyond the pineapple as being a symbol of Southern hospitality. Stuart used to be ground zero for Florida’s pineapple-growing industry, a crop long given up to other places. Pineapples gave way to chrysanthemums but most of the growth here now is about tourism.
The museum boasts several photos that indicate Stuart wasn’t always Stuart. For two years in the late 1800s, the town was called Potsdam, named after the city in Germany. Hard to say and not popular, the name was changed in 1895 to Stuart to honor a local landowner.
While Stuart is an excellent walking city, you can catch a sightseeing tram in front of the museum. You might even be lucky enough to ride with a longtime city employee who gives a quick rundown on the outdoor festivals that draw folks from all over Martin County and other locales. Sidewalks sales, weekly concerts on the Riverwalk Stage, craft festivals, fireworks shows, holiday lighting party, and more. The most popular is Dancin’ in the Streets in late summer. Shut down the downtown streets, turn up the live music and put on your dancing shoes for nine lively hours.
We cruise through the older part of town where historic homes are painstakingly maintained. Heading back toward downtown, we pause at Harney Circle to gaze ay Abundance, a bronze sculpture that arrived in Stuart via the 1939 World’s Fair, and then the driver drops us at Riverwalk Café and Oyster Bar. We are going to stroll and shop, but first sustenance. Not much of a view from the 1922 brick building, but oh, the food. Chef/owner Steve Feder dishes out some fine food, among them Dirty Oysters topped with sour cream and caviar. The seafood isn’t all local but it’s lovingly prepared and if you visit when the corn chowder is on the menu, get it.
Around the corner, the Gafford receives high marks for its American-centric dinner menu, featuring seafood, beef, lamb and poultry sourced locally. Vegetarians are welcome, too, and will likely be drawn to the Parmesan roasted cauliflower paired with a citrus and fennel salad.
Time your visit right and eat at the Gafford, see a show at the historic Lyric Theater that hosts acts like comedians Paula Poundstone and Robert Klein and musician Branford Marsalis, and have a cup of coffee or a cocktail at one of many spots downtown afterward.
After our oysters and chowder at Riverwalk, we start the SW Osceola Street stroll, and find there’s a lot to Stuart. Most of it can be discovered on foot.