Walgreen, Schwarzenegger, Francis Langford and the Real McCoy: Capt. Bob dropped names like sailors drop sails during our cruise aboard the Island Princess from Finest Kind Marina in Stuart into the Intracoastal Waterway and St. Lucie Inlet, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Besides spying on homes of the wealthy, glamorous and notorious, we watched dolphins leap in the yacht's wake and hailed a steady stream of pleasure boats enjoying the fun, fishing, diving and other watersports Martin County's generous waterfront affords.
A watersports junkie's jackpot, Martin County revolves around the city of Stuart on Florida's east coast, roughly equidistant from Miami and Orlando, both only a couple of hours away.
Martin County's preoccupation with water becomes instantly obvious, and small wonder it is. Besides its oceanfront, the county edges Lake Okeechobee at its western extreme and is run through by the canal that leads to the lake, plus the St. Lucie and Loxahatchee rivers.
Taft, Roosevelt, Cleveland, Harding and Arthur: Fishing, in Martin County, we discovered, has known its own celebrity and historically been the sport of presidents. Water clearly links Martin County's past to its present.
We followed the flow to explore the region's best in both tenses, beginning at the young end of the timeline. The Ais Indians were the first known to boat and fish local waterways, later followed by the Seminoles. The Elliott Museum on Stuart Beach, which is currently closed for rebuilding and scheduled to reopen in January 2013, delves into their times. Spanish sailors next made maritime history when a ferocious hurricane swatted 15 gold-laden ships to the ocean's bottom in 1715, thus giving the region its nickname as the Treasure Coast.
It was hardly the last sailing mishap recorded on these shores, and today divers can explore the remains of two shipwrecks, the circa 1904 Georges Valentine and the 459-foot USS Rankin. By the late 19th century, the U.S. government had built safe havens up and down the coast to provide shelter for shipwreck victims who made it to the isolated stretch of shoreline. Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island is the last remaining, preserved as a museum that elucidates those days and how the keeper and his family lived.
The Maritime & Classic Boat Museum in Jensen further preserves Martin County's nautical heritage with collections that delve into boat building, navigation and maritime art.
Sailing remains firmly implanted in Martin County's genes. Wannabe and wanna-improve sailors – kids and adults alike – can learn the ropes (or rather "the lines," to be in proper sailing form) at the U.S. Sailing Center in Jensen Beach, just north of Stuart.
Into the Deep
Our last land stop as we transitioned into the now of Martin County's water log was the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center across the street from Stuart Beach on Hutchinson Island. Here, aquariums and tanks introduced us to some of the creatures we could expect to see in local waters, particularly on and around their unique sabellariid worm reef, which you can explore with snorkel and mask at nearby Bathtub Reef Beach. The reef itself gives the lagoon its calm, cosseted, bathtub effect. Offshore, divers can also check out a couple of artificial reefs about 60 feet down, where tropical fish school.
Scuba tours and charter captains can take you to the sites for diving or fishing. This stretch of coast, known as the "Sailfish Capital of the World," is particularly fish-frenzied at Port Salerno. Twenty seaports and marinas throughout the region mean a bounty of boat and equipment rentals, bait and tackle outlets, boat ramps and charters. Cast your line from Martin County's long stretches of secluded beach and passes, or hook up with a deep sea fishing yacht.
If you want to fish while kicking back and enjoying the party boat experience, hook up with an offshore fishing charter such as Lady Stuart or Safari I Deep Sea Fishing. The experts will guide you to waters rich with snapper, mahi, grouper and seabass. Other companies, such as Catch 22, offer river fishing charters on bountiful waterways like the St. Lucie River. Most area charters accommodate everyone from established sportsmen to families.
If you're a do-it-yourselfer, rent a boat and head for one of the dozen or so public boat ramps located throughout Martin County. (To find addresses for area boat ramps, go to www.DiscoverMartin.com and click on "What to Do".) Local outfitters offer boats for fishing and pleasure cruising, canoes and kayaks for exploring the area's beautiful inland and coastal waterways, and a variety of thrilling watercraft such as WaveRunners.
Cruising the Surface
You'll also find sightseeing boat tours departing from the marinas, resorts and Jonathan Dickinson State Park. The pontoon boat Loxahatchee Queen II launches on a backwaters nature adventure from the latter, where river access is restricted.
You can also catch an eco cruise from the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center at Stuart Beach or from Sunshine Wildlife Boat Tours in Stuart.
Also in Stuart, Treasure Coast Sailing Adventures offers a trip aboard The Lily on the St. Lucie in season, while the sleek double-deck Island Princess cruises to protected spots where the scenery hasn't changed since the Ais paddled here. A few minutes later, we're linked back to modern times and the fabulous mansions it has wrought. Time flies when you're on the water in Martin County.