Back in the 1920s, wintering Northerners were lured to Florida to seek ``undiscovered hideaways.'' Given the influx of tourists today, the term rarely applies. But about halfway between Cocoa Beach and Palm Beach on Florida's mid-Atlantic coast is a relatively undiscovered area encompassing Stuart, Jensen Beach, and Hutchinson Island. It's a slice of Old Florida that's best seen by boat.
The Intracoastal Waterway, which flows between barrier islands and the mainland, offers boaters unique vantage points for seeing this largely unspoiled region. The waterway is made up of the St. Lucie and Indian Rivers, which meet in Stuart and together flow into the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lucie Inlet. The waterway is largely undeveloped and a haven for wildlife.
From the deck of one's own cruiser or locally rented boat it's easy to imagine how yesterday's Florida looked. Along the shore, fruit-laden palm trees bend out over transparent blue-green waters. The waterway is a refuge for wading birds such as blue herons and snowy egrets. Unpretentious tropical villas still sprawl at river's edge, their weathered boathouses perched on pilings above the water. Fishermen still lean on bridge rails or rock patiently in their skiffs hoping to hook snook, sea trout, channel bass, drum, snapper, or sand perch.
Though Stuart and Jensen Beach are on the mainland, they seem surrounded by water because of the broad Indian and St. Lucie Rivers. Hutchinson Island is a barrier strip connected to the mainland by bridges. Its slim, sandy beaches are bordered with swaying palms and coquina rock outcroppings. There are several national chain hotels, the Indian River Plantation, a full-service resort, and two small museums.
The Indian River Plantation features both oceanfront and 200 recently opened riverfront accommodations, a new 77-slip marina, 13 championship tennis courts, an 18-hole, par-61 executive golf course, and bicycle rentals. A river tour boat runs from the marina.
Museums are within bicycling distance of the resort. Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, built in 1875 by the United States Coast Guard as a refuge for shipwrecked sailors, is now a museum of seafaring memorabilia and a nursery for green sea turtles. The weathered, wooden refuge house faces the river where egrets, anhingas, and pelicans glide just inches above the water. The house backs up to the ocean, where foam-flecked waves break against a ridge of unyielding coquina rock. A public dock allows access by boat on the river side of the island.
The Elliott Museum - named after a local inventor who held 220 or so patents - displays his inventions, shells, artwork, vintage autos, period clothing, and historical memorabilia of the area - complete with tales of alligator wrestling pioneers and Seminole Indians.
Across the southernmost bridge from Hutchinson is Sewalls Point and the famous '40s singer Frances Langford's Outrigger Resort and Restaurant - newly redecorated and featuring a new menu. Its palmy South Seas appearance makes it hard to miss.
North of the Outrigger Resort in Jensen Beach is Conchy Joe's Seafood Restaurant, with its outdoor thatched dining room, and Mr. Laff's Waterfront Restaurant. In Stuart, you'll find J.C. Hillary's Seafood, and Huckleberry's, also accessible by boat.
Part of the fun of exploring the North Fork of the St. Lucie River is that it was the setting of the boat chase in the James Bond thriller ``Moonraker.''
Just north of the Roosevelt Bridge is Harbor Inn and the Deck Restaurant with motel rooms, docking space, and a ``no frills'' eatery, where patrons (many of whom arrive by boat) may select their own steak cut and cook it on indoor gas grills.
Farther up the North Fork is Club Med's newest venture, the Sandpiper, formerly Sandpiper Bay. Built on 1,000 acres of riverfront wilderness, the Sandpiper has accommodations in six lodges, a restaurant, pool area, health club, marina, disco, 45 holes of championship golf, and 11 tennis courts.
Those who wish to explore the waterways but would rather leave the navigation to a qualified captain will be pleased to learn that last December, a Wisconsin-based cruise line initiated river cruises from the north end of Roosevelt Bridge in Stuart.
Bo-Mar of Florida offers ``luxury cruising of days gone by'' aboard its 150-passenger Jean Nicolet, an 1800s-era passenger lake cruiser with copper and brass fittings.
Evening dinner cruises and daytime sightseeing cruises to Lake Okeechobee and Jupiter Island are also available.
For general information, contact the Stuart-Martin County Chamber of Commerce, 400 S. Federal Highway, Stuart, FL 33497, (305) 287-1088, or the Jensen Beach Resort and Fishing Guide, 1910 N.E. Jensen Beach Blvd., Jensen Beach, FL 33457, (305) 334-3444.
Boat rentals: Rosemeyers Boat Rental Inc., Island Watersports Marina, 3291 N.E. Indian River Dr., Jensen Beach, FL 33457, (305) 334-1000. Or River Sport Rentals, 50 N. Federal Highway, Stuart, FL 33497, (305) 692-9746.
Indian River Plantation: 660 N.E. Ocean Blvd., Hutchinson Island, Stuart, FL, 33494, 800-327-4873 or (305) 225-3700.
Club Med - The Sandpiper: Village Hotel of Sandpiper, 3500 Morningside Blvd., Port St. Lucie, FL 32952, (305) 335-4400.
Bo-Mar Cruise Lines: PO Box 2276, Stuart, FL 34995, (305) 692-2429.