Last updated on May 16th, 2022 at 03:43 pm
Vero Beach is a low-rise small-city beach town not ruined by over-development. It has some wonderful funky Florida history and a cute downtown with interesting restaurants and shops.
The Driftwood Inn Vero Beach and its founder, Waldo Sexton, are key part of what makes Vero special.
With miles of Atlantic beach coastline as well as the Indian River Lagoon extending through its middle, Vero Beach, population 18,000, has a lot of natural aspects worth preserving. It’s located a half hour north of Fort Pierce, 45 minutes south of Melbourne and two hours southeast of Orlando.
Waldo Sexton and the Driftwood Inn Vero Beach
There are a lot of options for hotels in Vero Beach, including the very popular-with-families Disney Resort eight miles north of town as well as luxury resorts Kimpton Vero Beach Resort, and Spa and Costa d’Este Resort and Spa.
But I think the true Vero Beach experience is staying at the Historic Driftwood Inn and Resort, 3150 Ocean Drive, Vero Beach.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Driftwood Inn Vero Beach is eclectic and eccentric, just like its legendary founder, Waldo Sexton, who came to the Vero Beach area in 1914 and became a citrus farmer, dairy farmer, business leader, developer and so much more.
He opened the Driftwood Inn in the 1930s and in 1947 added a restaurant now known as Waldo’s. This hotel jump-started Vero’s tourism business.
Today, some original parts of the Driftwood Inn Vero Beach are preserved and even if you don’t stay there, you should dine at Waldo’s just to admire the place. True to its name, the original buildings are covered in driftwood and decorated with mosaics, bells, cannons, striking ceramic tiles and remnants from various churches, trains, ships and schools.
The complex overlooks a beautiful stretch of beach and not far off shore, a flagpole in the water marks the sites of a sunken ship – the Breconshire, which went down in 1894. (It’s popular with divers.)
The rooms at the Driftwood Inn Vero Beach are not fancy; I’d call them rustic and nostalgically dated. Our efficiency looked like the 1970s, with a tiny galley kitchen and bath. But the room is paneled with pecky cypress and it was steps to the beach. We could hear the waves from our room and were surrounded by the marvelously decorated original part of the inn. My husband David LOVES the place.
The Driftwood Inn feels more like a community than a hotel, and that’s because many of its rooms were sold as time share units decades ago. You can tell that people staying here come back for their week or weeks year after year — like the owners of the car in the lot with Wisconsin plates that read VERO BCH.
Discovering Vero Beach local history: McKee Botanical Garden
You’ll probably find a Waldo Sexton angle to every Vero history story, and there’s definitely one to lovely McKee Botanical Garden, 350 US-1, Vero Beach, which is worth visiting. Sexton and Arthur G. McKee opened the garden in 1932, bringing together a collection of waterlilies, orchids, plus strange and wonderful objects. Before there was a Disney, this roadside attraction drew 100,000 visitors a year.
The business partners created the garden as a tourist attraction when they realized the property they bought to turn into citrus groves was too beautiful to plow under.
Today, the garden makes a delightful stop. Read a Florida Rambler story about the McKee Botanical Garden here.
Exploring Vero Beach
There are several other interesting things to do in Vero Beach. (See this Florida Rambler for the complete guide.) Highlights include:
Vero Beach’s old Jungle Trail: Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 8-mile-long hard-packed-sand road runs along the Indian River Lagoon. It was constructed in the 1920s to help transport the citrus crop, for which Indian River County is still famous. It’s worth exploring on fat-tire bikes, but you also can drive (very slowly) on it, jog or walk.
Be sure to stop at Captain Forster Hammock Preserve, 8610 Jungle Trail, the last stretch of original maritime hammock –a jungly forest of live oaks and ferns with trails, and Jones Pier, 7770 Jungle Trail, where a pioneer cabin is preserved along with the original fruit stand.
Lively downtown Vero Beach: Vero Beach has preserved some great old buildings in its main street area. This original downtown has several intriguing restaurants and interesting art galleries and shops, including a gallery devoted to art the Florida Highwaymen, a group of 26 self-taught African American artists who painted vivid landscapes along the Treasure Coast.
When visiting downtown, don’t miss a great example of a historic building restored and put to a new use – the American Icon Brewery, 1133 19th Place, Vero Beach, once the Vero Beach Municipal Power Plant.
The beach, parks and kayaking: At the southern end of town, we recommend Round Island Beach Park, 2200 South A1A, Vero Beach. Not only does it have a beautiful natural beach, but there is an interesting display about how World War II soldiers practiced beach landings here in preparation for D-Day. Across A1A on the lagoon side, which is a favorite kayak launch and place to see manatees. (Local outfitters will deliver kayaks here for you.)
Riverside Park, located on the beach side of the lagoon in the center of town, preserves a long stretch of lagoon front and is home to Vero Beach cultural institutions, including an art museum and theater. A highlight of Riverside Park is a landscaped man-made island turned into a veterans memorial.
On the west side of the Indian River Lagoon, the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area offers a beautiful hike through a forest of large live oaks full of airplants and Spanish moss with an understory of ferns and native plants.
Where to eat in Vero Beach
We loved the restaurant right at the Driftwood Inn, Waldo’s, 3150 Ocean Dr., Vero Beach. It’s located in the most original part of the Driftwood Inn. We loved sitting at an open air table on a deck, directly overlooking the beach and the Atlantic Ocean, and eating fresh fish.
What’s near Vero Beach
Blue Cypress Lake, 7400 Blue Cypress Lake Road, is one of my favorite kayaking discoveries. Located 22 miles west of Vero Beach, this large lake has a shoreline dotted with hundreds of magnificent bald cypress trees. Just as impressive, there are hundreds of osprey nests on this lake and in late winter/early spring when the osprey are nesting, it is a sight to behold.
Pelican Island, the nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge, 4055 Wildlife Way, Vero Beach, offers trails, a boardwalk and an observation tower overlooking the island, which is a bird rookery. It’s 15 miles north of Vero Beach.
Sebastian Inlet State Park, 9700 S. Highway A1A, Melbourne Beach, is a good destination for kayaking and camping.
St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, 1000 Buffer Preserve Dr., Fellsmere, is a wilderness park that can be explored by hiking, biking and horseback.
Hutchinson Island, the coastal barrier island area south of Vero Beach, is full of beaches and interesting places, including Avalon State Park, N. Highway A1A, Fort Pierce, where Navy frogmen practiced for D-Day. More obstacles placed in the water to challenge them in their landings are still there. The Navy Seal Museum, 3300 N. Highway A1A, Fort Pierce, in nearby Fort Pierce is a good place to learn about this history.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.