It is one of America's magical roadways. A north/south route, Highway A1A sprawls out in sections along Florida's entire Atlantic coast. Cruising along A1A in Central Florida we pulled into the towns of Melbourne Beach and Indiatlantic located on the barrier island between the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean. Relaxed and unhurried, the twin sister towns offer unspoiled beaches with sparkling blue-green waters and large dunes blanketed with sea oats and native wildflowers.
It's truly a taste of Old Florida charm.
Melbourne Beach (pop. 3,500) is one of Brevard County's older beach communities and is named after the famed Australian coastal city. Travel A1A fifteen miles south and you come to Sebastian Inlet State Park. Sebastian's jetty break is recognized as one of the surf world's high-performance hot spots.
The inlet has been home to at least three generations of world-class surfers, including six-time world champion Kelly Slater surfed here. Monthly events and big-name surf camps are staged here as is the Sebastian Inlet Pro-- a five-star World Qualifying Series competition that draws some of the biggest names in the sport each January. In 1994 a part time treasure hunter, diving in eight feet of water about 100 yards from the wave break "First Peak" found $1 million worth of jewels and gold coins from a Spanish galleon that sank their more than 250 years earlier.
Built in 1889, the Melbourne Pier is a 600-foot structure located in Rykman Park that was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Today, it’s a popular fishing destination. The Old Town Hall History Center has been fully renovated and restored to its original beauty. The quaint museum tells the story on the Melbourne Beach area, from the Ais Indians and Spanish shipwrecks to various art and artifacts.
Just across from the ocean in Indiatlantic, the Beach Bungalow is a small compound of two bedroom tropical villas. They are all dog friendly and feature private, fully fenced gardens with hot tubs and loads of custom wood and tile work throughout the villas. The Bungalow is located within a couple of blocks of an eclectic selection of restaurants and shops.
After watching a glorious sunrise over the Atlantic, we walked over to the Beachside Cafe on colorful 5th Avenue. The house specialties include eggs Benedict, a skillet dish with eggs, breakfast meats and veggies, salami and eggs, and stuffed French toast. The light and fluffy pancakes, the hearty size of frisbees, can be stuffed with blueberries, strawberries or bananas.
Next door is the Longboard House that has been around since the early ‘60s and stocks more than 1,000 surfboards and paddle boards, shipping them everywhere. In the "Green Room," you will find artistic boards, functional ones and eco-friendly boards. In addition, they custom design boards to your specifications. The shop has long-time relationships with master longboard designers and also sells a good selection of shortboards. Longboard also offers a nice clothing selection and top name brand beachwear and quality accessories, though it can be a bit pricey. Not a touristy spot, very local and very friendly. Worth a visit.
Three miles over the US-192 causeway that crosses the Indian River, visitors enter the historic city of Melbourne (pop. 75,000). East New Haven Avenue is its main street, head over to the 700 to 900 blocks. They sport a cosmopolitan feel with antique stores, clothing boutiques, restaurants, nightclubs and coffee shops. North of downtown Melbourne is the community of Eau Gallie. Once its own city, the handsome Eau Gallie Arts district is a great place to while away an afternoon browsing shops, art galleries, the botanical gardens or enjoying a nice meal at one of the highly touted eateries and cafes.
Ichabod's Dockside Bar and Grille is located just off US-192 on Front Street. It's a cozy hangout that overlooks the Melbourne Harbor Marina. We stopped by for lunch of mahi fingers, conch fritters and tiger shrimp tacos. Daily specials include the Peruvian ceviche appetizer, and bacon wapped salmon topped with horseradish cream sauce over rice pilaf.
Since opening in 1978 the Foosaner Art Museum has amassed over 5,000 objects, spanning 2,000 years of creative history. The museum’s permanent collection includes works by 20th-century Central Florida artists, Asian ceramics and metalwork, along with modern and contemporary works on paper. At the heart of the Henegar Center for the Arts, housed in a 1919 school building, is a 493-seat proscenium-style theater designed by a Tony Award-winning Broadway set designer. The main stage curtain came from the original Broadway production of The King and I. Another cultural gem is the Melbourne Civic Theater. Now in its 64 season, MCT has provided a wealth of memories and a healthy dose of the magic that is theatre. Stage shows this season range from "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol," to "The Price" by Arthur Miller.
A 15-minute drive north of downtown brings you to the King Center for the Performing Arts. The six-story building showcases a 2,016-seat performing arts hall, art display areas, dance studios, rehearsal halls and an intimate 288-seat studio theatre. Located on the campus of Eastern Florida State College, the venue brings in top-flight concerts, stand-up comedians and theatre productions.
Back on Melbourne Beach we travel south on A1A that brings us to a series of secluded and undeveloped natural beaches. The land narrows down to as little as 15o feet from the ocean to the river. The 250-acre Ponce de Leon Landing Park has public parking, restrooms, outdoor showers and two dune crossovers. Scholars are unsure precisely where Ponce de Leon made landfall in Florida. Melbourne Beach jumped into the debate two decades ago, when a modern-day explorer re-sailed the path of de Leon's 16th century voyage and concluded the Spanish conquistador likely came ashore here. Today, an impressive 10-foot bronze statue by Spanish sculptor Rafael Picon commemorates the fabled 1513 voyage and landing.
Bonsteel Park's two-acre beach provides an excellent vantage point to catch glimpses of passing dolphins and sea turtles in season. Coconut Point Park is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail that offers an impressive roster of shorebirds such as gannets, red-throated loons, red knots and black-bellied plovers. The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is recognized as the most important nesting area for loggerhead turtles in the western hemisphere. It's also home to the gigantic leatherback turtles.
Boating is a huge slice of life here. Kayaks, canoes, fishing craft, pontoon boats and the occasional paddle board dot the spectacular shoreline. A fair amount of those watercraft are headed to Sebastian Inlet State Park which connects the Indian River Lagoon with the Atlantic Ocean covering over 600 acres and spans both sides of the inlet. The mile-long Hammock Trail winds through a coastal, subtropical, palm and oak hammock and along the fringe of the mangroves. Visitors have a chance to view over 180 species of birds such as gannets, jaegers, shearwaters and petrels during the course of a year.
In the water surrounding the park, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are commonly seen. Manatees inhabit the waters from March to October. The right whale, most endangered whale species in the world (0nly 300), can sometimes be observed traveling close to the coast during January and February.
Sebastian's premier surfing spot "First Peak" is where many professional surfers have honed their skills. Another is Monster Hole, about a third of a mile off the beach on the south side. The contour of the ocean floor rises up when the surf is big here, giving long rides. The flat-topped Sebastian jetty, usually lined with fishermen, makes an ideal vantage point for spectators and surf photographers. One of the premier saltwater fishing spots in Florida, anglers pull in redfish, mackerel, flounder, sheepshead, drum and huge snook from its jetties.
Aiming to enjoy those fresh catches we headed up to the Island Fish Grill on 5th Avenue in Indiatlantic. The restaurant more than lives up to its motto, "Fish with an Attitude." All the fish, with the exception of the salmon, is fresh caught in local waters, and served in the style of your choice - grilled, blackened or with a Jamaican rub. The perfectly cooked mahi topped with a crispy soft shell crab and the house specialty of onion crusted grouper are both winners.
A few miles down A1A brings you to Sand on the Beach which serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner in casual Florida style, beachside. Upstairs is the Bikini Bar where on the outside terrace we enjoyed cocktails and a lengthy chat with Philly transplants Billy and Mary while gazing out at surfers carving up the teal colored Atlantic. While Sand offers the usual bar fare, the fresh seafood shines whether in fish tacos, ahi tuna sashimi, or catch of the day. Pair a happy hour appetizer at the upstairs patio with a Sand signature salad with fruit, pecans and citrus vinaigrette with mahi or shrimp while enjoying the ocean breeze from the covered deck.
An evening to remember, another slice of the special destination of Melbourne Beach.