Destination: Stuart, Florida

Hobe Sound Marine. Credit: Martin County Office of Tourism and Marketing
Downtown Stuart from a distance. Credit: Jorge Molina

Everyone from sports fishermen to sailors can find something to love in Stuart, Florida. That’s because this Martin County city seat sits on a wonderful crossroads of waterways. To the east is the Atlantic Ocean, the proximity of which gives the city not one but two nicknames: the ‘Sailfish Capital of the World’ and the ‘Gateway to the Bahamas’. To the west, Stuart is home to the eastern entrance of the Okeechobee Waterway, where it’s possible to cruise 135 miles inland across the Florida Peninsula to the Gulf of Mexico. Combine this ideal maritime intersection with a wealth of sights to see and Stuart proves a great destination for those who love the sea.

“Stuart has a small-town vibe when you visit,” says Michele Miller, director of operations for the Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast (MIATC), based in Stuart. “However, there is much to do, even right in town, and even more to do if you venture out 30 to 40 minutes.”

Stuart Beach. Credit: Martin County Office of Tourism and Marketing

The first non-native Americans to settle the area that would become Stuart arrived in 1870. Even prior to this, there were European visitors. These were namely aboard the gold and silver carrying Spanish galleons, which were shipwrecked by hurricanes right offshore, hence giving this region the moniker of the Treasure Coast. The proclivity for fierce storms in this area led to a US Lifesaving Station to be erected on nearby Hutchinson Island in the late 1800s. Today, it’s possible to take a self-guided tour the Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge Museum, which housed shipwrecked sailors, and see old-time lifesaving equipment plus the caretaker’s living quarters as it was in 1904. History buffs will also want to visit the Maritime & Yachting Museum, where there are antique boats, navigation equipment and photographs on display. Stuart was briefly dubbed Potsdam by a German immigrant who owned the land that would become downtown. However, the present name stuck after the Florida East Coast Railway opened, in honor of another of the city’s well-to-do landowners and pineapple farmer, Homer Hine Stuart, Jr.

Sailfish Fountain in downtown Stuart. Credit: Jorge Molina

The abundance of waterways in Stuart, including the St. Lucie River, means there are many marinas. Dockage is plentiful but can easily get booked up in advance of the winter high season, therefore plan accordingly. A sampling of these includes the 198-slip Sunset Bay Marina, which also offers nearly 70 moorings. The Loggerhead Marina Stuart provides slips for 300 vessels up to 120-feet LOA and has dockage wide enough for catamarans too. The Riverwatch Marina & Boatyard is only 28 slips in size, for vessels up to 80 feet, but the yard here and indoor boat storage makes it easy to get work done or haul out for a while. These marinas provide everything from the basics, such as dockside electricity and water, to a soup-to-nuts of services and amenities including restaurants, bars, swimming pools and shops. Plus, properties like Pirates Cove Resort & Marina offers waterfront lodgings along with 50 slips for yachts up to 100 feet.

“What’s really nice about Stuart is that there are several boatbuilders in the area. For example, Jim Smith, Garlington, Whiticar and American Custom Yachts. This makes it a great place to have work done before you cross over to the Bahamas,” says Karen Tine, dockmaster at Sailfish Marina, which is located closest to the St. Lucie Inlet of any marina in Stuart and offers 55 slips for boats up to 85-feet LOA.

Hobe Sound Marine. Credit: Martin County Office of Tourism and Marketing

One of the prettiest places to explore is downtown Stuart. It is easy via boat since the city maintains floating docks for free day-only use to the public. A short walk from the end of the dock leads to the Riverwalk. Here are many restaurants, shops, art galleries and free open-air concerts on the weekends. The Stuart Heritage Museum is located downtown too, in the picturesque former feed store. Historical collections run the gambit from those of the city’s former celebrities such singer Frances Langford, marine business magnet Ralph Evinrude and actor Jon Hall to artifacts that showcase the early sail fishing industry. One of the most focal places downtown is the Sailfish Statue Water fountain at the roundabout, about a five-minute walk from the Museum along Flagler Avenue.

True to its best-known nickname, the sail fishing is world famous off Stuart owing to the Gulf Stream’s presence only some 10 miles offshore. The reason for this is clear when reading even one story described in the article, Historical Vignettes Tells the Story of How Stuart became ‘The Sailfish Capital of the World’, published in Martin County’s TCPalm online newspaper. That is, in the 8 days between December 29, 1940 and January 5, 1941, at least 1,000 sailfish were recorded caught. Beyond sailfish, inshore species like redfish, snapper, snook, pompano and permit and offshore fish such as tuna, dolphin and wahoo are the focus of numerous sports fishing charter operators in Stuart.

While sail fishing and a climate excellent for sailing attracts mariners to Stuart, it is the many other sights and events in this Treasure Coast city that makes them either stay or keep coming back.

“There’s the green market and parks, fishing tournaments happen practically every weekend, the Stuart Sea Food Festival is in November, Boat Parade in December and Stuart Boat Show and the Port Salerno Sea Food Festival in January,” invites MIATC’s Miller.

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.