A large brown pelican soars overhead. His plump shadow casts a roving shade on the small group of couples and families lounging on Bathtub Reef Beach. With a graceful turn toward the water, he darts into an emerald wave with the stealth-like accuracy of a bird half his size. Lunch. On shore, two little boys clap their hands with glee, their small feet stomping in the warm surf. This is reality TV in Stuart, Florida.
The small town of about 19,000 residents is in Martin County, where famous folks such as Greg Norman and Celine Dion live. But it’s the abundant shoreline and natural beauty that keeps generations of families—and new residents from various corners of the globe—calling Stuart home.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is paradise,” says Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce President Joe Catrambone. “Go ahead and get into the water—most places you can look down and see all the way to the bottom, or find snook and lobster. Our environment is pristine.” Bordered by the St. Lucie River, just west of the Indian River and the ocean, Stuart’s shoreside spaces are shared with sea turtles, and you won’t need a boat to see dolphins swimming just yards from the shore.
But the real star of the sea and shore is the spiky mohawk sailfish—Stuart is known by fishing enthusiasts as the sailfish capital of the world. In historic downtown, a fountain in the shape of a sailfish marks the start of a group of unique galleries, cafés, restaurants, and shops on Flagler and Osceola streets.
“It’s a bustling district, but we’re still quaint—nothing is too hectic,” says Patty O’Connell, president of the Downtown Business Association. “Most of our retail stores and restaurants are locally owned and feature a nice mix of upscale and affordable.” The blue sky is abundant around Stuart, given that the tallest building (aside from the hospital) stands at four stories. “It’s not easy to keep a small-town feeling,” Patty says. “A great deal of effort has gone into creating guidelines that maintain the character of the historic downtown and waterfront.”
If you’re amid the brightly colored retail spaces, wander into Patty’s home decor and accessories shop, Gumbo Limbo Coastal Chic, for daiquiri green bamboo chairs, painted wineglasses, and local art. Stroll past families enjoying large ice cream cones outside of Hoffman’s before grabbing a Nespresso in the gourmet food store All Spiced Up, where you can browse through owner Ana Hernandez’s exotic mushroom rubs, flavored pecans, and Caribbean BBQ blends she makes herself.
One street over is the new two-mile-long wooden Riverwalk, where you can enjoy free concerts on the weekends, fishing off the pier, and walking to local businesses such as the Pelican Café, where pets are always welcome. A short walk further along is the Sailor’s Return restaurant, where you’ll find jumbo shrimp and fresh scallops.
For a taste of Stuart’s past, stop into the Stuart Heritage Museum on Flagler Street. Built in 1901, the museum celebrates the town’s history with more than 10,000 artifacts that stretch back to 1880, when Stuart was first settled. In the late 1800s, Stuart’s economy thrived on growing and shipping pineapples. Today, major employers are the Martin Memorial Hospital, government, and small businesses, including retail.
When it comes to real estate, housing options range from pastel-colored condos downtown to eastern waterfront mansions in the communities of Sailfish Point and Sewall’s Point, and along Ocean Boulevard. The average home costs $200,000 to $400,000, and real estate agent Sharon Fitzke says although the majority of residents are second homeowners who spend the winter here, an influx of new residents is looking to make the move full-time for the temperate climate. “Plus, we’re two hours from Miami and just five from Key West, so you can pick up and go for a day trip or an easy vacation on the weekend,” she adds.
Amedeo Casa moved to Stuart from Italy eight years ago and works at Gusto, a family-owned Italian restaurant in downtown. He now lives not far from the restaurant and says the community has always felt like home. “The whole town—we know each other,” he says. “It’s like family.”
JUST PASSING THROUGH?
Where to stay: Inn Shepard’s Park B&B is a periwinkle Key West– style residence with four whimsical rooms. Innkeeper Marilyn Miller keeps the refrigerator stocked with the essentials: bottled water, beer, and wine. Rates start at $125; 772/781-1265 or innshepard.com. The 200-acre Hutchinson Island Marriott Beach Resort & Marina has a lively pool scene. Bonus for golf lovers: You’re staying on an 18-hole course. Rates start at $159; 800/775-5936 or marriott.com.
(Published December 2011)