Visit Vero Beach‘s 25 miles of oceanfront on a weekday morning, and you’re bound to see a student snapping a photo of the waves on his camera phone. That picture often sets the tone for the rest of the day, especially lunchtime when students from St. Edwards School catch waves (with permission) from the Sandpointe East community’s private beach access. “Kids drive golf carts [on sidewalks] to the 7-Eleven, and some drive boats to school,” says Sally Daley, broker for Daley and Company Real Estate. “It’s a pretty cool way to grow up.”
While the kids gravitate to the Atlantic, their parents favor the 28-mile barrier island’s western shores, where the Indian River, not a man-made channel, forms Vero Beach’s portion of the Intra- coastal Waterway. Fingers of land extend into the waterway, expanding water-front options, yet the ocean is less than 15 minutes away from the riverfront homes here. “People think they want the ocean but eventually realize that living on the Indian River estuary is special,” says Daley. “It’s part salt and fresh water, so there’s a nonstop show—egrets, dolphins, manatees and killer sunsets. It’s also great for sailboats, motorboats and kayaks, and some parts are so wide you even get beach vistas.”
The river divides the city of Vero Beach and provides a great focal point for homes on the mainland, which is connected to the barrier island by three fixed bridges. These river views may also take in a sweep of the mangrove-fringed islands that are part of the 5,413-acre Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the country’s first and an important historic rookery for 130 species of birds, including white pelicans and endangered wood storks, as well as loggerhead and green sea turtles. A boardwalk near the historic Jungle Trail, popular with joggers, cyclists and birdwatchers, on the northern portion of Vero’s barrier island provides public access to the refuge, where visitors can climb an 18-foot observation tower. The surrounding waters of the Indian River Lagoon, considered the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States, are also a draw for birders and paddlers.
The barrier island’s ocean-side options appealed to Susan Arnold & Ralph Poelling. Their courtyard villa is just 50 yards from the beach, “or half a football field away,” offers Arnold. The couple tested four homes and four states before discovering Vero. “We were drawn here for the climate, the arts and the sunshine,” says Arnold. Their lifestyle is immersed in cultural offerings, including exhibits at the Vero Beach Museum of Art, Broadway-caliber performances at Riverside Theater and even high- definition opera viewings at a 24-screen cinema. Arnold has also reconnected with friends, finding a former sorority sister, college alumni and former co-workers now part of Pan-Am fight-attendant groups along this so-called Treasure Coast. “Every place I turn, there’s a connection to people from my past,” she says.
The Ims searched throughout Florida before homing in on Vero. The people sealed the deal. “[They] were so kind.” One of those people is Grammy-winner Gloria Estefan. The entertainer chose Vero Beach for her weekend retreat years ago and liked it so much that she opened Costa d’Este Beach Resort in 2008. Still, the island is as unlike Miami as you can get. The zoning restrictions prevent buildings more than four stories tall—yet another reason why the locals love living here. “You’re not going to come back 10 years from now and think, ‘Wow, I don’t like how built up it is,’” says Daley.
A job transfer recently brought Jon and Pat Blackburn and their 5-year-old son, Wil, from rural North Carolina to the Castaway Cove neighborhood on the barrier island. The family’s favorite haunts include oceanfront Humiston Park and the Pearl restaurant for good ol’ mac ’n’ cheese. While Wil attends the nearby Maitland Farm Preschool (where he feeds chickens as well as gardens), Pat loves to browse the beach boutiques. And after school, the two take long walks together. “The neighborhood is so quiet,” says Pat. “Wil rides his bike while we walk. We don’t have to worry about traffic. Plus, there are a lot of youth sports. There’s no reason for a kid not to have something to do.”
On Saturdays, the Blackburns are likely to join neighbors at the ocean-side farmers market. More local favorites include the crispy grouper Reuben at the Red Onion and yelling out lunch orders at Casey’s Place (an Estefan favorite), where folks dig into burgers at picnic tables and women sport the city’s signature “give-’em-hell” pants, aka bright, flashy Lilly Pulitzer slacks from Lazy Daisy.
“People from South Florida & Naples, who can’t quit their day jobs, are buying weekend homes here,” says Daley. The island has just a handful of beachfront condos, so for more bang for your buck, they look to the river. “People don’t realize that this part of Florida exists anymore,” continues Daley. “We’re close enough to the tropics to get palm trees and north enough for the live-oak canopies.”