Looking for a taste of the real Florida? The Martin Grade might only be 12 miles long, but the scenic highway is one of the last, authentic vestiges of the Sunshine State that isn’t lined with beach shops and seafood joints.
Instead, you’ll find stands of hundred-year-old oaks tunneling over the two-lane road, punctuated by shady palms. This stretch of road is perfect for a leisurely drive through the beautiful citrus groves and bucolic cattle ranches that have historically covered Florida. And the fun doesn’t stop at the end of the quiet road. On the other side of the scenic drive lie sunny, sandy lagoons, cute beachside towns, and some pretty interesting remnants of Martin County’s coastal past.
The Grade is the essential Florida hidden gem, one unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else in the state!
One terminus of the road lies just west of Okeechobee. The town is most famous for its location on Lake Okeechobee, also known as “Florida’s Inland Sea,” as it’s the state’s largest freshwater lake. For perspective, it’s about half the size of Rhode Island!
The lake offers tons of lakeshore fun, from fishing to boating, and since it’s a popular destination for those looking for a Florida getaway (that isn’t a beach, of course), there are tons of fun attractions and activities located around the city of Okeechobee. But to really get off the beaten path, hop on The Grade and head toward the city of Stuart. Trust us, it’s a drive that will leave an impression.
The Martin Grade Scenic Highway, also known as County Road 714, is one of Florida’s newest scenic highways. It cuts through a unique landscape, the Allapattah Flats, which were once swampy swaths of wetland that made up a northern portion of the Everglades. As such, they were mostly left untouched by settlers, and have remained a wild remnant of Florida’s natural past.
As you drive along the relatively short stretch of highway, you can’t help but be enchanted by the ancient oaks and lush palms that arch over the road in a tree tunnel of sorts. The area almost feels like something from the island in Lost, since it’s more than likely you’ll be alone with the trees most of the way.
The Martin Grade takes you to the Allapattah Flats Wildlife Management Area, a beautiful, protected patch of Florida beauty. The area around here has mostly been used for raising cattle, horses, and citrus, and not much has changed.
The verdant prairie lands make for some great hiking away from any crowds, and you can see all kinds of birds, fox squirrel, wild turkey, boar, and more on the five-mile trail that leads to the marsh, where wading birds can be spotted.
You can also fish and hunt here, but you’ll need to make sure you have all your permits in order and check the park’s schedule.
After leaving Allapattah, head to the city of Stuart for some classic vacation vibes. If you’re feeling peckish, grab a bite to eat at Stuart’s Fish & Pig, a BBQ joint that also serves fresh seafood, combining the best parts of Southern and coastal cuisine.
The Fish & Pig smokes everything in-house and even makes its own salad dressings from scratch, so clearly, a lot of love goes into the food. Chow down on their famous Texas-style beef brisket and smoked fish dip, or enjoy the best of both worlds with the fish and pig plate: mouthwatering pulled pork (or brisket!) on top of a mahi-mahi filet.
The town of Stuart features a Riverwalk path that’s perfect for walking along while you digest large amounts of smoked meat and fish. Starting in Historic Downtown Stuart and winding along the St. Lucie River, you can take in awesome views as you make your way past parks, shops, ice cream and fudge spots, and other bars and eateries. Local events frequently occur along the Riverwalk, including tons of live music, so take your time and enjoy the fun.
Florida’s beaches are undeniably seductive. The warm, clear water, white sand, and shady palm trees of Stuart’s Bathtub Reef Beach make it the favorite shoreline for locals and tourists alike. It’s called “Bathtub Reef” because the water is as warm as your bathtub, and it’s also got a coral reef right off the shore for scuba divers and snorkelers to explore.
The lagoon features very calm and shallow water, so it’s perfect for kids or anyone looking to enjoy a more relaxing day at the beach.
Pay tribute to Florida’s fascinating past at the House of Refuge Museum at Gilbert’s Bar. This building is Martin County’s oldest, built in 1876, and is the only house of refuge left standing of the ten originally built. These houses of refuge were created to be safe havens for sailors and shipwreck victims along the Florida coast. Each house had a keeper that could provide food, shelter, and medical attention to anyone who washed up on shore.
When the U.S. Coast Guard was founded, the house of refuge at Gilbert’s Bar became a Coast Guard Station and played an important role in WWII as a lookout for German U-boats. It was decommissioned in 1945 and turned into a museum.
There are lots of signs here for self-guided tours. Read shipwreck reports and keepers’ logs, admire the antique furnishings, and learn about maritime history with displays of antique equipment. The views from the museum’s location on the St. Lucie Rocks are absolutely breathtaking, and, if you’re a diver, you can explore the Georges Valentine shipwreck just offshore.
A cruise along the Martin Grade not only takes you to a paradise filled with divine beaches and stellar BBQ, it’s also an adventure in and of itself. The quiet drive through one of Florida’s last stretches of wild and untamed beauty is an experience that many have yet to discover. It’s the perfect reminder to slow down and enjoy the ride as you adventure through Florida.