Travel

Sleep on Your Own Under-the-Radar Island Off the Coast of Florida

Plus paddle in bioluminescent waters, sip craft brews, and see manatees and dolphins.

Dwight Williams/EyeEm/Getty Images
Dwight Williams/EyeEm/Getty Images
Dwight Williams/EyeEm/Getty Images

If you’ve thought about lounging-perhaps even sleeping-on some warm weather sands anywhere in Florida of late, you might have noticed open spaces are about as scarce as a helmet at Daytona Beach Bike Week.

But there’s one singularly awesome spot most visitors overlook where you can day trip or camp-for free-on sandy islands near Fort Pierce and likely have all to yourself (especially if you visit midweek). Welcome to the secret of the Spoil Islands of the Indian River Lagoon.

Natural sounds dominate on these islands: listen closely and you might hear the whooshing exhalations of manatees surfacing for air nearby. At the edge of the mangroves lining most of the islands, herons of all types stalk the water for minnows. And dolphin sightings in these parts are as common as seeing squirrels in Central Park. For those staying the night, the sky prickles to life with a canopy of stars and you can sleep to the sound of the lapping Indian River Lagoon.

Whether you’re day tripping or camping, coming to see bioluminescent bays, or visiting the city of Fort Pierce, here’s how to play Robinson Crusoe on Florida’s Spoil Islands.

Photo courtesy of Verola Studios
Photo courtesy of Verola Studios
Photo courtesy of Verola Studios

So what are the spoil islands?

Never heard of the Spoil Islands? They’re a byproduct of 20th century dredging of the Indian River that was undertaken to create the Intracoastal Waterway. The sandy mounds that were initially just spit out of machinery as “dredge spoil” have evolved into wild islands. Many of them are now protected for conservation and lined with seagrasses, mangroves, and other native plants that provide a vital habitat for inshore, coastal, and offshore species (including manatees, juvenile fish species, wading birds, and much more). What’s now the most biodiverse estuary in all of North America, the Indian River Lagoon parallels Florida’s east coast, stretching south from Ponce Inlet along almost 40 percent of the state’s coastline.

Many of the Spoil Islands are designated for recreational use, too, and have sandy open spaces where you can camp for free, no reservations necessary. Humans have left their mark on some of the islands in the form of fire rings, rope swings, and rudimentary wooden benches built mostly by locals with boats, who come to swim and party on the islands during weekend days.

But most of the day crowds leave by late afternoon and you can have these little pieces of paradise largely to yourself. Just remember to pack out everything to keep the islands pristine for the next visitors.

Photo courtesy of Terry Ward
Photo courtesy of Terry Ward
Photo courtesy of Terry Ward

How to visit Fort Pierce’s Spoil Islands

Since the islands are often less than a mile from the mainland, you could kayak out to one in less than 30 minutes. Or if you want to explore many of the islands, keep paddling to browse whichever parcel of land strikes your fancy and pull up on shore. Rentals are available from numerous businesses in Fort Pierce, including Lisa’s Kayaks, and you can easily strap packs to the boats.

If you’d rather skip the exertion and you know how to captain a boat and navigate inshore waters, you could rent a motorboat from Salty’s Water Sports or Boatsetter.

Or, if neither of those apply, have someone do it for you. Captain Mike Dedrick of Happy Pineapple Boat Tours offers day trips and makes overnight excursions hassle-free.

For overnight trips, Dedrick takes up to six passengers and even includes tents, water, and camping toilets. You would just need to bring your own food and sleeping bags. The captain picks the best Spoil Island for the night’s adventure depending on where the cross breezes are blowing and where your group is most likely to have the island to yourself. Since Diedrich grew up on these waters, he knows them like the back of his sailor hand. He can point the way to exploring on your own using one of the SUPs he brings along. Or he’ll put you over the best ledge with your fishing line to catch dinner to grill back at camp later.

For day trips, Dedrick ferries you around so you can splash at a sandbar at low tide or go tubing near Fort Pierce Inlet. Then you can retire to a comfortable nearby hotel with a view of Indian River Lagoon. Hutchinson Island Plaza Hotel & Suites, right at the river’s sandy edge, has a private beach and its own pier jutting into the lagoon. You’ll be within walking distance here for a truly excellent seafood dinner, too. At Chuck’s Seafood Restaurant, the smoked fish dip is legendary and there’s usually hogfish among the many flopping-fresh offerings from Florida waters.

Photo courtesy of Terry Ward
Photo courtesy of Terry Ward
Photo courtesy of Terry Ward

Get drinks and entertainment in Downtown Fort Pierce

Of course, you could spend your entire time out in nature and be happy as an island clam. But nearby Fort Pierce makes for an excellent pit stop.

On Saturday mornings, Florida’s best farmers market takes over the park fronting the Indian River Lagoon. The Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market’s offers seafood dips, Florida-grown produce, and a seasonal spread of Indian River citrus-really, you haven’t tried Florida oranges until you’ve sampled these precious balls of pure liquid sunshine. The market’s bounty extends to everything from custom made “chicken bonnets” (exactly what they sound like, for your fashion-conscious home hens) to handmade Native American flutes and gorgeous Tahitian pearl leather necklaces. Be sure to sidle up to the water for a neat view: hundreds of hungry mullet are usually swirling in the shallows of the Indian River Lagoon, hoping for handouts.

At the Manatee Observation and Education Center, steps from the market, there’s an 800-gallon saltwater tank home to native Florida and non-native species (but no manatees-those are outdoors). From there, you can paddle out into the Indian River Lagoon on guided kayak tours where you might encounter said manatees and see dolphins, too. Or take the easier route on one of the center’s 90-minute wildlife pontoon boat cruises.

Sailfish Brewing Company
Sailfish Brewing Company
Sailfish Brewing Company

For an eco adventure aboard a kayak with a motor, head out with certified Florida naturalist Billy Gibson of Motorized Kayak Adventures. Gibson offers evening tours to see bioluminescence during the summer months when the phenomenon is most prevalent. He also hosts daytime “jungle” paddling excursions into the maze of mangrove tunnels of the Indian River Lagoon, where you’ll float in the realm of osprey, kingfishers, and herons.

All that nature can make you thirsty, and Florida’s Treasure Coast Wine & Ale Trail in downtown Fort Pierce excels at the sudsy stuff. Make stops at places like Sailfish Brewing Company (the White Marlin Wit is always refreshing) and Pierced Ciderworks, where coconut and northern blackberry-flavored ciders are on tap inside a historic building over a century old. In nearby Port St. Lucie, continue the artisan sipping at Hop Life Brewing and Side Door Brewing Company.

Phillip Sunkel IV/Shutterstock
Phillip Sunkel IV/Shutterstock
Phillip Sunkel IV/Shutterstock

Head offshore to go fishing

Wahoo, mahi-mahi, and yellowfin are among the coveted species anglers land on the regular during fishing trips from Fort Pierce Inlet. The Gulf Stream runs particularly close to mainland Florida here, roughly 15 miles offshore, making for exceptional fishing conditions without the longer boat rides required at other points along the coast.

Happy Pineapple Tours runs inshore charters in the Indian River Lagoon and just offshore from Fort Pierce Inlet, too. And if you want to head out to fish where the Gulf Stream draws in trophy types, charter operators like Last Mango Fishing Charters and Apex Predator Sportfishing are good bets for getting the big boys to bite.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Terry Ward is a freelance travel writer in Tampa, Florida, who has lived in France, New Zealand, and Australia and gone scuba diving all over the world. Follow her on Instagram and find more of her work onterry-ward.com.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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