Insider's Guide to the Space Coast

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Along the Atlantic Coast, the Space Coast of Florida is best known for the Kennedy Space Center. The area is a great day trip for Orlando visitors who are looking for the closest beach as well. There’s plenty more to this stretch of the Sunshine State. Here are some insider tips on lodging, dining, nightlife, attractions and shopping.

Only 35 miles east of Orlando, Florida’s Space Coast makes a great day trip for visitors who have already been to the Big Mouse. But for the full experience, plan a longer stay and explore the juxtaposition of nature and culture that make this coastal area special.

The 72-mile stretch of Atlantic coastline includes the cities of Titusville, Cocoa, Merritt Island, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne and Palm Bay. My exploration centered on Cocoa Beach and Merritt Island, but there’s plenty more to see. Secret spots and great values are just beneath the surface, and I scratched through to find all sorts of new experiences.

Comfy Digs

It began with a reservation at Beach Place Guesthouses (321-783-4045), a wonderfully secluded boutique hotel set several miles south of the bustling Cocoa Beach Pier and its big-chain venues.

The room was a splurge for me, but was well-priced for the area. It quickly became apparent that my money was well spent. Nestled among thick sea grapes at 1445 S. Atlantic Ave., the guesthouses were extremely private and tranquil. French doors off my dining area opened onto a small courtyard with direct beach access. When they say steps from the beach, they mean it.

Rates range from $210 to $400 per night depending on the season and your room choice, but most hover around $250. Even during peak winter season, visitors can reserve an oceanside retreat for as little as $210 per night – an incredible deal for comfortable lodging this close to the beach. All rooms have full kitchens, a feature I love for saving money on meals.

Owners Joseph Paulus and Hernando Posada take real pride in their place, giving each room a personal artistic touch. I was welcomed with loads of friendly suggestions on where to eat and what to do. I can’t recall the last time I had such attentive service at a hotel.

Good Eats

I usually like to begin my beach vacations with a simple meal and a stroll on the beach. Space Coast cities such as Palm Bay, Titusville and Rockledge host weekly and monthly farmer’s markets where fresh baked goods, gourmet jellies and farm produce are sold in abundance. It’s the perfect place to pick up a quick breakfast before heading out to the shore. Check for times and locations at www.visitspacecoast.com/calendar/list.

My friendly hoteliers recommended Simply Delicious for a leisurely morning meal. This cute café at 125 N. Orlando Ave. was packed with patrons during my Saturday morning visit. I soon found out why – my breakfast quiche was incredibly rich and delicious, with a flaky butter crust. Ingredients were fresh, my server was friendly and the price was right. They even placed a curly straw in my iced latte. Too cute.

I noticed several customers being greeted by name on their way into the café, so it’s definitely popular with locals. The decadent dessert brunch, a smorgasbord of homemade six-layer cakes and pastries, was almost impossible to resist. But being already stuffed from breakfast, I made a mental note to return for a take-home snack.

As it turns out, the Space Coast is rife with international fare. I also discovered Roberto’s Little Havana Restaurant (26 N. Orlando Ave., Cocoa Beach), another reliable spot serving reasonably priced Cuban specialties in a casual atmosphere.

The Heidelburg Restaurant at 7 N. Orlando Ave. serves up Zagat-rated German delights. Their menu is decently priced for the area, with lunches from $8 to $15 and dinners around $11 to $34. I would be eating well on this trip.

 
Main Attractions

The Space Coast is probably best known for the Kennedy Space Center, NASA’s launch headquarters that hosts tours and exhibits at its Visitor Complex. (Fun fact: You may have noticed that the Space Coast telephone area code is 3 … 2 … 1. Blast off!)

Space Center admission is $43 plus tax for adults and $33 plus tax for children 3-11 years. Included in admission is not only a visit to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, but also the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

It’s easy to spend a full day exploring this attraction, situated on a huge island wildlife refuge. Included with admission is the Kennedy Space Center Tour, which features a visit to the LC 39 Observation Gantry and the Apollo/Saturn V Center. For us lay people, that covers everything from early space exploration to modern robotics.

When you’re ready to see more, consider paying extra ($25 adults, $19 children) for the KSC up-close tour. Led by an expert guide, this tour offers, for the first time in more than 30 years, the opportunity to see inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. You may even see a flown space shuttle inside. It sells out daily, so call or visit their website to make reservations.

I went walking on the moon in 3-D, courtesy of the immense IMAX theater screen. Then it was time to ponder the sleek, ten-story-tall spacecraft in the Rocket Garden.

The gift shop still carries freeze-dried astronaut ice cream (a crazy melt-in-your-mouth concoction I loved as a kid), but visitors are not forced to eat lunch from a tube. Space Center options include dining underneath a Saturn V Rocket at the ASVC or the sit-down atmosphere at the Orbit Café.

The park is open every day of the year except December 25 and certain launch dates. Hours of operation were from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during my visit, but closing time can vary slightly by season, so check online before you go.

Be ready to pass through security and have your bags thoroughly inspected before entering. Ditch the nail clippers, and don’t try to bring in coolers or large baggage – you’ll just wind up having to lug it all back to the car.

Off the Beaten Path

After the Space Center, there was a whole world of local shops, galleries and parks just waiting to be discovered. I sampled as much as I could, but still only enjoyed a fraction of what’s available.

As usual, I began with a treasure-hunting excursion. From my starting point on Merritt Island, it was an easy drive to several nearby thrift outlets including A Helping Hand and Molly Mutt Thrift Store. Prepare for a full shopping day, but call for hours because many stores close on Sundays and Mondays.

Ron Jon Surf Shop has a huge selection of surf gear and, for many visitors, is a must-see on the Space Coast. Having done my shopping for the day, I instead opted to soak in some scenery at the Cocoa Beach Pier. Cheap snacks and excellent people watching made for an entertaining afternoon. Any day of the week, the pier is packed with surfers and beach babes, children chasing seagulls, sunbathers of all ages in all kinds of costumes … real Florida wildlife. Pull up a beach chair and enjoy.

Activities also abound for visiting nature lovers, as this coastal region is flush with natural wetlands that house manatees, sea turtles and other native species. Joseph and Hernando at Beach Place Guesthouses were very helpful in pointing me toward private river cruises and kayaking tours.

Jim from Space Coast Kayaking has 25 years of local experience, making him an excellent natural history guide. The $30 admission ($20 for children 12 and younger) paid for kayaks and paddles, lifejackets, sunscreen and water, basic instruction and a 2.5- to three-hour Indian River Lagoon tour. All I had to do was show up, and in no time I was exploring a diverse estuary home to more than 4,000 species of plants, birds and animals.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent place for getting back to nature. Its trails are open daily from sunrise to sunset, offering public access to the Indian River Lagoon System. The refuge also features a cool manatee observation deck, providing a chance to see these gentle creatures in action.

If you’re lucky, you’ll hit the area in time for the free Space Coast Art Festival, which offers a full weekend of art openings and outdoor shows. It runs every Thanksgiving weekend.

Heidi’s Jazz Club proved to be a great escape from mainstream beach bars. Established in 1992, this colorful, laid-back lounge features live music Tuesday through Sunday. Expect anything from piano and string bass to Brazilian jazz rhythms by local and national performers. I grabbed a table near the stage and ordered a glass of wine to enjoy the flavor of the evening.

Surfing, sunning or shopping … art, aeronautics or antiques … no matter what your passion, you’ll find it on the Space Coast.

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