Your Vacation Guide to East Central Florida
Central East Florida, with Daytona Beach, Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, is home to the space industry, top-notch birding, verdant parks, and the state’s top surfing.
If your only reason for visiting Cape Canaveral is to leave it behind, come again. Some 5 million passengers cruise from its port annually, making it one of the world’s busiest. But this is also one of Florida’s most nature-adoring beach communities, with two of three area parks noted on the Great Florida Birding Trail. One of them, Jetty Park, also features a well-equipped 24-hour fishing pier; free, public boat ramps; camping; and a life-guarded beach for swimming. In season, right whales and manatees glide by, and sea turtles nest. Watch the cruise liners come and go from The Cove, a waterfront leisure area at Port Canaveral, where bars of all ilk (oyster, martini and tiki) rule, and most nights promise live music, comedy or karaoke.
Cocoa Beach and Melbourne
Surf is the word in these beachy locales – Cocoa Beach’s Ron Jon Surf Shop stays open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the town's Easter Surf Festival, centered at the Cocoa Beach Pier, is one of the longest-running events in the U.S. (2012 marks year 48). South in Melbourne Beach, surfers swear by Sebastian Inlet State Park’s consistent breaks and long rides. Off-board pursuits explore space, nature and cultural attractions. In Cocoa, head to the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory or plan a family beach day at Fischer Park. In Melbourne, take in a show at the King Center for the Performing Arts or visit the Brevard Zoo. If wildlife watching is your thing, a respectable 2,200 animal species reportedly inhabit the Indian River Lagoon.
Though the races moved to Daytona International Speedway in 1959, the beach is where it all began. More than a century later, the sand is just as smooth, compact and driveable (look for access point along Atlantic Avenue). While you’re there, do the Daytona classics – surf the Atlantic, and take a thrill ride on "The Slingshot" on the boardwalk – then check out the newer, colorific Ocean Walk Village for souvenir shopping and refreshments. Wherever you go in Daytona Beach, you’ll be reminded that NASCAR headquarters are here, particularly during speed-inspired events, such as the Daytona 500 (February) and the Coke Zero 400 (July). Other engine-inspired happenings include Bike Week (late February through early March) and Biketoberfest (October). This is one of the top East Central Florida destinations.
Why read a town’s history when you can walk it? A series of murals in downtown DeLand depicts its founder’s vision for the city: homesteaders moving in and the influence of the St. Johns River, seen in a marine-themed mosaic. Inside the painted walls, you’ll find antiques, bookstores and coffee shops, plus plenty of restaurants and Stetson University, a genteel campus marked by columned, brick buildings (one patterned after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall). The downtown is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and makes a good warm-up to exploring area museums including the African American Museum of the Arts and the Museum of Florida Art.
Marlin, snook, grouper (plus a host of marinas, fishing charters and tournaments) make Fort Pierce an angler’s favorite. The area rates with divers, too, for reefs natural and artificial – even shipwrecks. Dry off to discover the town’s main street. More than a pretty place, its governing organization advocates historic preservation, saving the Sunrise Theatre (circa 1923) and renovating Old City Hall (circa 1925). Murals, a year ’round Saturday farmers’ market and other monthly events keep things lively, but save time for the Manatee Observation and Education Center to observe wild manatees in the Indian River Lagoon and the A. E. Backus Gallery & Museum to view the work of this landscape painter and the Florida Highwaymen artists he mentored.
In town, Jensen Beach turns on the charm with a friendly main street and restaurants (seafood with a view being the specialty). November brings the annual Pineapple Festival with food, music and a nod to the town’s 19th-century agricultural industry. Outdoor activities tell the rest of the story: Jensen Beach Causeway leads to Hutchinson Island and the area’s beloved beaches offer a variety of activities. Enjoy a 24-hour fishing pier and gorgeous views of the Indian River from Indian Riverside Park, or explore freshwater marshes by canoe inside Savannas Preserve State Park.
If the racing world knows Daytona Beach, the art world knows New Smyrna Beach. Consider it Daytona’s quieter, creative neighbor to the south, home to artists-in-residence, exhibits at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and a collection of galleries, including one where you can learn the art of glass-blowing (Galleria Di Vetro). Walk Flagler Avenue and historic Canal Street for these and other galleries and boutiques amid restored buildings. Water all around – the Intracoastal Waterway, Mosquito Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean – creates opportunities for surfing, fishing and cruising in search of dolphins and manatees. You don't want to miss this East Central Florida hotspot.
Imagine what you could do with an island eight times the size of Manhattan (perhaps run a space program or harbor several hundred endangered and threatened species). Merritt Island, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, manages to do both. Kennedy Space Center Complex allows you to tour launch areas, meet astronauts, touch giant rockets and simulate take-off as part of its Shuttle Launch Experience. The refuge shelters bald eagles, manatees and alligators within its expansive natural wonderland.
True, the earliest automobile races took place here (view replicas of early speedsters at Birthplace of Speed Park; a Thanksgiving weekend parade and antique car show gives another reason to commemorate), but slow down to experience Ormond Beach’s nature and culture. The town’s Scenic Historical Society Bus Tour shows off historic neighborhoods and an 18th-century sugar mill; John D. Rockefeller’s winter home, The Casements, and an Indian burial mound are also open for tours. Walk the alternately wild and manicured grounds of Ormond Memorial Art Museum and Gardens (look for turtles perched on water lilies), or canoe and fish waters once ruled by Timucuan Indians at Tomoka State Park.
Feeling sporty? Get in the game, or just watch it, in Port St. Lucie. The St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon make for good fishing, and the three 18-hole courses at the PGA Golf Club – a public facility owned and operated by the PGA – make for good golfing. Practice your swing at the club’s PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance, and review the history of the game at the onsite PGA Museum of Golf. Then take a stadium seat at First Data Field, home to the New York Mets during spring training and the St. Lucie Mets of the Class A (Advanced) Florida State League.
Surfing, boating and fishing are big in Sebastian, though its man-made inlet can be rough; Mel Fisher's Treasure Museum tells the story of a Spanish fleet that wrecked off the coast in 1715 (and displays salvaged coins and weapons). The area’s natural allure, with rivers, lagoons and the Atlantic Ocean, has branded this town a fishing village with an eco-friendly vibe. Acting as a concerned citizen, early homesteader Paul Kroeger protected the waterfowl of the town’s Pelican Island until it became the first National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. Today, trails, pontoon boats, canoes and an observation tower give a view to more than 130 bird species at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.
It’s easy in Stuart to fixate on fishing. This is, after all, the “Sailfish Capital of the World,” gateway to the Gulf Stream and its sizeable snapper, grouper and wahoo. But a creative aura flows concurrently here, bringing theater (at the Barn and the Lyric, a restored 1925 silent movie house), visual art (the Court House Cultural Center Gallery hosts exhibits and is itself an Art Deco gem) and festivals (the annual Downtown Stuart Art Festival shows fine arts and crafts along the St. Lucie River and Stuart’s historic downtown).
Experience a launch from Space View Park, then note the figures behind American space exploration at the park’s U.S. Space Walk of Fame. Take a trip to view vintage aircraft at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum before shifting your focus to Titusville’s natural assets. Learn about prehistory and pioneers at an interpretive park and a century-old home within Canaveral National Seashore, or designate a beach day to discover its undeveloped shores. The annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, which takes place each January, presents field trips and workshops to better acquaint you with the area’s natural side.
There’s treasure here, all right – from the shores, where the stretch known as the Sea Grape Trail has revealed coins and other booty from the shipwrecked 1715 Spanish fleet, to the streets, where Ocean Drive presents a walkable, beachside row of restaurants and shops. Here, the resident collection of cultural venues might surprise you for a town this size. Vero Beach Museum of Art’s permanent collection features Andy Warhol, Dale Chihuly and a sculpture park. Riverside Theatre adds professional entertainment to the mix, and McKee Botanical Garden resurrects the tropical landscape of the original McKee Jungle Gardens built in 1929. The garden’s Bamboo Pavilion was built in Colombia and reassembled onsite with a roof thatched by local Seminole Indians.
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I send as many people there as I can. That’s because I figure any beach bunny who visits Sanibel and Captiva Islands is going to be twirling...