By Kara Chalmers

The Cocoa Beach Pier is the epicenter of beachfront fun.

The Mai Tiki Bar sits atop the easternmost pilings of the Cocoa Beach Pier. There, frozen strawberry margarita in hand, I sat on the 800-foot pier.

I suppose it can get pretty windy up there, where the golden-green Atlantic surrounds you on all sides. But that day, there was just a gentle wind, and the sun was so warm that I sat under the shade of the wood thatched roof.

The Mai Tiki Bar looks like it sounds, with totem poles at each corner and charmingly rustic details from years of moist, salty air. As soon as I saw the place, I knew it was what I was looking for - small, open-air, on the water (literally) and laid-back.

A few feet from me, an older couple fished over the ledge. A family, two older brothers sipping beer, the parents and younger sister with Cokes, enjoyed the view. A white egret landed on the pier's ledge, apparently oblivious to us humans.

I dragged my barstool to the ledge for a better view of the surfers and the beach. Men in spring suits stretched across their boards, waiting for waves. Boys in swim trunks straddled boogie boards.

I had walked the beach earlier, noticing that beachgoers tend to congregate around the pier. A mom and her baby sat at the shoreline, delighting in the waves that swept over their toes. A dad picked up his little girl - in swimmies - as a surfer rode a wave, narrowly missing the pair. Bathing suit-clad teens poured out of their parents' cars at the pier's entrance.

The crowds thinned the farther away I walked. The pier, with its four restaurants, the tiki bar, shops and fishing equipment, apparently is the center of activity in Cocoa Beach.

Unlike other old-fashioned wooden piers, the Cocoa Beach Pier has no rides. The restaurants all have ocean views, and you can choose to eat inside or out. The Mai Tiki Bar is at the very end, after a stretch of pier with nothing but benches.

Just off the pier are beach volleyball courts, a rental outfit offering beach chairs and boogie boards.

For dinner, I had buffalo shrimp at the open-air Oh Shucks, a raw bar at the pier's entrance, alongside the dunes on beach level. It's a place that appeared to be a favorite of locals, who showed up en masse for a round of after-work drinks. Vacationers, also, sat at the octagonal bar, talking with family members on cell phones about dinner plans.

After dinner, I headed to that world-famous Cocoa Beach attraction, Ron Jon's Surf Shop, where I easily spent a few hours browsing through the store's home décor and clothing sections. A few aisles over, a girl with a fresh sunburn begged her mom for a 'surf's up' sign for her bedroom.

That night, I watched from my second-floor balcony at Royal Mansions in Cape Canaveral as joggers and walkers took to the sand on the resort's secluded stretch of natural beach. When I awoke early the next morning and gazed out from my bedroom's huge picture window, I saw more walkers and joggers - plus swimmers and surfers. Cruise ships sailed past in the distance. I could hear kids splashing in the resort's pool.

Instead of going out for breakfast, I made my own in the condo's full kitchen. I wanted to relax on the living room couch a few minutes more and enjoy a final cup of freshly brewed coffee before heading out to the beach myself.

Once satiated, I drove the few minutes back to the pier, and chose my spot in the sand for a day of serious sunbathing. The water was wavy and refreshingly cool. Before long, the aromas wafting from the pier - fried seafood, garlicky pastas, steaks - drew me from my beach chair. For my last meal at the pier (the Atlantic Ocean Grille is only open for dinner and Sunday brunch and I, unfortunately, was leaving after lunch), I chose Marlins Good Times Bar and Grill. I ordered flounder stuffed with homemade crabmeat stuffing and enjoyed the ocean view from the restaurant's high windows.

I came to Cocoa Beach expecting it to be like larger, more built up and bustling Atlantic Coast cities in Florida. But it had a more relaxed pace, a small beach-town feel, natural, expansive beaches with lush coastal vegetation and friendly locals. That, combined with the added attraction of the lively pier and the luxury and convenience of condominium accommodations, provided everything I needed for a perfect weekend at the beach.

Cocoa Beach Pier

Cocoa Beach Pier

- W. Baumann