Go head, get out there, into the great outdoors of Florida's Space Coast...
Florida's Space Coast tells the truth, the whole truth. Not even a hint of exaggeration in its name: If there's one thing the Space Coast has, it's lots of space. And not just what you experience at Kennedy Space Center. Step outside and the space is wide open and drenched with water, water everywhere.
So, it comes as no surprise that outdoor pursuits concentrate on, in, or near the Space Coast's spacious waterfronts - the Atlantic Ocean, Indian River, Banana River, St. Johns River, plus countless lagoons, creeks, canals and streams. Here I diagram three days of active fun where the main ingredient is water.
Start your visit with an overview of local ecology and history on a morning cruise with Island Boat Lines. Two-hour excursions depart from 500 W. Cocoa Beach Causeway on the Banana River and head through estuary dolphin habitat to Cocoa Beach's mangrove 1,000 Islands. You get a visual, auditory and olfactory introduction to birds roosting, hunting and dining along rookery islands and backyards. Bring your binoculars for a close look at pelicans, herons, ospreys and anhingas. On warm days, look for manatees in the water.
For a more intimate interaction with wildlife, work off lunch with a kayak trip. A good place to start is at Brevard Zoo as it takes you kayaking on a half-hour guided tour of its Africa exhibit where only water separates you from giraffes and ostriches. There also are paddle boats through the Florida wetlands where you’ll spot local birds and small alligators. For those more daring, check out Treetop Trek Aerial Adventures at the Zoo. This exciting outdoor adventure offers visitors a whole new way to experience nature – high up in the trees and over water. Have fun moving tree to tree or challenge yourself with varying degrees of thrilling elements such as tightropes, crab walks, jungle bridges, nets and zip lines. There even is a 700-foot zip line across the Florida wetlands and alligator and crocodile pools.
For those more experienced, plan your own tour at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 140,000-acre mass of untouched habitat for hundreds of species of land and water fauna.
Time to hit the beach, Beach Boy-style. Meaning: with surfboards. Haven't a clue? (Not to mention a board?) Sign up with a local surfing school for a group or private lesson. Then head to any one of the area's surfing hotspots for a day of shredding the waves. Cocoa Beach Pier is most famous and happening, and the site of Easter's Surfing Festival. You can rent or buy your equipment nearby at super-sized Ron Jon Watersports.
Cocoa Beach makes a convenient spot to anchor your water-seeking stay on the Space Coast. Several chains, such as Hampton Inn, are central to the long, watery coast line. If you're surfing-obsessed like my family, however, try the Cape Canaveral Beach Resort.
Head to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge with a picnic lunch for a morning of wetlands exploration by car and foot. Drive the wildlife trail and main road across estuary, scrub, and pine flatwoods to the Manatee Observation Deck, where the docile, blimpy marine mammals gather. Keep an eye out for bald eagles, rare Florida scrub jays, and 320-plus other species of birds.
Continue eastward through the refuge to reach the inimitable beaches of Canaveral National Seashore. As Florida’s longest stretch of undeveloped Atlantic coastline, the area is totally wild and free -- other than space center structures that loom in the distance like a desert mirage -- and goes on for 25 miles along a narrow strip of land where birders, surfers and fishermen converge. Opposite the beach along the seashore's western side is a pristine section of the Indian River Lagoon designated as Outstanding Florida Waters and managed by the United States National Park Service.
Home to over 3,000 plant and animal species, the park offers visitors a chance to view manatees, whales, dolphins, eagles, and sea turtles. One unique feature many guests love is the 200-800 common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) that spend their entire lives in the Mosquito Lagoon. Opportunities abound in this park for guests to see the 10,000 sea turtle nests on the beach each summer, migrating whales, and seasonal manatees. Guests can explore these waters by renting a canoe at Apollo Beach Visitors Center or by booking a guided trip with Viking EcoTours. Or, if the mood strikes, just go ahead and do nothing but soak up the sun.