Above photo: A boat heads out to the Atlantic Ocean as the sun rises at Port Canaveral.
Story and photos by Charles Williams
Charles is the editor for Pursuits with Enterprise. Email the author.
The Kennedy Space Center is the big draw, but it’s not the only reason to visit.
Things are looking up on Florida’s Space Coast — literally. After a pause in human flights from the Kennedy Space Center following the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA will soon launch astronauts into space again from Florida. But activity also is booming on the water at Port Canaveral — the second busiest cruise port in the world — and on the land as people drive to and from Orlando attractions, which are about an hour away.
With 72 miles of shoreline and dozens of tourist destinations, there’s something for everyone on Florida’s Space Coast. Here are a few of my favorite stops.
Kennedy Space Center
Space nerds be warned — you won’t have time to do everything in one day at the Kennedy Space Center. The Visitor Complex offers films and exhibits that cover everything from NASA’s origins to upcoming deep space missions. The space shuttle Atlantis, which blasted off into space 33 times, is a highlight.
Future astronauts also will enjoy learning about the newer spacecraft such as the Orion, Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner capsules.
Special Interest Tours allow visitors to take photos at some of the most iconic spots within the center, including the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and launch pads 39A and 39B, which were used for Apollo and space shuttle flights. All bus tours stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where you can see the largest rocket ever built and touch a moon rock that was gathered 238,000 miles away.
Valiant Air Command Warbird Air Museum
If you can tell a Wildcat from a Panther or a Tiger from a Tomcat, this is the museum for you. Founded in 1977, the Valiant Air Command displays more than 45 aircraft used in combat, dating back to World War I. And I’ve never met a more enthusiastic group of volunteer guides.
The museum features a Douglas C-47A Skytrain troop transport plane used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, during World War II. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said the Skytrain was one of the most important weapons in the Allied victory, along with the bazooka, Jeep and atomic bomb.
In 1944, a Grumman Wildcat fighter lost power and sank in Lake Michigan. The aircraft sat submerged for 50 years. After 30,000 hours of restoration work, the plane now sits at the museum’s entrance. Both the pilot and his rescuer have visited the museum.
The sail-like architecture alone is worth a visit to this museum that chronicles the history of the area. But the panoramic view from the seventh-floor observation deck makes it a must-see stop. Watch huge cruise ships leave Port Canaveral — the departure spot for 4.5 million passengers a year — for the Atlantic Ocean.
Only steps away, the Cove entertainment district is home to several nice restaurants. I savored a basket of fried shrimp at Rusty's Seafood & Oyster Bar, which has a great outdoor patio overlooking the water. If you prefer to catch your own seafood, the 1,200-foot Jetty Park Pier is close by.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
The 140,000-acre refuge is home to 1,500 species of plants and animals, and it supports one of the highest numbers of endangered and threatened species within the National Wildlife Refuge system.
The Black Point Wildlife Drive is the best place to see animals. This 7-mile, one-way road allows visitors to see birds, alligators, river otters and more. I spied a bobcat on the prowl and dozens of shorebirds.
The refuge is bordered by the Canaveral National Seashore, which provides a beautiful beach and recreational opportunities such as camping, kayaking, fishing and swimming.
While I was standing on a tall platform, I came face to face with Milenna, a giraffe that was being fed lettuce. Watch out for the 20-inch tongue! If you prefer a less in-your-face perspective, try a guided kayaking tour around the giraffe enclosure — a unique experience offered only at the Brevard Zoo.
The zoo opened in 1994 and is now home to more than 900 animals representing 196 species. At “Australia and Beyond,” I enjoyed the walk-through kangaroo exhibit, where a red kangaroo hopped around with a cute joey in its pouch.
Sebastian Inlet State Park
For fun in the sun, head to Sebastian Inlet State Park, which has surfing, fishing, wildlife and 3 miles of beaches.
The northernmost jetty curves out into the Atlantic, providing a great opportunity to catch snook, Spanish mackerel, redfish and more. When he was growing up, local legend Kelly Slater — who won a record 11 world surfing championships — practiced near the jetty.
Sebastian Inlet connects the pounding Atlantic Ocean with calmer waters in the Indian River Lagoon. The calm tide pool is a great place for kids to wade in the water and look for shells. The park has 190 species of birds, and each summer, loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtles travel hundreds of miles to nest in the warm sands.
Cocoa Beach Pier
Cocoa Beach conjures up scenes from another era — ripped astronauts with crew cuts and Wayfarer sunglasses lying on the sand, exuding a cool most of us will never attain. Although those astronauts are gone, the 800-foot pier still offers a great vantage point to see rockets bolting into space.
With five bars and restaurants, the Cocoa Beach Pier draws enthusiastic crowds of tourists, fishermen and surfers. Head to the Rikki Tiki Tavern at the end of the pier for a cold drink at sunset.
Ron Jon Surf Shop
I’ve always wondered what surfers do at 3 a.m. when they need new boardshorts. Well, Ron Jon’s Cocoa Beach location is conveniently open 24/7 for such emergencies. And late-night shoppers won’t be hurting for selection. With 52,000 square feet, it’s the world’s largest surf shop.
The distinctive blue, yellow, orange and turquoise art deco building is impossible to miss. A statue of Kelly Slater, the greatest surfer of all time, stands appropriately out front.
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The barrier island reminds us of the joy of living life in the slow lane.
Relax, dine and play in the area’s charming coastal towns.
Visitors come from around the world to find seashell treasure.
Even if you don’t catch a thing, you can still savor the experience.
Nearby Captiva and Fort Myers also offer chances for lasting memories.
A close encounter with these gentle giants makes for an unforgettable adventure.