Exploring The Florida Space Coast, Hidden Gem In Plain Sight
The Florida Journal
It gets the name Space Coast because it’s home to NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, and the U.S. Space Force Canaveral launch complex. With only a few exceptions, America’s space ventures blast off from here.
Located about an hour east of Orlando, it is the closest beach for many thousands of Florida tourists looking to take a break from the theme parks, and get their toes in the sand. The Space Coast has 72 miles of beaches and coastline, some of it remote and uncrowded.
It’s not just the rocket launches and beaches that attract people to the Space Coast. Port Canaveral is one of the busiest seaports on the Atlantic coast, home to cruise ships from five different cruise lines.
I live on the Space Coast, andhere are a dozen attractions to one of Florida’s gems, hidden in plain sight.
1- The Canaveral National Seashore
This long stretch of undeveloped seashore actually stretches through two Florida counties. The longest stretch of beach is Playalinda. It runs 24 miles, going north to where the road ends. There are 13 parking lots, all with restrooms. But there’s no water or concessions. This is a barren beach experience. Bring everything you need, especially water.
The seashore is a hot spot for surf fishing, because it juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and the fish migration paths run closer to the shoreline. Hikers can also find a true back-to-nature hike at an area known as Klondike Beach. It is completely undeveloped. There are no restrooms, no water, no nothing. Pack in anything you need. Don’t forget a hat as there is no protection from the sun.
Nudists have formed a little beach colony at the northern most parking lot of Playalinda, Lot 13. Park rangers have adopted a “live and let live” attitude with the nude sunbathing, so long as they stay in one area and don’t try to intermingle with the regular beach crowd. Signs give you fair warning.
On the backside of the seashore is the Mosquito Lagoon, with fishing and kayak trails. Bring bug spray, it didn’t get that name for nothing.
The seashore closes to incoming traffic several hours before a launch from the Kennedy Space Center. If you’re already in the seashore you’re fine, and it’s great place to watch a launch.
2- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
The refuge is a bird lovers paradise, especially from November to March, the peak of the bird migration season. There is a nine mile unpaved road that takes you to the best birding spots.
Bring binoculars, and photographers will need a good telephoto lens.
There are hiking trails in the refuge. You can get a trail map at the Visitor Center. You can go off on your own, or sign up for a hike led by a park ranger.
Access to the wildlife refuge is on the same road that leads you to Playalinda Beach.
3- The John F. Kennedy Space Center
Launches from here have become more frequent, and the crowds coming to watch have gotten smaller. But a launch is a great experience for tourists and locals alike. People line the roadways and public parks hours before launch time. There are a number of county and city parks along U.S. 1 in Titusville that are perfect to watch from. Beaches along the north shore of the Space Coast are also prime launch viewing spots. Any launch is spectacular, but night launches are the best.
There is no general public access to the Space Center for launches, but no trip would be complete without a day at the Visitor’s Center. Here you find full-scale mockups of American rockets, including the retired Space Shuttle Atlantis. There are IMax movies, a ride that simulates what astronauts experience during lift off, and a large gift shop. Don’t miss the Astronauts Hall of Fame.
There are 5 cruise lines with regular departures out of the port. In 2019 4.5 million passengers embarked from Port Canaveral, making it one of the busiest cruise ports in the country. The cruise lines operating here are Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and MSC.
The port also off-loaded six million tons of cargo in 2019, making it a major shipping port on the east coast.
Many people come to the port just to watch the ships come in and out. A good spot for watching is from Exploration Tower, just across the street. You can also view the ships from the beaches in Jetty Park. There are five restaurants located along the docks.
5- Cocoa Beach
This is the busiest beach town on the Space Coast. The beaches are wide and white. Highway A1A is lined with hotels, condos and restaurants. There are three public parks in the city, offering free parking, and outdoor showers to wash off the salt and sand.
The Cocoa Beach pier juts 800 feet out into the Atlantic. At the end is the Rikki Tiki Beach Bar, voted the best beach bar on the Space Coast for 2020. There are five restaurants located on the pier. The pier is popular for fishing, and watching surfers. Parking at the pier is not free, there is an all-day lot, and hourly parking at metered spaces. The meters accept credit cards.
This Cocoa Beach institution is an attraction all by itself. Located on Highway A1A, the shop is open 24 hours a day and carries everything you need for the beach, from surf boards to wet suits. Ron Jon t-shirts are the biggest seller. Ron Jon started out in 1959 with a small storefront. Now it takes up nearly a whole city block. The store is also home to the Cocoa Beach Surf Museum.
Located on the mainland, historic Cocoa Village is a quaint and even a little quirky neighborhood. There are restaurants, shops, gift stores. Many of the buildings are restored to their original conditions dating back a hundred years. Many weekends you will find sidewalk sales, art festivals, and musical entertainment. A popular spot for coffee and a danish is Ossorio’s Cafe and Bakery.
8- Melbourne’s Eau Gallie Arts District
Perhaps the best cultural attraction on the Space Coast is the Eau Gallie Arts District in Melbourne. This is home to artisans and their art suppliers. There are small shops and galleries housing art works ranging from oil paintings and water colors, to sculptures, and photography.
Jody Carter’s Art Expressions on Highland Avenue sells many artist works, decorator art and art memorabilia. In addition to the art there is also a pawn shop, vape smoke shop, and a hardware store. There is a lot of character in one of the oldest neighborhoods in town.
9- Melbourne Beach Pier
The pier was built in 1889 and is one of the oldest surviving structures on the Space Coast. It originally was a dock for boats bringing supplies from the mainland, and brought the first beach tourists to the island. Traffic got so busy a short rail line was built to shuttle tourists to the beach, less than a mile away. The pier juts 650 feet out into the Indian River Lagoon. Today it is used for sunset viewing and fishing. The pier was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
10- Uncrowded Beaches and turtles
If you want to get away from the beach crowds, head south on highway A1A to the county parks located in Melbourne Beach, and along the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge stretches for several miles on the coastline and is largely pristine. The refuge protects the nesting shoreline for loggerhead, leatherback and green turtles. Thousands crawl ashore to lay their eggs during peak turtle season, which runs from March to November. Beach crowds here are comparatively small, and you have plenty of room for a little sand dune solitude.
11- Sebastian Inlet State Park and Pier
The state park is known primarily for two things…fishing and surfing. There are two jetties that reach into the Atlantic..one of each side of the inlet that connects the Indian River Lagoon with the Atlantic Ocean. Fish follow the tides through the inlet, making it a prime fishing spot. The jetties can be crowded most any day, Fishermen and their gear pack the north jetty to the extent that one fisherman referred to it as “a contact sport”.
The park is known for being one of the best surfing beaches in Florida with breaks called the “Monster Hole” and ”First Peak”. The surf here is so good it is home to Florida Pro Surf competition.
No guide to the Space Coast would be complete without mentioning the Indian River Lagoon, which stretches 156 miles along Florida’s east coast. The Space Coast waters of the lagoon are home to dolphins and manatees. There are tour boats that take visitors on lagoon trips usually lasting 2-3 hours. You can also take a kayak tour, or hop on a fishing charter. As the population along its banks grows, the lagoon has become polluted with nutrients and algae blooms. Space Coast voters approved a special sales tax to pay for cleaning up the lagoon.
Florida’s Space Coast is more laid back than other beach destinations along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Daytona Beach can often get rowdy. South Beach in Miami can get packed with beach crowds. But for eco travelers there are lots of things to do on the Space Coast. Have fun, and maybe get lucky to catch a rocket launch.