Somehow, nature’s majesty is even more magnificent juxtaposed alongside some of man’s greatest scientific achievements..
By Karen Rubin & Eric Leiberman
Florida’s Space Coast is a place where 6.2 million-pound space shuttles coexist with delicate seabird sanctuaries, of moonwalks and dune overwalks, of vintage airbirds and thrilling airboat rides through wilderness.
It presents a fascinating juxtaposition: it is where you can marvel at man’s scientific achievement-our ability to harness and shape nature to our own purpose–and also be reverential of nature’s majesty.
In fact, egrets and manatees get some of the most fabulous views of rocket launches, since the NASA Kennedy Space Center is actually located in the middle of a sprawling, 140,000-acre wildlife preserve, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Visiting the Space Center and the other attractions along the Space Coast provides incredible opportunities to explore nature. Indeed, experiencing these two aspects of our existence on this planet provides a very meaningful lesson to children.
The 220-square mile Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge has more federally endangered species than anywhere else in the U.S. but the Everglades (also in Florida). There are 22 of them including the Western Indian manatee, Southern bald eagle, eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise, peregrine falcon and Atlantic loggerhead turtle. Though the area is vast (and much of it secreted within the NASA complex), for practical purposes the best way to experience it is by taking a six-mile self-driving tour of the refuge. Shaded boardwalks weave through pine and oak hammocks of the second-largest sanctuary in Florida (Even though Kennedy Space Center is contained within the refuge, to visit the refuge you have to leave the Space Center, drive back through Titusville, and take Route 406 to the entrance; 321-861-0667).
The Enchanted Forest, in Titusville, is a 400-acre hardwood hammock named for an enchanting jungle of cabbage palms, saw palmettos, moss-hung oaks and grape vines (321-633-2016).
Another adventure of the nature variety awaits at Archie Carr National Park, the largest sea turtle nesting area in America. More than 6,000 loggerheads and leatherbacks lay up to 600 eggs each year, from May through August; in these times, you can witness animals nesting during nighttime guided tours along area beaches.
Turkey Creek Sanctuary in Palm Bay at the southern tip of Space Coast, is one of Florida’s Audubon Parks, and a major stopover for spring and fall migratory birds, including the pileated woodpecker and rare purple martin. In all 310 different bird species have been sighted in the area. The sanctuary is surrounded by sand pines, saw palmettos and live oaks that emerge from ancient sand dunes created 2,000 years ago. A 4,000-foot boardwalk twists and turns along the murky, black water creek. (321-952-3433).
Florida’s Space Coast is a 72-mile stretch of beachfront from Titusville south to Palm Bay, and includes three of the beaches ranked among Florida’s top ten, along with six other beaches. The Canaveral National Seashore, accessed from Cape Canaveral, is a 24-mile stretch of platinum-colored quartz sand, including the Atlantic beaches of Klondike, Apollo and Playalinda, offering nearly 20 wooden walks over 15-foot sand dunes scattered with sea oats and prickly pear cactus, and a view of the Kennedy Space Center launch pads.
One of the best kept secrets of Space Coast is Stick Marsh, which boasts the best bass fishing in Florida. There are more than 30 marinas, three fishing piers and numerous charter boats and fish camps providing fresh and saltwater excursions.
Sebastian Inlet State Recreation Area, Melbourne Beach, is both a top fishing area as well as one of the prime surfing destinations in Florida (and near to the famous Ron Jon’s Surf Shop). The stunning inlet boasts a dramatic stone pier, fishing jetties and crashing waves (and gets the greatest attendance of all Florida State Parks); 321-984-4852. Other surfing places include Cocoa and Playalinda beaches.
Indian River Lagoon is the most diversified estuary in the nation, nurturing 4,000 species of plants and animals including the Florida manatee. It parallels the ocean for 156 miles (321-722-5363).
Nature Boat Ride Ideal for Families
Our three-generation family found a wonderful way to be together and explore nature of a portion of the Indian River Lagoon on a delightful pontoon boat ride through Island Boat Lines. Even as we touched off from the pier, at 10 a.m., in the delightfully colorful and comfortable vessel, we found ourselves in the midst of a pod of bottlenose dolphins that seemed to be playing near the pontoon.
Our two-hour tour went along the shoreline, with Cocoa Beach homes and condos on one side, and the pristine mangrove tree, 1,000 Islands, filled with pelicans, egrets, herons, ibis, and wood storks on the other. In warmer weather, we would have been able to spot manatee. It is probably true, that during the course of the two-hour cruise, you can see more wildlife than in a whole day at Merritt Island.
Island Boat Lines has two 55-passenger pontoon boats, the Miss Florida and the Sunshine, and offers three eco-tours daily (at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and sunset). A special three-hour trip, offered on Sundays, through The Locks of Port Canaveral provides up close views of the cruise and Navy ships, submarine base, Space Lab and US Coast Guard Station. Departing Merritt Island they will journey on the Banana River, to the Barge Canal, enter the Canaveral locks and begin their waterfront view of the port’s busy activity.
The pontoon was so delightful for our family-close enough and enough room for us to chat and enjoy the scenery, the kids engrossed in shooting pictures and spotting wildlife. A fabulous sound system and CDs provided by Capt.Sue Bohn (a Long Island native, she has spent her entire career as a yacht captain in places like the Virgin Islands), added to the appeal along with the interesting commentary by the on-board naturalist, Bob. The pontoons can be chartered for a larger group, and you can bring food and drinks aboard.
Island Boat Lines’ fleet now includes a paddlewheeler, Indian River Queen. The 98-foot, 260-passenger paddlewheel boat is available for special functions and private charters.
Call ahead to reserve: 321-454-7414 (after hours, 321-302-0544); www.islandboatlines.com.
Another way to enjoy nature up close is to paddle. A Day Away Kayak Tours, operating out of Titusville, offers guided kayaking trips along inland and ocean waterways (321-268-2655).
There are also various companies that offer airboat rides along the St. Johns River.
For cultural experiences, there is the Brevard Museum of art & Science; the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science; Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts; the Cocoa village Playhouse; Titusville Playhouse.
Ron Jon’s Surf Shop
One of the unusual attractions to Space Coast is Ron Jon’s Surf Shop. This is far, far from the surfbum’s haven. Now it is for surfbum wannabees with a wad for a wallet. Wonderful designer clothing and just about all the paraphernalia you could imagine for hanging 10 or just hanging about the beach. Would you believe it, Ron Jon’s also opened up a major timeshare resort, right on the water?
Ron Jon’s is a kind of beachbum L.L. Bean. It is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (yes, including Christmas Day and New Year’s), and has become a landmark in the course of 40 years in Florida, earning global fame.
The shop is an experience-indoor waterfalls, palm trees, sandstone sculptures of surfers, radical merchandise including its own Ron Jon’s brand. You can custom build a skate board or buy everything you need for surfing, wake boarding, scuba diving.
The shop hosts about 2 million visitors a year (intersection of Highway 520 and A1A).
Radisson Resort at the Port
Our visit to Space Coast was a multi-generational getaway for us. As we typically do when we come down to visit grandparents now residing in Florida, we usually pick up and have our own getaway to explore some other part of Florida. These getaways provide experiences-just spending time together in the car, sharing the sense of discovery and adventure-that will last a lifetime.
We loved staying at the Radisson Resort at the Port. The hotel is actually just minutes away from the Port Canaveral, now one of the busiest passenger cruise ports in the world. It is very centrally located to everything, though about 15 or 20 minutes drive (since you actually have to go off the island and come back in to Kennedy Space Center) to the visitor center.
No matter-the amenities of the Radisson made us feel as we were in a resort. It offered a lovely pool (with faux rock formations and waterfalls), Jacuzzi and kiddie pool, not to mention free use of a competition-grade all-weather tennis court, lighted for night play (free use of the court, and the hotel provides tennis rackets and balls as well), as well as a fitness center, made our stay all the more delightful. The hotel also makes available complimentary transportation to the beach, as well as to the cruise terminals, nearby.
The landscaping-with bridges, and paving through beautiful shrubs and bushes-help make the Radisson very popular for weddings, while its meeting facilities-accommodating groups from 10 to 1,500 in size–make it a popular meetings destination.
The hotel offers 212 luxury rooms plus 71 two-room whirlpool suites-much smaller in scale than the large properties you typically associate with Radissons. This was more intimate and we would make a fabulous site for a family reunion–indeed, we saw a family gathered to celebrate a 90th birthday during our stay.
We stayed in one of the Radisson’s new suites-a gorgeous master bedroom, beautifully appointed, elegantly decorated, with king-size bed and Jacuzzi, and a separate living room and kitchen/dining area that proved especially comfortable for our three-generation getaway. The kitchen was equipped with coffee maker, refrigerator, microwave, lovely glass table seating four. The armoire had an iron and ironing board. There were TVs with remote control in both rooms.
The hotel also had a lovely restaurant of its own, but we ventured just next door to Kelsey’s, a casual restaurant with a pleasant Italian-Greek atmosphere that was perfect for a family outing, especially after a busy day sightseeing. The pasta was superb (try the penne with gorgonzola and the calzones).
Another restaurant we thoroughly enjoyed (after our pontoon boat ride), was the Waterside Café, which offered open-air dining (as well as enclosed restaurant) with a wonderful view of the Lagoon and was set up to offer live music for the evening.
No doubt, many will come to the Space Coast in order to embark on one of the many cruises that depart from Port Canaveral, now the largest passenger cruise port terminal in North and South America. Disney, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Royal Olympia, Sterling and Sun Cruz operate from there. The Radisson offers a fabulous package for cruise-goers, where you overnight and then get to park your car for free (saving $10/day parking charges), with the hotel providing free shuttle transportation to the port, just about five minutes away; the package also includes full hot breakfast buffet for two ($139 for a deluxe room; $169 for two-room whirlpool suite). That would give you time to explore some of the attractions, like Kennedy Space Center, without the worry of encountering travel delays that could interfere with making it to the cruise ship on time.
The Radisson was next door to TRAXX Jungle Village, a small amusement park, and just down the road from a Fantasy golf (closed during our stay, perhaps still recovering from the hurricanes), and from the world-famous Ron Jon’s Surf Shop.
Radisson Resort at the Port, 8701 Astronaut Blvd., Cape Canaveral, 321-784-0000, 800-333-3333, www.radisson.com/capecanaveralfl.
If you choose to think of it as such, it is also the closest beach to Orlando’s themeparks (indeed, Disney’s cruiseships sail from Port Canaveral). Many people make the Kennedy Space Center and the beaches a daytrip from Orlando, 35 miles away, but Space Coast is very much a destination in its own right. I actually find it too confusing to mix the themepark fantasy experience with the real attractions-real science of Kennedy Space Center and the real nature experiences-of Space Coast, and there is certainly enough to do to round out an exceptional family vacation of any duration.
For more information, contact Space Coast Office of Tourism, 800-93-OCEAN, 877-57-BEACH, or visit www.space-coast.com.
© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.