It’s more than a little ironic that one of the most extensive sections of natural coastal wetlands left in Florida became home to the launch pads of the nation’s space program. Though the natural aspects—thousands of seabirds and wide-open stretches of sandy beaches—are attractive enough in their own right to merit a visit, many people are drawn here by Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center. All the big milestones in the history of the U.S. space program—the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle launches—happened here, and if names like Alan Shepard, John Glenn, or Neil Armstrong mean anything to you, set aside time for a visit.
The Kennedy Space Center itself, eight miles west of US-1 via the NASA Parkway (Hwy-405), is open to the public, but only on guided tours. These tours require advance tickets, and all leave from the large visitors complex (855/433-4210, daily, $50 and up), where two IMAX theaters show films of outer space to get you in the mood. There are also some small museums, a simulated space shuttle mission control center, eight real rockets in the Rocket Garden, an actual space shuttle, and an exhibit previewing missions to Mars. The visitors center also has a couple of fast-food restaurants and a kennel for pets.
To see the Kennedy Space Center up close, board a bus for a tour; these leave every fifteen minutes and visit the Apollo and space shuttle launch pads and other sites, including the Vehicle Assembly Building. On other tours, you can visit the Cape Canaveral Air Force station or the Launch Control Center, or even have lunch with an astronaut and talk about outer space with someone who’s actually been there (glass of Tang not included).
To witness a rocket launch at Kennedy Space Center, you can either watch from the main visitor center, get passes for entrance into a special viewing area, or simply watch from the many good vantage points: Playalinda Beach, in the Canaveral National Seashore at the west end of Hwy-402 from Titusville; across the Indian River, along US-1 in Titusville; or the beaches west of Hwy-A1A in Cocoa Beach.
One of the best places to eat in this part of Florida is west of the Space Center, in the town of Titusville: the immense and immensely popular Dixie Crossroads (1475 Garden St., 321/268-5000, daily) for seafood, especially the massive all-you-can-eat plates of small shrimp ($40). The Crossroads is away from the water, two miles east of I-95 exit 220.
The town of Cocoa Beach, familiar to anyone who ever watched the 1960s space-age sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, sits south of the Kennedy Space Center. Long before there were space shuttles, or even NASA, Cocoa Beach was home to the Cape Canaveral Air Station, the launch site for the unmanned space probes of the late 1950s, including the first U.S. satellite (Explorer 1), and the famous “astro chimps” (Gordo, Able, and Miss Baker, who were sent into orbit to test the effects of weightlessness). The air station, which is only accessible as part of the Kennedy Space Center’s Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour, includes the launch complexes used for Mercury 7 and Project Gemini.
Though space travel is clearly on the minds of many residents, especially personnel stationed at Patrick Air Force Base here, another focus is catching the perfect wave: Cocoa Beach is surf center of the Space Coast. Along with a clean, 10-mile-long beach, the town also holds a batch of good-value motels, located within a short walk of the waves. Choose from chains (including a Motel 6), or check out the garish pink Fawlty Towers (100 E. Cocoa Beach Causeway/Hwy-520, 321/784-3870, $84 and up), which, for fans of the eponymous British sitcom, is sadly devoid of John Cleese or put-upon Juan. It is, however, cheap and walkably close to the beach, and right next door to Cocoa Beach’s main event, the massive Ron Jon Surf Shop (4151 N. Atlantic Ave., 321/799-8888, daily 24 hours), the place to buy or rent surfboards, body boards, or bicycles.
As a boy growing up in sunny Los Angeles, I could never understand why the Dodgers felt they had to disappear to distant Florida to get in shape during spring training. I knew the weather couldn’t be so much better there (after all, didn’t LA have the heavenly climate?), and I never quite figured out what the big attraction of Vero Beach, the Dodgers’ historic off-season home, could be. But when I discovered that the Dodgers had started playing here way back in 1948—back when they still called Brooklyn home—it all began to make sense. But all that is in the past—after 60 years, the Dodgers moved west to Arizona in 2008, and the facility, called Historic Dodgertown, is used as training grounds for sports teams of all kinds.
With or without baseball, Vero Beach is a really nice place, with an excellent beach in South Beach Park at the end of the Palmetto Causeway. This South Beach is family-friendly and about as far as you can get from Miami’s South Beach and still be in Florida: The sands here are clean, grainy, and golden, the waves are a good size, and there are showers and free parking. Vero Beach also has a nice place to stay and eat: the Driftwood Resort (3150 Ocean Dr., 772/231-0550), which has beachcomber-vibe motel rooms and villas, and the fun and good-value Waldo’s, a poolside café and bar overlooking the ocean.