Just to start with, the ‘Space Coast’ covers the full extent of Brevard County, which is immediately to the east of Orlando and Orange County, and includes Titusville, Port Canaveral, Cocoa Beach and Melbourne, all of which are seaside tourist centres in their own right.
The Kennedy Space Centre is right in the heart of all this, hence it makes a great place to either start or finish, but it can also be combined with any number of other possibilities, all within easy driving distance of Orlando. Better still, stay overnight and you can enjoy a great evening out, too.
Here’s our Top 10 of things to do in and around the Space Coast:
Kennedy Space Center – this is obvious, but since the opening of the amazing Atlantis Exhibit in 2013, we think this is simply unmissable for any visit to Central Florida, even for those who don’t think they will be interested in the story of ‘One small step for man.’ There is now SO much to see here, the problem is in fitting it all in!
Exploration Tower – brand new this year, the Tower is an interactive museum-cum-observation centre in the heart of Port Canaveral. Impossible to miss at more than 70ft high and shaped like a giant sail, it houses fascinating local history (including a multimedia film show), hands-on exhibits (like a virtual boat navigation system) and café, as well as a breathtaking view from the 7th floor outdoor observation deck – especially for any day-time rocket launches.
Bioluminescent kayaking – OK, this even took us by surprise and it’s only available in the hottest summer months (usually July, August and September), but it is an amazing experience on the waters around Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Organised by reservation only through A Day Away Kayak Tours, who also do dolphin and manatee tours, it involves a 2-hour evening paddle into the inshore waters to witness the stunning underwater phenomenon of biolumenscence.
This is a truly magical experience as the fish and other marine creatures – including dolphins and manatees – all create a ghostly light effect as they move through the water in the dark, agitating the microscopic bioluminescent particles. The fish move like underwater fireworks at times and the overall effect is breathtakingly dramatic.
PS: Simon thought the best part was when one of the hundreds of red mullet fish in the shallow waters actually jumped into our kayak. Susan wasn’t so sure!
Space Coast Segway Tours – this is something we’ve done several times as it involves a 2-hour tour on the wonderful two-wheeled Segway people transporters and covers the whole Port Canaveral area, including around the Exploration Tower. There is a surprising amount to see here as the Port area is fast developing an array of tourist attractions in its own right, and the tour stops at various key points to see them. They also do new evening tours, which are even more fun.
Florida Beer Company – also new this year is this specialist craft beer company on Imperial Boulevard in Port Canaveral, who offer free daily tours of their plant – and free samples afterwards. Usually open from 1-9pm, they feature more than a dozen different brews and various seasonal specials and are part of a major American craft beer movement that is providing more choice all the time. Look out for their seasonal events, too.
The Cove – ready for something to eat or drink? The Cove has a fabulous array of restaurants and cafes, many of them right alongside the Port Canaveral waterway that affords an amazing view of the cruise ships and other vessels going out to sea. Our favourite two spots to stop and chill out are Milliken’s Reef (superb at night with its own ‘beach’, live music and Tiki Bar) and Grills Seafood Deck, with its lively style both by day and night.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – despite sitting almost in the shadow of the Space Center, Merritt Island is a magnificent natural Florida experience and well worth several hours’ visiting time. The Visitor Center (open 6 days a week) offers a great starting point and features exhibits, films and a neat little gift store, while the 7-mile, one-way route of Black Point Wildlife Drive is often packed with the local flora and fauna and richly rewards a slow journey around.
Island Boat Lines – for a wonderful close-up view of the local marine life, there is nothing better than this two-hour pontoon boat cruise among the Thousand Islands of Cocoa Beach, with expert wildlife narrators to point out all the sightings, which usually include manatees, dolphins and all manner of birds – from coots to bald eagles – throughout this amazingly diverse ecosystem.
Cocoa Village – OK, we’re including this primarily for our new favourite restaurant in the area, but the Village does also offer an authentic shopping and dining experience along a series of pleasant, tree-lined streets that feel a million miles from the usual tourist hustle-bustle. But do make time for dinner at Crush Eleven, a fabulously chic and imaginative gathering place that features creative cuisine, craft beers and signature cocktails in a highly social atmosphere.
Ron Jon Surf Shop – you really can’t come to the Space Coast without visiting this iconic (and huge!) shop in the heart of Cocoa Beach. It’s hard to miss for its brightly-coloured exterior and it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a year, selling absolutely everything to do with beaches, surfing, swimwear, water sports and souvenirs. If they don’t sell it, no-one makes it!
That, of course, is only a snapshot of all the possibilities for enjoying the area. The Space Center remains the No.1 attraction but there are now plenty of others, especially for nature and the local wildlife. To us, this is a great place to visit for a change of pace and a more relaxing vibe, and it also just makes for a great beach day out.