Confession: I may be obsessed with Florida, but before the Space Coast invited me to come over and explore this summer, I had to look for it on a map. While Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach and beyond are wildly popular getaways for cruise-addits heading out to sea, families looking for cheap beach-front condos, and those fascinated by all things space travel, it doesn’t get quite the same blog buzz that Sunshine State destinations like Orlando or Miami or The Florida Keys do. I couldn’t think of a single one of my friends who’d been.
So essentially, I went in with no expectations. And three nights and four days later, what I’d found was an affordable, sun-drenched destination with a laid-back surf culture, abundant wildlife — I literally saw dolphins three days in a row! — and acaí bowls around every corner. Seriously, what more could a girl ask for?
Considering a trip to The Space Coast? Here’s what to put on your to-do list if you want to leave with as big a smile as I did.
1. Hang at Cocoa Beach Pier
When I realized halfway through my trip that I’d yet to stick my toes in the sand along Cocoa Beach, I headed straight for the sea to immediately right that wrong. Without having done much research, I quickly opened a map and saw a pier. That had to be a good place to go for a swim, right?
Correct indeed. The Cocoa Beach Pier sat on a stunning stretch of sand and created a lively hub of activity for people watching. Don’t miss the posters along the entrance that dive into the history of Cocoa — they’re fascinating! Without them, I never would have known that the first settlers in the area were former slaves in 1888, and the community remained small and close-knit until the space race took off in the 1960’s, turning Cocoa Beach into the vacation community it is today.
Walk past the souvenir shops and the game room for rainy days and make time for a drink Rikki Tiki Tavern while watching surfers catch waves and fishermen throw lines, or grab lunch at one of the pier’s onsite restaurants. Pelican’s Bar and Grill, Keith’s Oyster Bar, The Boardwalk Bar, and Sea Dogs are all options, though the grilled chicken pineapple wrap on the menu at Rikki Tiki made me wish I hadn’t already eaten lunch when I arrived. If you stay past sunset, there’s often live music on the weekends.
Finally, get down under the pier and dive into the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There are surfboards, beach chairs and umbrellas for rent, and volleyball nets for grabs. It’s a beautiful spot for a charming and nostalgic day at the beach.
While I winced at the onsite $15 parking when all the nearby street lots were full — literally one of the only times I scoffed at something being overpriced along The Space Coast — showing my receipt did get me free entry to the very end of the pier, which normally costs $2 a head. So if you’ve got a carful and plan to spend the day, it’s not such a bad deal. If you’re just popping by for a quick stop like me, cross your fingers for street parking. This is the closest beach to Orlando, so it’s pretty popular!
2. Kayak with Manatees
When it comes to kayaking on the Space Coast, the area’s famous bioluminescence tours get tons of buzz. But I found myself drawn to a different offering, a daytime Manatee and Dolphin Encounter Tour with A Day Away Kayak Tours. Brevard County has more manatees than any other area of similar size in the world, so I had a pretty good hunch I’d find some.
After a long drive to a remote corner of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, I met my fellow paddlers from around the country and beyond. Together we’d spend the next ninety minutes out on the water, covering a distance of about three miles — perfectly adequate for beginners as well as experienced kayak enthusiasts.
As we set off, I asked our super knowledgeable guide what our chances were of seeing manatees that day. “Well, this isn’t Disney but… pretty much guaranteed,” he shrugged. He went on to explain that manatees are mammals that love warm water and need it to maintain their body heat. In the winter and on cold days manatees leave the area in favor of local springs and power plants. In the summer heat, manatees regularly cozy right up to the kayaks.
And pretty soon, those manatees proved our tour guide right. After paddling to a favorite hang out spot, we simply sat in the water and watched wide-eyed as these gentle, curious giants came up to nudge our kayaks, sniff our paddles, and give us some serious side-eye. It was incredible — I was grinning ear to ear!
And while manatees were the most awe-inspiring of our encounters that day, at least in my opinion, they were far from the only. We also briefly spotted dolphins, admired hawks and ospreys, and watched crabs free-swim through the water next to our kayaks. Best of all, all these animals were wild and free! I can think of very few US destinations where I’ve had so many totally natural wildlife encounters in just a few short days.
All along the way our guide gave us in-depth information about the wildlife in the area as well as the history of the land, which was converted to a wildlife refuge in the 1960’s as part of a controversial land grab.
This ranks up with my beluga whale encounter as one of my best kayaking trips ever. Don’t miss this, manatee lovers! At $36 it was an incredibly reasonably priced experience. A Day Away also offers sunrise and sunset tours, jellyfish tours, and beyond — I’ll be back for that bioluminescence tour someday for sure.
Tip: Beware that the launch point for this tour is over an hour north from Cocoa Beach. Leave plenty of time to get lost!
3. Take an Airboat Ride
Having taken airboat rides before in both the Everglades and the Louisiana Bayou, I wasn’t exactly itching to get back on one on the Space Coast. Silly me! This one could not have been more different from my previous adventures, and was quite possibly my best one yet.
When we took off, our captain warned us it wasn’t peak season for gators and there was a strong possibility we wouldn’t see one at all. We did anyway just moments later, which was fun, but I would have given two thumbs up for just the adrenaline of the ride alone (and the breeze it provided).
Plus, the best wildlife was still to come. I marveled as we pulled up alongside free range cattle and horses with birds perched atop them, looking as staggered by the August heat as we were. Seeing the cows and horses appear to walk on water was a highlight of the day — so surreal!
Thirty minute rides cost $24 and there’s no need for reservations — and there are $2 coupons on their website. Sixty and ninety minute tours are available, but we saw everything I’d hoped to see in thirty.
Tip: Come armed with cash for tips, as there’s no ATM onsite! If you want to try local specialties like gator nuggets and sweet tea, the onsite restaurant The Lone Cabbage is the place to go — , there’s live music on Sundays. If you’re not really a gator nugget kinda girl (guilty), stop in the cute town of Cocoa Village for a donut at Sugar Shack instead.
4. Get Bendy on a Board
It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with SUP yoga and look for classes anytime I’m near a body of water. So I could not have been more thrilled to stumble upon Sobe Surf’s classes three mornings a week.
I happened to be the only student the morning of my mid-week class, and my Brazilian teacher and I set off in the peaceful Banana River Lagoon Wildlife Refuge for a short paddle before dropping anchor for class. We settled into a simple but challenging set of asanas, and I was on my back with my eyes closed listening to the instructor’s cues when I heard something surface and take a breath next to me. At first I guessed it was a manatee but then we saw the telltale dorsal — a curious dolphin was checking out our boards! I only managed to capture a flash of a fin in a photo, but the memory lingered. On the short paddle back to the launch, I noticed several different wading birds, and at least a dozen tiny palm-sized stingrays darting under my board. It was idyllic.
One hour went by quickly — I prefer ninety minutes when it comes to SUP yoga as the set up takes a while, but the location was so perfect and peaceful I wouldn’t hesitate to book here again. At $30 for a class, it was very reasonably priced for SUP yoga in the United States.
Tip: Don’t put the shop name into Google Maps — the launch site is separate. Check the location of the yoga class launch carefully to avoid running late and eating into your class time.
5. Head to Space
Well, you can’t really go to Florida’s Space Coast without dropping by its namesake NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
“Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.” — Frank Borman
The first lesson that I learned at the Kennedy Space Center is you really need to plan ahead to make the most of whatever time you have. Tickets here aren’t cheap — admission is $40 for kids and $50 for adults, $10 for parking — so make the most of your investment by doing a bit of research ahead of time. I underestimated the amount of time really required to see everything on offer, arriving just four hours before closing and barely scratching the surface. To make the most of your ticket I’d recommend arriving at opening with a plan for the day.
“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” — Carl Sagan
Due to my limited time, I chose not to go on the included bus tour that led to several shuttles and major exhibits (and requires a minimum of two and a half hours) and instead focused on seeing as much as I could at the Visitor Complex.
I started my day at Heroes and Legends, where I became intrigued by a small exhibit on astronaut’s wives which inspired me to watch this series and download this book — now I’m devastated that I didn’t devour them before my visit! Next, I walked through the Rocket Garden and then the Nature and Technology Exhibit, which explored the history of the land we were standing on and answered a question I’ve always been curious about — why Florida? Turns out, there’s a perfectly scientific explanation (of course!) Rockets leaving the Earth’s surface and traveling eastward get a boost from the Earth’s rotation and launch over the ocean, rather than a highly populated area like they would if they launched from, say, California. Mystery solved.
Next, I took in both IMAX movies playing that day — Journey to Space and A Beautiful Planet (which I didn’t realize until later was narrated by Jennifer Lawrence!) It was a tough call between space ice cream and Space Dots, also known as Dippin’ Dots. The first movie was interesting enough, but I was really blown away by A Beautiful Planet, which I think any travel addict would be hard pressed not to love. Seeing that so-familiar globe through images taken at the space station, and hearing the people who took them speak of the only borders visible from space, the green glow of fishing boats in Thailand, watching cities pop alive in darkness and watching the climate change in front of their eyes was mesmerizing.
Between the two movies I rushed around to the smaller exhibits and the surprisingly entertaining gift shop, which had beautiful mission patches, ball caps claiming “I need space” and space suits for little ones.
Once to two films were over, I spent the last hour at the enormous Space Shuttle Atlantis complex, which houses many top exhibits. Sadly I just missed the last ride on the Shuttle Launch Experience simulator, but the facts I hung back to read regarding the history, technology and impact of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program were well worth it. Did you know astronauts can grow up to two inches taller in space, and spend two and a half hours per day exercising? And because there’s zero gravity, astronauts get to use liquid pepper and salt in space? Dream job!
But truly, learning about life in space was one of my favorite aspects of the day. That, and the way technology developed by NASA has found other applications here on Earth: like a program created to compare star configurations, which has been used to create a pattern-matching database to identify whale sharks by their unique spots, as well as other endangered animals.
While I found myself much more captivated by the area’s natural beauty and adventure opportunities than its science quiz material, I really enjoyed this peek at the Space Program and its influence on this corner of Florida. I actually found that I left craving more — I wanted more about astronaut wives, diversity in the space program, the psychological effects of living in space, and the tragic launches gone wrong. If you’re heading to the Space Coast, I can’t recommend The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story enough if you want something to give you a little human perspective and hook into enjoying the Kennedy Space Center. And check the schedule for upcoming launches — as the world’s busiest active spaceport, you’ve got a pretty good chance of catching one!
Tip: There is a free daily kennel service available at the Space Center. If you’re road tripping or traveling with your pet, you can bring them worry-free! Cool, right?
I Loved The Space Coast!
In conclusion? It was a killer trip. This is one of those situations where I’m really grateful to my job for bringing me an opportunity like this — Space Coast wasn’t even really on my radar, and now I’m totally smitten. Between the incredible surf culture (which I’m dedicating an entire post to — stay tuned!), the affordable rates for activities, food and accommodation, the truly surprising amount of wildlife and the capacity for adventure activities, I left sun-kissed and smiling.
Have you been to the Space Coast? What did you think?