Florida Has a Space Coast and It's Out of This World
It's called Florida's Space Coast for a reason. This 72-mile stretch of Atlantic shoreline from Canaveral National Seashore to Sebastian Inlet is home to the Kennedy Space Center. While rockets and spaceships have always played a huge role here, there's more to the region than you might think.
Here's why the Space Coast is worth a visit.
See a rocket launch from the beach
Television can't do justice to the excitement of the countdown and the ground shaking, the sounds thundering, the fire burning bright and the smoke billowing out with the lift-off.
When NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, the space program didn't shut down, but rather it shifted gears. In fact, there will be 32 launches this year -- just not with astronauts inside.
In addition to Kennedy Space Center, there are prime viewing areas on the shores of the Indian River Lagoon, beaches south of Port Canaveral, the Cocoa Beach Pier, the Exploration Tower and the Canaveral National Seashore.
Check out the countdown to the next launch, but be aware that launches can be delayed due to weather.
Hang out with astronauts at Kennedy Space Center
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has plenty to keep guests wowed: Meet a veteran astronaut, get an up close look at Space Shuttle Atlantis, experience spaceflight simulators, stroll the Heroes & Legends exhibit which features the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and take a guided tour among the Rocket Garden to see these giants up close.
Admission is $50 per adult, $40 for children ages 3-11 and $46 for anyone over 55. As part of its "Summer of Mars" promotion this summer, fifth graders get in free. Download a ticket here.
Lunch with an astronaut and touring the launch operations center are a bit extra and advance reservations are recommended.
Six miles west is the Astronaut Training Experience , where families can spend a half-day immersed in astronaut training with realistic simulators and the chance to launch their own rockets.
Enjoy all the shows nature puts on
Move over, northern lights. Florida's Space Coast is home to an amazing underwater light show thanks to bioluminescence. During the summer months, tiny dinoflagellates in the waters of the Indian River Lagoon, Banana River and Mosquito Lagoon emit light as they move around.
Tour operators like Calypso Kayaking and A Day Away Kayak Tours take visitors for an adventure in the water to see the wild patterns of light when you dip your paddle or fingers in the water. You might also spot dolphins and manatees.
You can take an airboat ride on the St. Johns River, skimming and sliding through this natural paradise at speeds up to 30 mph, and spot native vegetation and wildlife like alligators, bald eagles, otters and blue herons.
The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is home to the largest nesting population of loggerhead turtles in the United States. Last year, there were 35,000 sea turtle nests found from May to October and the Sea Turtle Preservation Society hosts turtle walks in June and July.
Keep the kids entertained with zoos and zip lines
Brevard Zoo offers meet and greets with some of its 800 animals, such as the giraffes, lorikeets, anteaters and sloths.
For about $10, you can kayak down the Nyami Nyami River past rhinos and lemurs, or you can take a paddle boat in the wetland habitat to see native birds and turtles. For about $30, you can participate in Treetop Trek, which offers a unique point of view from 14 zip lines above the wild animals.
Or head to Cocoa Beach Aerial Adventures, where you'll navigate through 50 unique challenges set in a canopy of live oak trees 45-feet high in the sky.
Pick the lively beach or the quieter one...
If you're looking for a quiet stretch of white sand, then Melbourne Beach and its 33 miles of serene natural beauty beside the Indian River Lagoon is the way to go. Known for its family-friendly charm, the area hosts a number of small inns and hotels, too.
Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier, an 800-foot historical landmark in Cocoa Beach, has been buzzing with activity since 1962. The beach has five restaurants, four bars, gift shops and live entertainment. You'll also find many fishermen casting their lines here.
Learn how to catch a wave
Surfing isn't just a pastime on the Space Coast; it's also a way of life for many people. For example, Cocoa Beach native Kelly Slater is an 11-time world champion surfer who started winning surfing titles at age 12. He and other champs honed their skills at Sebastian Inlet's First Peak in Melbourne Beach. Check out memorabilia at the Florida Surf Museum inside the Ron Jon Surf Shop complex -- or rent a board and get out on the water yourself.
Though surfing takes the glory of the water sports here on the Space Coast, people can still do most every other board sport. Make a beeline for Honest John's Fish Camp in Melbourne Beach to rent kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and fishing boats.
See why Port Canaveral is one of the world's top cruise ports
The world's third-largest cruise passenger port, Port Canaveral is home to Carnival Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International. Many visitors first come to Florida's Space Coast to relax before or after a cruise.
The Cove is the port's entertainment district, where you'll find attractions like the Exploration Tower, which offers seven stories of exhibits and a pretty cool place to watch a rocket launch. Our top dining picks here include Fishlips Waterfront Bar & Grill, Baja Chowder & Seafood and Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar. Wave to the cruise ships as they go out to sea while you dine, or watch the fishermen bring in their catches (before you see it on your plate).
Head downtown to try gourmet doughnuts and craft brews
When in downtown Melbourne and Cocoa Village, be sure to check out Sugar Shack Donuts, which has mouth-watering flavors like maple bacon, caramel sea salt and blackberry basil glazed.
When you're ready for dinner, try Squid Lips -- in Cocoa Beach, Melbourne and Sebastian for fresh seafood or head to Matt’s Casbah in downtown Melbourne, which features everything from escargot to burgers on its menu.
Check out the taprooms at Playalinda Brewing Company in Titusville and Hell 'n Blazes Brewing Company in Melbourne, both housed in 100-year-old hardware stores. There’s also Intracoastal Brewing Company in Eau Gallie Arts District, locally known as EGAD.
You might need to take a nap and do it all over again the next day.
Choose a spot along 72 miles to watch the sunrise
Don't forget about that giant yellow orb in the sky — this area is well-known for its sunrises, so you might want to set your alarm for an early hour and head for prime viewing on the Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier.