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NASA to nature: Florida's Space Coast has plenty to offer

COCOA BEACH

Two elements rule Florida's Space Coast: sea and sky. And those are the two biggest reasons to plan a summer getaway to Brevard County on the Atlantic Coast. A vacationer might break it down more like this: surf and shuttle.

A July 11 shuttle launch — weather and mechanical issues permitting — may be enough to lure you and your brood to the other coast, especially since the program will end in September 2010. There are eight more launches scheduled.

Plus, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing is July 20. The space coast won't be exactly as you remember from I Dream of Jeannie days, but a number of legendary astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin, are expected to be at the Kennedy Space Center for meet-and-greet events.

Nearly all the haunts from the heady days of the space program are gone, though businesses with "space," "moon" and "astro" in their names are plentiful. For a taste of old-school authenticity, head to downtown Titusville and pull your car into a slot at the Moon-Light Drive-In. You can still get curb service and buy a T-shirt, of course.

Sure, Pinellas County can boast that its beaches at Fort De Soto and Caladesi are regularly ranked among America's Top 10. But at 72 miles, Brevard has nearly three times as much Atlantic coastline as Pinellas has on the Gulf of Mexico — and far fewer people to crowd the sand. There are even 11 beaches with lifeguard stations, way more than Pinellas can claim.

Unlike our fairly placid stretch of the gulf, the Atlantic arrives with enough real waves that people love to surf on them — you can shop at the immense Ron Jon Surf Shop and its more immense competitor, the Cocoa Beach Surf Co. Buy or rent equipment, including boogie boards, there or even sign up for surfing lessons. Even when the waves aren't roiling, it's harder than you think to stand up on a longboard. Looking for something for the kids to do late at night? Ron Jon never closes.

Many of the county's numerous beach parks include picnic areas, barbecue grills, the occasional nature trail or playground. One of the beach parks at Port Canaveral even has full hookup RV sites.

Another park has a 1,200-foot-long fishing pier that has one advantage over any pier on the west coast: It's a great vantage point for watching launches.

That's because this popular cruise-ship homeport is adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center. Some 1.5 million visitors a year tour the Space Center's Visitors Complex.

Capitalizing on that unique attraction, 21 hotels in Brevard are offering two adult admissions to the complex, a $76 value, as part of discounted room rates through the end of August.

Space and beyond

Not surprisingly, the space center has spun off related attractions. The U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame can be visited using a joint-admission ticket with the space center or separately. It has remarkable history in its displays, including a Mercury space capsule and the Apollo 14 Command Module, as well as more personal artifacts presented by astronauts.

The nonprofit Space Walk of Fame Museum has no official relationship to NASA, and therefore it has less imposing pieces of history. Memorabilia range from the trivial — gifts presented to a former NASA administrator, a parachute pack from a space vehicle — to the surprising — a cosmonaut's space suit glove, old control panels used in launching missiles from the cape.

But its unique exhibit is in a nearby park — the bronze handprints of all 44 astronauts who flew in space before the shuttle program (save for one who had died before the prints were collected.)

Those more fascinated by wartime aviation should head to the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum. On display are fighter craft from World War II, the Korean War (including a recently acquired Russian MiG), Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. Visitors can admire the aircraft and the volunteers lovingly restoring planes.

Anglers here have a wide choice of location and fish, from the Indian River Lagoon, between the mainland and the barrier islands, to deep-sea fishing. Or you can stand in the surf and cast your line.

The natural world

As exciting as touring the space center is, a different kind of satisfaction awaits those who drive a short distance from the visitors center to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent Canaveral National Seashore. The space center is on 35-mile-long Merritt Island.

The refuge is home to an estimated 500 species of wildlife and 1,000 species of plants and is a stopover on the bird migration corridor named the Atlantic Flyway. Visitors driving the 7-mile, self-guided tour are likely to see waterfowl, alligators and otters. There are seven foot paths, from a quarter-mile to 5 miles, a manatee observation deck, paddling trails and five boat ramps.

The national seashore and its Playalinda Beach are 24 miles of undeveloped shoreline, with some camping and some horseback riding allowed.

Reason enough for a road trip to the beach, even if there is one in your own back yard.

Robert N. Jenkins is the retired travel editor of the Times; Times photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report.

IF YOU GO


The Space Coast

Getting there: To avoid some Orlando metro congestion, take Interstate 4 to toll roads State Road 417 and then State Road 528. Depending on whether you want to head to the northern or southern attractions, follow signs either to Titusville, the space center and Merritt Island Refuge, or to Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. If heading south toward the latter, Interstate 95 will save time over A1A or U.S. 1.

Staying there: Through the end of August, 21 hotels are offering rates that include two tickets for adult admission to the space center visitors complex, a $76 value. Go go space-coast.com for information about accommodations. Some hotels include breakfast or a discounted second night. Sample rates:

Days Inn Cocoa Beach, 5500 N A1A, Melbourne: $124 a night and the two tickets; (321) 784-2550.

Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, 4735 Helen Hauser Blvd., Titusville: $340, includes two-night stay, the two tickets and an airboat ride on the St. Johns River; (321) 385-1818.

Eating there: This is beach country, so restaurants popular with locals tend to be relaxed. Favorites include Coconuts on the Beach in Cocoa Beach (2 Minutemen Causeway; (321) 784-1422); Grills Seafood Deck and Tiki Bar in Port Canaveral (505 Glen Cheek Drive; (321) 868-2226); and Titusville's Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant (1475 Garden St.; (321) 268-5000); and the Moon-Light Drive-In (1515 S Washington Ave.; (321) 267-8222), where you can still get curb service.

For more information

Details on attractions mentioned in this story can be found at these Web sites:

• Ron Jon Surf Shop, State Roads 520 and A1A, Cocoa Beach; (321) 799-8888 or www.ronjons.com

• Cocoa Beach Surf Co., 4001 N Atlantic Ave. (A1A) Cocoa Beach; (321) 799-9930 or www.cocoabeachsurfcompany.com

• Kennedy Space Center, www.kennedyspacecenter.com. Here you can find information about the events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and moon walk.

• U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, www.kennedyspacecenter.com/astronaut-hall-of-fame.aspx

• Space Walk of Fame Museum, spacewalkoffame.com

• Valiant Air Command Warbird museum, www.vacwarbirds.org

• For fishing information or to book a boat, go to the Canaveral Charter Captains Association Web site, www.fishingspacecoast.org, or the Indian River Guides Association, at www.irga.org

• Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, www.fws.gov/merrittisland

Watch a launch

The space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to launch at 7:39 p.m. July 11, and Discovery is set for liftoff in the early morning of Aug. 18. Both are headed to the International Space Station. Weather and mechanical problems could change those days. There are just eight more launches before the shuttle program ends in September 2010. On Aug. 17, an unmanned Delta II rocket will go up on a missile defense exercise.

Best free places to see a launch

Space View Park, Broad Street and Indian River Lagoon, Titusville. The viewing area is across the Indian River from the space center. Entry and parking are free, though the park gets crowded quickly; plan on getting there very early. Live audio feed from the control room is broadcast. There are picnic areas, shelters and restrooms.

For more information on Titusville viewing spots, call (321) 383-5775.

Cocoa Beach. Set up near the pier and you'll feel the earth shake and get a clear view of liftoff to the north. There is limited parking, and you may have to leave your car on a neighborhood street west of A1A and walk across the highway. You won't be alone.

See, for a fee

• If you want to spring for tickets, you can view launches from the Kennedy Space Center, though most tickets are gone for the July 11 launch. The NASA causeway is the closest spot from which the public can view a launch. About 2,000 to 5,000 people per launch are bused to the causeway for a fee ($38 for adults; $26 for children 11 and younger). Tickets may be purchased by calling (321) 449-4400 or online at www.kennedyspacecenter.com.

• Several tour groups offer launch packages and still have seats left for the Endeavour launch. Packages range from about $50 to more than $100. One tour includes watching the launch from a kayak in the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. For more information, go to www.orlando-tours.com.

NASA to nature: Florida's Space Coast has plenty to offer 06/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 12:57pm]

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