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.