What to see and what to skip on Florida’s Space Coast

PHOTO: Scenic view of sea against dramatic sky in Cocoa Beach, Fla.PlayGetty Images
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There’s good reason for the popularity of Florida’s Space Coast.

Space fans flock here to visit the Kennedy Space Center, learn about NASA and watch rocket liftoffs in person. Ocean buffs know this area well, too: Port Canaveral is the world’s third-largest cruise port, home to popular cruise lines like Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.

But this 72-mile stretch of beach along the Sunshine State’s Atlantic shores has so much more to offer, from gourmet discoveries and outdoor adventures to some of Florida’s most spectacular scenery.

Never been? Here are a few things to add to your itinerary on your own adventure along Florida’s Space Coast.

Skip the TV, watch from shore
Most of us witness the thrill of a rocket launch on our TV screens, though thousands flock to the Kennedy Space Center each year to see spaceships blast off from the front row. But did you know that you don’t even have to get up from your beach chair to watch a rocket soar into space? “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,” says New York-based Travelzoo deal expert Annemarie Kropf. No less than 32 unmanned launches are slated for 2017, and you can catch the countdown to the next one at spacecoastlaunches.com. Just “be aware that launches can be delayed due to weather,” cautions Kropf.

Skip general admission, Go VIP
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is a veritable pilgrimage for space enthusiasts: you can meet veteran astronauts here, catch dozens of historic exhibits and see spacecraft like the Space Shuttle Atlantis up close. Admission prices range from $40 to $50.

If a visit here is a bucket list item for you, splurge and go deeper. Kennedy Space Center offers a variety of immersion experiences that are sure to create special memories. You can have lunch with an astronaut and hear about their otherworldly experiences firsthand; the special presentation ($29.99 for adults, $15.99 for kids) includes a chef-prepared buffet lunch and Q-&-A session. Special access tours ($25 for adults, $19 for kids) include the launch-control center tour, which includes a visit to the firing room where the last 21 missions were monitored, and the two-hour explore tour, which takes you to restricted areas like launch pads and the vehicle assembly building. Kids will love earning their cosmic quest badge ($19.95); the interactive game experience features actual NASA missions and teaches them how to build a Martian habitat, launch a rocket and work with a real robot aboard the International Space Station.

After the Space Center, get trained
After you’ve seen how others have done it, train for it yourself. The Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) is a half-day immersion experience where guests get hands-on training and a realistic look at what it takes to prepare for intergalactic flight. Paired with a veteran NASA astronaut and working inside a fully-outfitted mission control facility, guests use simulators to perform a real space-shuttle mission to the International Space Station inside a full-scale orbiter. Training sessions run from about 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and are scheduled on specific dates, so plan ahead. The ATX Family Experience costs $145 per person (ages 7 and up); paying a bit more includes discounted admission to the Kennedy Space Center, about 6 miles away.

Skip the ship, cruise the Cove
Not cruising? No problem. The Cove is Port Canaveral’s entertainment district, where you can “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,” says Kopf. The seafood here is not to be missed: Options range from fish tacos, mahi mahi sandwiches and tuna poke to local oysters, snow crab and rainbow trout. There’s a variety of bars and live music venues here, as well as upscale shops and art galleries. The Cove is also where you can charter a boat for your own adventure at sea. Its latest attraction is the seven-story Exploration Tower, where you can learn about Port Canaveral’s maritime history and enjoy sweeping views from the observation deck.

After Disney, hang 10
The Space Coast’s proximity to the theme-park mecca of Orlando means Disney fans get access to some of the best waves in the state. Cocoa Beach is the closest beach to the parks, about an hour away, and it's a surfer’s paradise (world champ Kelly Slater hails from Cocoa Beach). Surf lessons, parasailing opportunities and jet ski options abound here, and surfing fans can visit famous stops like Cocoa Beach Surf Company, Ron Jon Surf Shop and the Florida Surf Museum. If you’re an animal lover, take a kayak tour of Cocoa Beach’s Thousand Islands to spot manatees, dolphins and a plethora of bird species. Walk the historic Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier for beautiful coastline views and live entertainment. Visit the Dinosaur Store for an impressive collection of fossils and contact Sundari Studio for yoga meetups and meditations on the beach.

After the zoo, check out the turtles
The Brevard Zoo in Viera, home to more than 800 animals, is the only zoo in the U.S. where you can actually kayak between exhibits: The Nyami Nyami River will take you through portions of the 10-acre expedition Africa exhibit and past Lemur Island. Take a paddleboat around 22 acres of restored wetlands at the wild Florida exhibit or hang on to one of the 14 zip lines at the Treetop Trek to fly high above the animals below. The paws on waterplay zone features a 20,000-gallon aquarium.

But if there’s one starring animal along the Space Coast, it’s the sea turtle. Cocoa Beach, for example, is one of the largest sea-turtle nesting grounds in the world, and the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is home to the largest nesting population of loggerhead turtles in the U.S. Turtle lovers flock to this part of Florida from March through October to watch mothers laying eggs and babies hatching.

Skip the hotel gym, break a sweat at Palm Bay
On the southern reaches of the Space Coast, Palm Bay and its 29 parks is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Turkey Creek Sanctuary can be accessed by canoe or kayak, a great way to spot manatees along the way; if you get here by foot, take on one of the many nature trails. BMX buffs should head to The Grapefruit Trails, a series of challenging bike trails through rustic woodland. Fishing fans can try their luck off the pair of piers at Castaways Point Park; serious fishermen can set out for largemouth bass at Stick Marsh or explore the 47,000 acres of fish and wildlife at Three Forks Marsh. McGriff’s Skate Park welcomes skateboarders and Hurricane paint Ball Park attracts families of all sizes.

Skip the cocktail, do beer
If you like beer, World of Beer in the town of Viera will feel like paradise: Think 500-plus craft beers from more than 40 countries around the world, and at least 50 brews available on tap at all times. Kopf has her favorite beer stops: “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,” she says. “There’s also Intracoastal Brewing Company in Eau Gallie Arts District, locally known as EGAD.”

Skip the movie, visit the planetarium
The Cocoa campus of Eastern Florida State College is home to what’s considered one of the finest planetariums in the country. There are two theaters here, including the Discover Movie Theater; with a giant screen and 70mm large-format movie projector, it shows a variety of IMAX and National Geographic nature documentaries. The Star Theater, at three-stories high and 70 feet in diameter, is remarkable. It’s home to the world’s first combined digital and optical-mechanical projection system, meaning high-resolution projections and an array of special effects and lasers can be played in concert. Catch a star show, which simulates realistic views of the night sky, and stay for the laser show, which pairs music by the likes of U2 and The Beatles with stunning lasers. Movies and shows are $8 for adults and $5 for kids. The planetarium’s rooftop observatory houses one of the largest public telescopes in the state, and you can visit for free on Friday and Saturday evenings from dusk until about 10 p.m. The exhibits and galleries here are also free.

Skip MCO, Do MLB
Orlando International Airport (MCO) gets the lion’s share of commercial flights into this part of Florida, welcoming theme park visitors from all over the world. But Orlando Melbourne International Airport (MLB), the quainter alternative, is arguably the most convenient option for vacationers to the Space Coast. Delta and American provide daily nonstop flights from their respective hubs in Atlanta and Charlotte. Elite Airways offers flights to Newark and Porter Airlines flies to Billy Bishop Airport at its home base of Toronto. MLB gets high marks for its easy access and convenient parking right across from the main terminal.

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on vacations to Florida’s Space Coast at www.travelzoo.com. Have your own favorite Space Coast spot? Let him know: @gabesaglie.