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Take Off to Florida's Space Coast
Experience a Diverse Mix of Natural Beauty and High Tech Wizardry in Florida

by Jeff Voth

The streamlined missile sat poised and ready for launch on the sandy shores of the inner coastal waterway. Under the bright Florida sun, its outward demeanor gave no hint of the turmoil that brewed just below the surface. We stared in awe at the beauty and brawn that lay at rest in front of us, all the while knowing how easily the outward calm could boil over into a massive explosion of fury and fireworks.

The Inn at Cocoa Beach

Suddenly, spray burst skyward, showering us with warm mist. A defiant response to our passing, it was a clear indication that we were now considered an annoyance. To the local residents watching from the shore, this type of behavior was considered commonplace. But for those of us touring the area for the first time, the site of an alligator charging noisily into a roadside pond was a glimpse at the raw power that defines this magnificent creature.

Of course, there are other missiles that point skyward on Florida's Space Coast from time to time and it is also a significant part of the charm found in this part of the sunshine state.

Cocoa Beach, Melbourne and the Kennedy Space Center have welcomed visitors for many years with a diverse mixture of natural beauty, high tech wizardry and a surfer dude atmosphere. A place to relax and let loose, it's high on the desirability meter.

Less than an hour drive from Orlando, The Inn at Cocoa Beach would be my place of residence while visiting this area. A European-styled hotel located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, it offers spacious, individually decorated rooms, many having large balconies overlooking the shoreline.

During the day, the beach is packed with umbrellas and sun screen lathered bodies. Old and young soak up the heat, taking breaks to cool off in the warm ocean water. At night, the stars come out over the Atlantic while couples stroll along the shore or find a secluded place in which to throw down a blanket.

The atmosphere at the hotel is both casual and friendly. Karen Simpler, the owner, has created the perfect location from which to sample the best of Florida's Space Coast. Under the watchful eye of Innkeepers Lucian & Dirk Oldenburg, guests are treated as family and provided with a comfortable place to relax on a weekend getaway or stay for week or two.

Breakfast is served in the spacious and bright common room, with easy access to the rear deck and lawn. Warm muffins, specialty breads and fruit along with a great cup of coffee greet guests in the morning. Staff is always close by and ready with a smile. Second helpings were never a problem, though with all the dining choices available in the area, it was important to resist the urge to splurge at the start of each day.

A short stroll from the hotel is the Ron Jon Surf Shop. Open 24 hours a day, it provides the Cocoa Beach crowd with the perfect setting for buying the latest swim and surf clothing and accessories. A Florida institution, this surfing megaplex is also the place to sign up for lessons at the Ron Jon Surf School, (formerly the Cocoa Beach Surfing School).

Beginner or novice, it never hurts to take a lesson or two from a pro. Then again, maybe it hurts a little bit, but the pain is only momentary, much like the amount of time you will spend actually standing on the surf board.

Surfing is definitely one of those things that looks easier than it really is. The Beach Boys sang, "Catch a wave and your sitting on top of the world". For me it was catch my breath and hope the next wave doesn't pound me into the ocean floor before I can flop back on top of my board and head towards open water.

Needless to say, the instructors at the surf school are extremely patient and very talented. They have also mastered the technique of keeping things simple while standing in the middle of cresting waves. By the end of an hour, I was actually able to ride the board successfully for more than a few seconds, (I think I counted to five once) and I felt vindicated for all my previous successful attempts at looking like a complete surfer nerd.

A visit to Florida's Space Coast wouldn't be complete without a tour of two "must see" destinations; the Brevard Zoo and the Kennedy Space Center.

A community built attraction located in nearby Melbourne; the Brevard Zoo is divided into several unique exhibits. Expedition Africa is a visit into the wilds of this magnificent continent. We opted for the guided kayak tour as the best way to witness the beauty of the manmade setting. Here graceful giraffes walk alongside as partners paddle together up a lazy river. Close to the water, antelope and gazelle graze in the grass, while off in the distance white rhinos recline under trees, always alert to our passing.

Most recently the zoo has played host to a brand new baby male Masi giraffe. Born March 15, 2006 he is the first baby for his six year old mother Johari.

Melbourne, Florida is also recognized for its distinctive Main Street business district. Here small town America is alive and well, as art galleries mingle with one-of-a-kind clothing shops and even a general store. Fine dining is never far away, with restaurants such as the Island Pasta Company serving excellent food in an intimate and friendly environment.

A short drive from Cocoa Beach is a significant place to visit for those of us having grown up in the space race era. The Kennedy Space Center is a fascinating attraction to experience firsthand. On arrival, it has a Disney-like feel to the surroundings. The main difference here obviously is that unlike nearby Disney World, everything at the space center is real.

Guests walk casually through an exhibit that marks the genesis of the space program, with displays featuring the late President John F. Kennedy and video footage of his empowering speech to reach for the moon.

Boy on one-sixth gravity chair

Moments later, I found myself standing in the Apollo/Saturn V Center, a reproduction of command control from the original space program of the 60's. Here we watched the final countdown as a Saturn rocket launched into space to the cheers of the audience. At the completion of this event, doors swung open and we were ushered into the IMAX theatre presentation entitled the "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D". Hosted by Tom Hanks, it took us on a trip into space with up close footage of what it must be like to land and live on the moon.

Exiting the theatre, we were confronted by a massive Saturn V rocket and thrilled at the opportunity to touch a real moon rock, soaking in the rich history of the space program and the men and woman astronauts who wrote their names in the stars.

With so much to see and do in Florida's Space Coast, it is impossible not to find something that will keep each member of the family entertained for days on end. Top it off with an airboat ride at the Lone Cabbage Fish Camp and the sight of dolphins playing in the ocean alongside the four-lane highway and you have the perfect mix of sun and fun activities for all. It's enough to make even an old alligator smile.

IF YOU GO....

The Inn at Cocoa Beach
4300 Ocean Blvd.
Cocoa Beach, Florida
32931
Phone: 321.799.3460
Toll free: 800.343.5307
www.theinnatcocoabeach.com

Ron Jon Surf Shop
"One -Of-A-Kind"
4151 N. Atlantic Ave.
Cocoa Beach, FL 32931
Phone: 321.799.8888
www.ronjons.com

Brevard Zoo
8225 North Wickham Road,
Melbourne, FL 32940
www.brevardzoo.org

Kennedy Space Center
FL 32899
Phone: 321.449.4444
www.KennedySpaceCenter.com