Florida’s Space Coast is 3-2-1 Relax!

While Ottawa’s mayor is working hard to bring more direct flights to Ottawa, one carrier flies nonstop to sunny Florida, meaning you can escape landlocked Ottawa for the sand and surf of the sunshine state in three and a half hours.

Our flight to Orlando was filled with vacationers excitedly comparing notes and reviewing the details of their plans to tackle the thrills and crowds—a whopping 74 million in 2022—that flock to the theme parks of central Florida. Instead, our plan was to bypass America’s most visited destination by renting a car and heading to the coast—the Space Coast, to be precise.

Home to the Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, the Space Coast continues to launch rockets out over the Atlantic Ocean more regularly than you would think; there were two the week we visited. The 72 miles of beach along the coast make for great front-row seating. When John Glenn rocketed to the moon in 1962, 75,000 people watched from the sand on Cocoa Beach.


The Kennedy Space Centre

To get even closer, visit the Kennedy Space Center. The expansive space museum complex is an exciting spot to take in a launch. You can stand in the Rocket Garden and look up over the treetops to see a rocket take off or purchase an added ‘launch viewing package’ that includes a seat in the bleachers in sight of the launch pad and an expert commentator. These tickets are generally available for crewed missions, like Artemis, not for uncrewed missions, like satellites and supply runs to the International Space Station.

A visit to the Kennedy Space Center is a must, whether your trip dates coincide with a launch or not; after all, you are on the Space Coast. When you go, plan to spend a full day. The Kennedy Space Center is a well-oiled machine, and everything runs smoothly, you could almost say, with military precision. The space program was once funded by the government, but these days, it’s funded by visitor ticket sales. The complex is enormous, but the signage and helpful staff will ensure you don’t get lost.

Apollo/Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center
ABOVE: It is an incredible experience visiting the Apollo/Saturn V Center, seeing the Saturn V rocket and reliving the achievements of the men and women who turned the impossible into reality.

The space shuttle program might have ended in 2011, but the Kennedy Space Centre remains an active spaceport with a commercial space program, which sends research experiments and supplies to the International Space Station and the Artemis mission, with its goal of sending a crew to the moon.

We visited in mid-April, and although the park appeared busy, winding back and forth through the maze of crowd control barriers to join the short lineups was an indicator of just how busy it must get during the peak season, which runs from November to February, March to April and basically coincides with school holidays.

There is so much to see and do that a little pre-planning is wise. We purchased the add-on ‘Chat With An Astronaut’ and organized our day around it. We took the bus to the Apollo/Saturn V Center and marvelled at the full-size rocket with the tiny passenger capsule and listened to first-hand accounts from holographs of astronauts.

Astronaut Robert J. Cenker
ABOVE: Payload specialist Robert J. Cenker flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia, Mission 61-C. He is seen here taking questions from the audience.

Back at the visitor complex, we were part of an intimate group that met astronaut Robert J. Cenker, a payload specialist who flew on the space shuttle Columbia. Cenker was a civilian engineer at RCA/GE’s Astro Space Division who was selected to join NASA’s space shuttle program. Part of the ‘Chat With An Astronaut’ experience is the audience Q&A. Cenker was great with both children and adults, sharing his fascinating experiences and stories of his service at NASA and answering their questions.

A great question came from a young man who wondered what the coolest thing Cenker had experienced in space was. “Watching a thunderstorm over Africa” was his answer. He explained that today, there is lots of footage from space, but when he was orbiting the Earth 38 years ago, he was unprepared for just how marvellous and magical the view was. He said that he would like to go back to space simply to find out how long it would take for him to get bored looking out of the window.

Space Shuttle Atlantis Centre
ABOVE: After a short video, the wall opens to reveal the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which appears to hover, its payload doors open, right in front of you. It is quite incredible to get up so close to this magnificent spacecraft.

After the astronaut encounter, we headed to the Space Shuttle Atlantis Centre, the Astronaut Hall of Fame and left with a whole new appreciation of the incredible ingenuity and exceptionalism of the individuals involved in John F. Kennedy’s dream to take people to the moon.


Cocoa Beach
ABOVE: Cocoa Beach began as a small beach community before becoming home to the families of NASA employees. Today, is a family-friendly destination that retains its beach-vide roots.

Cocoa Beach and Surfing

In addition to all things rockets, the Space Coast is famous for surfing. The central Florida beach community of Cocoa Beach has produced some of the best surfers, like 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, and apparently, no matter the season, the swells are surf-worthy, even at Christmas when the Surfing Santas festival takes to the water.

Surf lovers can get decked out with all the gear at Ron Jon. The surf shop has multiple U.S. locations, but the Cocoa Beach store is the largest, at a whopping 52,000 square feet, and is open 24 hours a day.

There is also the Ron Jon Surf School, which is run independently from the store, and the Florida Surf Museum. The small non-profit museum located across the street is worth a visit. The $2 entrance fee means that each time you visit, you won’t think twice about dropping in to see their continually changing exhibits. The museum also has a website that is loaded with information and the history of surfing in Florida.

Since the 1960s, the beach community has been hosting an annual Easter Surfing Festival at the municipal pier that extends 800 feet out into the water. On the day we visited, the security was adamant that a water bottle was not permitted on the pier even though it was empty. Instead, we headed for the beach and went for a swim among the surfers and boogie boarders.


A Day Away Kayaking
ABOVE: As dusk falls, each dip of your paddle causes the dinoflagellates and comb jellies to illuminate the water around you. (PHOTO: Courtesy A Day Away Kayaking)


Cape Canaveral is the mecca for space enthusiasts, but it is also home to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 140,000 acre National Wildlife Refuge on the barrier island that is home to 90 per cent of sea turtle nests in America. Get out on the water with A Day Away Kayak Tours. Our guide for the Sunset Bioluminescence Tour was Sammi, a student at a local Florida university. She explained how the shallow, calm waters of the refuge attract dolphin and shark calves who are learning the ropes. It is also the wintering ground of Manatees and a multitude of migratory birds. Our two-hour paddle was a trip highlight, and after the sunset, we marvelled at the dinoflagellate and comb jellies — glow-in-the-dark jelly-like creatures— that lit up in the water with every paddle stroke.


ABOVE: Many of Valiant Air Command’s refurbished planes, like this Douglas C-47 Skytrain, are regularly flown at airshows.


The greater Cocoa Beach area is part of Bravard County, which is home to a multitude of museums including The Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum, the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum, Larry E. Smedley National Vietnam War Museum, U.S. Space Walk Museum, the Museum of Dinosaurs and Ancient Cultures plus art museum and historical homes that the county has converted to museums.

We spent the better part of a day at the Valiant Air Command Warbirds Museum in neighbouring Titusville, a non-profit museum run by retired U.S. Air Force pilots dedicated to preserving historical aircraft and commemorating the stories of the men and women who flew them. Valiant Air Command was a phenomenal and unexpected gem that, like the Kennedy Space Center, is a must-see when you visit the area.


The Dixie Crossroads in Titusville, Florida.
ABOVE: The Dixie Crossroads serves local caught seafood with platers available in every price range. The guest book held by R. Shrimp includes names from around the globe.

Where to Eat

On route to kayaking at Merrit Island, we stopped at Dixie Crossroad.  The northeast coast of Florida is known for its shrimp, and Dixie Crossroad has been serving them up since the early 1980s. What began as a takeout window has grown to a 450-seat restaurant that continues to offer rock shrimp, which it is famous for. The rock shrimp have a super hard shell and tastes more like lobster. Once considered a junk catch, the restaurant’s owner devised a machine to split the little shrimp and has been serving them ever since.

While you decide between the rock shrimp, white shrimp, royal red shrimp, pink shrimp, golden brown shrimp or any of the other items on their enormous menu, the waitress delivers a basket of corn fritters that look like Timbits but taste like cornbread with a dusting of powdered sugar. Of course, we tried the shrimp, opting for a combination of royal reds and rock shrimp. The freshness and taste of locally caught shrimp can’t be beat.

ABOVE: (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) Cocoa Beach Fish Camp Grill, The Sandbar Sports Grill, Long Doggers, and breakfast at the Hilton Garden Inn Cocoa Beach Oceanfront.

In Cocoa Beach, we lunched at Long Doggers, a local coastal restaurant with a laid-back atmosphere, good food, and daily specials. Our server, Amanda, made us feel like locals and told us about the restaurant’s annual summer Beachside Bash music festival. Employees of its five locations are admitted for free, while the general public pays an entrance fee.

Cocoa Beach Fish Camp Grill is a family-style restaurant with incredible daily specials. We missed the 2 p.m.- 5 p.m. happy hour but took advantage of their Tuesday half-price rib and half-price bottles of wine.

The Sandbar Sports Grill is a fun spot that backs onto the beach. It is super casual, perfect for happy hour. When you are there, grab some tacos and wash them down with a margarita.


Hilton Garden Inn Cocoa Beach Oceanfront
ABOVE: The name says it all — the Hilton Garden Inn Cocoa Beach Oceanfront back onto the expansive public beach.

Where to Stay

Cocoa Beach is jammed full of hotel options. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Cocoa Beach Oceanfront. The hotel lobby, restaurant and bar area have a modern beachy vibe.There is a nice outdoor pool with lots of seating, a pool bar and beach access. We enjoyed breakfast each morning at the hotel before heading off to explore.

The beach at the hotel simply wonderful. Loungers and umbrellas can be rented daily, and there is plenty of space for kids to run and play. The Hilton Garden Inn Cocoa Beach Oceanfront is a great base for exploring the Space Coast, for families looking for some beach time, a girls’ weekends, even a destination event.

The hotel’s location offers easy access on and off the barrier island, and despite the car rental agency wanting to charge $90 a week to cover tolls (we recommend you take a pass on that and save the money!). We did not encounter any tolls heading northeast to Cape Canaveral or the wildlife refuge on Merrit Island. We paid about $6 in total each way to and from the airport in Orlando. If you opt to do the same, make sure to have cash on hand. The toll operators can give change, but they do not accept any other forms of payment.

For more information on travel to Cocoa Beach, visit Space Coast | OFFICIAL Travel & Tourism Guide

Cocoa Beach

Header image: A drone shot of a small portion of the 72 miles of beach on the Space Coast. (PHOTO: CREDIT SPACE COAST OFFICE OF TOURISM)