CENTRAL EAST FLORIDA:
Racing, Rockets, Beaches & More

BY SUSAN MACCALLUM-WHITCOMB

Central East Travel Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

In travel, just like in real estate, location matters and the Central East vacation region that extends 175 miles south from the Daytona Beach area to the Palm Beach County line is irrefutably prime landscape. It is also surprisingly diverse offering everything from high-gear holidays to family-oriented vacations, nature-based adventures and laid-back, lazy days on sunbaked beaches.

TAKING IT EASY

It's no wonder this part of the Sunshine State tempts vacationers who long to simply park themselves on a beach and soak up the sun. Uninterrupted miles of white sand rim the Atlantic Ocean where long stretches are flanked by resort hotels, condos and nearby urban amenities, while others are edged only by grass-tufted dunes. Beyond the shoreline, on-the-water activities include fishing, sailing, kayaking and surfing on some of the eastern seaboard's best breaking waves.

Since humans aren't the only ones attracted to the waterfront, eco opportunities are also widely available. Visitors often witness bottlenose dolphins cavorting just offshore, and from April through October, sea turtles nest on area beaches. The region's sprawling Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge serves as a veritable showcase for critters such as alligators and endangered manatees (fws.gov/merrittisland). Moreover, due to this barrier island's strategic position on the Atlantic Flyway, hundreds of avian species flock there annually making it a hot spot for birdwatchers.

FLORIDA'S SPACE COAST

Although they could not be more different, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge shares the island with one of Florida's top attractions: NASA's Kennedy Space Center (kennedyspacecenter.com). The aeronautical equipment displayed at its Visitor Complex (ranging from a Saturn V rocket to an Apollo command module) would alone be sufficient reason to visit. However, this family-friendly venue manages to package science and history with Disney-like pizzazz, creating virtual experiences that include taking a walk on the moon, driving across Mars, plus other exciting simulations related to outer space exploration. There are also opportunities to meet real live astronauts and tour the rocket launch area.

GET REVVED UP

North of the Space Coast (space-coast.com), Ormond Beach is deemed "The Birthplace of Speed" thanks largely to pioneer carmakers Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet who staged the first automobile races there. Next-door neighbor Daytona Beach is synonymous with the Daytona International Speedway, a world-famous venue that annually hosts NASCAR's most recognizable race—the Daytona 500 (daytonainternationalspeedway.com). There are also open-air tram tours of the track where the world's greatest race car drivers have competed.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Even in a state known for its stunning beaches, Canaveral National Seashore stands out. The pristine 24-mile preserve represents the longest undeveloped expanse on Florida's Atlantic coast (nps.gov/cana).

Twelve miles south of Daytona Beach, the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is the tallest in Florida and among the oldest in the country (ponceinlet.org). Many of the more than 100,000 people who visit it each year climb the 203 steps to the top. The lighthouse went out of official service in 1970 and in 1998 it was named a National Historic Landmark. Its surrounding grounds feature nautical displays, a comprehensive museum and several 19th-century buildings including simple dwellings that once housed lighthouse keepers and their families.

The Cocoa Beach Pier is a historical landmark and one of the most popular gathering spots on the Space Coast. Perched high above ocean waters, it is home to restaurants, bars, shops and live musical entertainment. Since 1962, the pier has been a magnet for celebrities, locals and visitors and it's also the epicenter of Floridian surf culture where there's no better vantage point for watching surfers catch the waves (cocoabeachpier.com).

The Port St. Lucie PGA Village is among Florida's top golf destinations. Along with a trio of championship courses designed by Tom Fazio and Pete Dye, it boasts a PGA golf school and the PGA Historical Center museum where the prestigious Ryder Cup is on display (pgavillage.com/stlucie).

For culture buffs, the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach (atlanticcenterforthearts.org) and the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach (peabodyauditorium.org) are among the region's top picks for the visual and performing arts respectively.

FUN FOR FAMILIES

Melbourne's Brevard Zoo is dubbed "the small zoo that does big things." Here, kids can go eye-to-eye with giraffes, kayak near rhinos, hand-feed exotic birds and frolic in the zoo's themed playground (brevardzoo.org).

The Charles and Linda Williams Children's Museum in Daytona Beach has engaging, educational, hands-on displays. It's part of the Museum of Arts & Sciences (a Smithsonian affiliate), which also houses a planetarium (moas.org).

Cool pools, creative programs and other on-site perks make Disney's Vero Beach Resort (disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts), the Wyndham Ocean Walk Resort in Daytona Beach (oceanwalk.com) and the Ron Jon Cape Caribe Resort near Cocoa Beach (ronjonresort.com) family attractions in their own right.

THE SPORTS SCENE

Speed Weeks are the region's signature sporting events. In 2011 the racing extravaganza at Daytona International Speedway begins with the Rolex 24-hour race in January and culminates with the renowned Daytona 500 in February (daytonainternationalspeedway.com).

The Boys of Summer go to bat every spring when Major League Baseball teams arrive for pre-season training. March through early April, visitors can catch the Washington Nationals at the Space Coast Stadium in Viera and the New York Mets at Digital Domain Park in Port St. Lucie (floridagrapefruitleague.com).

Visitors can sometimes get lucky and spot NBA superstar Vince Carter at his new restaurant in Daytona Beach just off LPGA Blvd. It's simply called Vince Carter's and features a main dining room, patio seating, sports grill, a VIP dining area called the Owner's Box, a wine/piano bar and several huge flat-screen televisions.

ECO ADVENTURES

The six-day Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival is held in Titusville in late January. It features field trips, seminars and ornithology workshops (spacecoastbirdingandwildlifefestival.org).

Manatees are high on every animal-spotter's wish list. The Manatee Observation and Education Center (manateecenter.com) in Fort Pierce and Manatee viewing platform on Merritt Island (fws.gov/merrittisland) provide close-up looks at these gentle giants.

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