CENTRAL EAST FLORIDA:
Pace YOURSELF

BY SUSAN MACCALLUM-WHITCOMB

Central East Florida Visitors Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

The central east coast—running for some 175 miles from the Daytona Beach area south to the Palm Beach County line—is long and slim. But don't be fooled: the range of vacation opportunities it offers is surprisingly broad. Sand and sea, rockets and racecars, gentle eco activities and adrenaline-fueled adventures: they're all here. So whether you're aiming to shift into high gear or come to a full stop, this region really delivers.

SLOW DOWN

No wonder this part of the Sunshine State tempts vacationers who long to simply park themselves on a beach. After all, it features uninterrupted miles of white sand on both the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway. Some stretches, flanked by resort hotels and condos, give convenient access to urban amenities; others, edged only by grass-tufted dunes, are deserted enough to satisfy Survivor fans. Yet on-the-water activities such as fishing, boating and surfing are always close at hand when cooling off is desired.

Since humans aren't the only ones attracted to the waterfront, easy animal encounters are widely available too. You might witness bottle-nosed dolphins cavorting offshore; or, April through October, spy supersized sea turtles nesting right on the sand. At the sprawling Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, visitors can glimpse cool critters such as alligators and endangered manatees. Due to this barrier island's strategic position on the Atlantic Flyway, hundreds of avian species flock in making it a hot spot for birdwatching as well.

GET REVVED UP

Ironically, the slow-paced Merritt Island retreat was designed as a buffer zone for the supersonic Kennedy Space Center, one of Florida's most stellar attractions. The aeronautical equipment displayed at its Visitor Complex (ranging from a Saturn V rocket to an Apollo command module) is reason enough to visit. But the venue also manages to package science and history with Disneyesque pizzazz, creating virtual experiences such as mock moon walks, shuttle liftoffs and wild drives across Mars.

Racier options await north of the Space Coast in Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach. The former is dubbed "The Birthplace of Speed" thanks to pioneering carmakers Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet who staged the original automobile races there. The latter is synonymous with the Daytona International Speedway, which annually hosts NASCAR's most recognizable race—the Daytona 500. With choices like that, isn't it time you green-lighted a Central East Florida vacation?

MUST SEE, MUST DO

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

Erected in 1962, funky Cocoa Beach Pier has restaurants, bars, shops and live entertainment. It's also the epicenter of Floridian surf culture and the perfect place to watch surfers in action.

Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is the tallest in Florida and one of the oldest in the country. Aside from panoramic views, the 175-foot National Historic Landmark features a themed museum.

The Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach and Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach are top picks for the visual and performing arts respectively.

Strap into an airboat at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp. After whooshing through marshes and cypress swamps in search of alligators, sample gator nuggets at the dockside restaurant.

FUN FOR FAMILIES

Cool pools, creative programs and other on-site perks make Disney's Vero Beach Resort, the Wyndham Ocean Walk Resort in Daytona Beach and the Ron Jon Cape Caribe Resort near Cocoa Beach family attractions in their own right.

Melbourne's Brevard Zoo is "the small zoo that does big things." Kids can go eye-to-eye with giraffes, kayak near rhinos, hand-feed exotic birds, take a behind-the-scenes tour or kick back in the playground.

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

THE SPORTS SCENE

The Boys of Summer arrive each spring for Major League Baseball's pre-season training. March through early April catch the Washington Nationals at the Space Coast Stadium in Viera and the New York Mets at Digital Domain Park in Port St. Lucie.

The Port St. Lucie PGA Village is among Florida's top golf destinations. Along with three championship courses designed by Tom Fazio and Pete Dye, it's home to a PGA golf school and the PGA Museum of Golf.

Can't make any of NASCAR's big events? Take a tour of Daytona International Speedway or take the wheel of a racecar yourself on a Richard Petty Driving Experience.

ECO ADVENTURES

In June and July, Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge runs free "turtle watches" as does Sebastian Inlet State Park and South Hutchinson Island's College of Turtle Knowledge.

The Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce and manatee viewing platform on Merritt Island provide close-up looks at Florida's state marine mammal.

On paddling excursions—like those organized by A Day Away Kayak Tours—you might observe anything from ospreys and alligators to flying mullets and bioluminescent marine life.

WHAT'S NEW

Now that the shuttle program is history, the Atlantis will go on display at the Kennedy Space Center in 2013. In the meantime, you can ogle rockets, robots and moon rocks; then go out to lunch with an astronaut or out to launch on a shuttle simulator.

The Club Med Sandpiper Bay in Port St. Lucie has re-emerged following a $30-million extreme makeover. It is now a 4-Trident premium resort—and America's only all-inclusive.

Attention Tarzan wannabes. The Brevard Zoo has opened a "Treetop Trek" complete with zip lines and an aerial obstacle course. Three networks with varying levels of difficulty ensure fun for all.

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