CENTRAL EAST FLORIDA:
The Ultimate Journey

BY KEVIN FRITZ

Information on CentralEast Florida

The birthplace of modern racing, two of the country's most renowned beaches, and home to the American space program is just the beginning of an exhilarating journey that awaits you in Central East Florida. An area that stretches approximately 175 miles from the jam-packed adventures in world-famous Daytona Beach to the quiet, sport fishing town of Stuart to the south, this slice of Florida is where many Sunshine State memories have been captured for years. Offering both family fun and romantic getaways, you can find everything you're looking for on Florida's eastern central coast.

WHAT'S NEW

The permanent home of Space Shuttle Atlantis will open at John F. Kennedy Space Center in July 2013 on the Space Coast. The $100-million, six-story-tall exhibit will encompass some 65,000 square feet. Space Shuttle Atlantis' legacy includes 32 missions, traveling 120,650,907 miles.

Atlantis will be on display at an angle with its 60-foot-long payload bay doors open as if it were flying high above Earth. Guests can walk around the entire exterior of the shuttle to take in its majesty. Test your skills at grabbing satellites with the exhibit's interactive activities and simulators.

The exhibit includes displays on the numerous servicing missions space shuttles conducted on the Hubble Space Telescope, and explanations on how the International Space Station was assembled in orbit by Atlantis and the rest of the fleet.

Even though the shuttle program has been retired, observing a rocket launch first-hand is still an option at the Space Center. Commercial and U.S. government rockets lift off into the wild blue yonder throughout the year so check the KSC website before finalizing your plans.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

If you've never seen a sea cow, the Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce gives you that chance at Moore's Creek. Note that the best time for viewing these 10-foot-long, graceful mammals is during the winter months as they seek warmer waters.

Named one of the top 100 small art towns in America, New Smyrna Beach hosts an array of art festivals and is home to the Atlantic Center for the Arts, where exhibitions and events are held throughout the year. Stroll down Flagler Avenue as part of Art Walks that take place throughout the year, or make your own trek in and out of its famed galleries such as Galleria Di Vetro and its one-of-kind glasswork.

Mel Fisher's Treasure Museum in Sebastian is a favorite with the kids—and adults—as displays of salvaged coins and weapons from a Spanish fleet that wrecked off the coast in 1715 tell the story of a time long gone by.

Is it an attraction or a museum? The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is one of the most extraordinary, thrilling family getaways in Florida. Be greeted by real astronauts who walk the grounds and answer questions as you marvel at the size and magnitude of the rockets on display in the "Rocket Garden." You can crawl through a model of the International Space Station, and many guests happily strain their necks in wonder of the five-story screens in two IMAX theaters delighting viewers with actual footage shot by NASA astronauts during missions.

Inland, the Athens Theatre in DeLand is said to be a "jewel of Italian Renaissance architecture." Designed in 1921, the theater offers film festivals, classic movies, independent art films, concerts, dramas, musicals and other live performances.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Undisturbed Hutchinson Island invites you to walk, drive, bike, or ride horseback on its 21 miles of pristine coastline located just east of Port St. Lucie. Here you can soak in the island life, relaxing at beachside restaurants and tiki bars, such as Latitude, and experiencing old-Florida-style hotels. This barrier island is only a couple miles from the mainland, but feels like it's worlds apart.

Although "The Birthplace of Speed" is a moniker for Ormond Beach just north of Daytona Beach, the latter city has become the racecar mecca, highlighted by the Daytona International Speedway, which hosts NASCAR's exalted Daytona 500. But it's Daytona USA at the Speedway that offers year-round activities for racing fans of all ages. Work with a pit crew, drive a simulated racecar, or if you are really up for a thrill, ride in a racecar driven by a professional instructor at speeds exceeding 160 mph.

Possibly the most famous sun 'n' fun location of its kind in the world, the Ron Jon Surf Shop first opened in Cocoa Beach in 1963. Today, the four-level, two-acre surfer's paradise is flush with sportswear and beach gear. And don't worry about running late—it's open 24 hours a day.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

Vero Beach has a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous, but in reality anyone can enjoy this well-to-do community. Because it is located in a climatic transition zone, aged oak trees and pine forests blend with majestic palms and floral blooms. Be sure to sample or purchase some fresh, sumptuous juice on your visit. The area is recognized as the "Citrus Capital of the World," and tenders some of the most premium, hand-picked Indian River citrus you will find anywhere.

Historic DeLand transforms you to a place where southern hospitality is still the norm. Founded in 1876, the city is home to Stetson University, and gift shops and restaurants intermingle in the downtown district with a sense of rich heritage and culture.

The Cocoa Beach area is likely the destination offering the most bang for a diverse vacation in Central East Florida. The surfing capital of the east coast and home to many surfing champions, this beach town was first made popular by the television show I Dream of Jeannie. You can even take a drive down I Dream of Jeannie Lane. Watch a rocket launch from the beach, learn to surf from some of the best in world or take a quiet kayak journey into the Banana River Lagoon. Cocoa Beach is only seven miles from Port Canaveral, 12 miles from Kennedy Space Center, and less than 20 miles to the Brevard Zoo.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The Cove on Port Canaveral's waterfront is not just for those waiting on a cruise ship to disembark. Fresh seafood abounds as do a multitude of bars, most of which offer live music. At Rusty's Seafood & Oyster Bar, indulge in oysters, peel-and-eat shrimp, mussels, or sample the bacon-wrapped sea scallops. Dine on the outside patio overlooking the water or find a stool at the full-service bar and watch as the bartenders shuck your fresh oysters.

Daytona Beach is home to whatever your palate craves, but is known for its casual seafood restaurants, live music, high-energy clubs and more. Check out the Oyster Pub located right on the beach—it's the city's largest oyster and sports bar. The famed Ocean Deck Restaurant & Beach Club features deck seating, beach parties and pig roasts in the summer. Specialties include the Bread Bowl Clam Chowder and the Rasta Fish Dip.

Capt. Hiram's has been serving up the freshest seafood at its restaurant on the Indian River in Sebastian for more than 20 years. Try the Lump Crab Cake Sandwich, an original authentic Maryland recipe served with Abaco aioli. Part of a quintessential beach resort, it also features the Bahamian-style SandBar with live music seven nights a week.

Shutters at Disney's Vero Beach Resort offers American food in a casual, family setting. The restaurant's vibe is old-Florida tropical with its ceiling-high windows, wood beams, oversized shutters, and glass-enclosed porch. You'll love the Surfside Seafood Dinner Buffet.

GREAT OUTDOORS

One of the premier saltwater fishing spots on Florida's east coast, Sebastian Inlet is popular for catching snook, redfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel. Three miles of beaches are buffered by waterfront pavilions, picnic areas and full-facility campsites.

Off the shores of Sebastian in the Indian River Lagoon, Pelican Island, the first federal-designated wildlife refuge in the United States, is accessible by a public viewing area to watch tropical birds in their natural habitat. You can also navigate around the island by renting a boat, kayak, canoe or personal watercraft from local companies offering guided tours. Thirty-plus species of birds use Pelican Island as a rookery, roost or feeding ground.

Described as an overlay to NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is 140,000 acres of coastal dunes, saltwater estuaries, marshes, scrub, pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks, creating an ecosystem for more than 1,500 kinds of plants and animals. It is home to more federally endangered species than any other refuge in the United States. Take the Black Point Wildlife Drive or walk the Scrub Ridge Trail.

Since 1938, Indian Hills Golf Course has been challenging golf enthusiasts in Fort Pierce. Indian Hills also offers quality instruction by PGA professionals, which include private instructions, group lessons and junior golf instruction. Or check out nearby Port St. Lucie PGA Village, featuring three championship golf courses and a museum.

In March, the crack of the bat beckons you to the annual rite of Spring Training. Take in a game at Port St. Lucie's Digital Domain Park, which plays host to Major League Baseball's New York Mets or at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, home of the Washington Nationals.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

Scores of small independent shops in Vero Beach showcase items that cannot be found elsewhere. Known for its upscale boutiques in which to find that perfect gift or treasure, men's and women's apparel shops are also popular stops to add some fun to your wardrobe.

For the charm of historic Florida, shopping along Flagler Avenue and Canal Street in New Smyrna Beach is a place to stroll and explore unique wares for sale.

If surf and skate shops are more up your alley, the Cocoa Beach area features at least a dozen such shops that dot the Space Coast town and adjoining Indialantic and Merritt Island. There is also no shortage of clothing boutiques and kitchy gift shops.

SCENIC DRIVE

The Ormond Scenic Loop & Trail is a 30-mile double loop that offers gorgeous views of natural scenery along the coast. The road provides access to the Atlantic Ocean as well as state, city and county parks offering trails, boating, fishing, hiking, swimming and bicycling. You may even see an offshore whale or dolphin!

FAMILY ACTIVITIES

At DeLeon Springs State Park, north of DeLand, griddle your own pancakes at your table at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill. Each table has a griddle and wait staff brings you pitchers of homemade pancake batter and all the fixings for a delicious, fun meal. After filling up on pancakes, take an eco/history boat tour of the Spring Garden Run. Keep an eye out for alligators, otters, bald eagles and wading birds. 

West of DeLand, board a boat to Hontoon Island State Park on the St. Johns River. The island is accessible only by private boat or park ferry. Your family can observe evidence of Native American habitation while hiking through the park. Picnic areas include tables, grills and a playground.

In Melbourne, the Brevard Zoo opened five years ago to the enjoyment of all ages. It offers unique perspectives, such as a behind-the-scenes tour, treetop excursions, giraffe feeding and guided kayaking tours through "Expedition Africa."

FESTIVALS AND EVENTS

Seafood is king from Ormond Beach to Stuart in East Central Florida, offering mouth-watering, fresh-from-the-sea dishes for the whole family.

Looking for something out of the ordinary? Every January in Fellsmere, an historic small town south of Melbourne, the Frog Leg Festival attracts thousands of people to sample its unique foods, including gator tail. All proceeds benefit children's recreational programs. There's plenty to do outside of eating including live entertainment and a midway.

For almost 40 years, the Grant Seafood Festival has attracted as many as 50,000 people a year to this two-day event in February just south of Melbourne on the Treasure Coast. Delicious seafood is freshly prepared on the spot by local community volunteers at what has become one of the largest and longest-running festivals of its kind in the Southeast United States.

Two of the largest events in Central East Florida are both held in Daytona Beach. In March, Bike Week attracts thousands annually as does the Daytona 500 in February. Dating back to 1937, Bike Week is now a 10-day festival with hundreds of events for motorcycle enthusiasts. A smaller, yet no less energetic version of the event called Biketoberfest is held in October. The Daytona 500, dubbed "The Great American Race," has been burning up the track at the Daytona International Speedway for more than 50 years.

INSIDER'S TIP

Discover the Daytona Beach area by trolley. It's great family entertainment and free one-day passes are available at area hotels. The City Line Trolley travels from Ormond Beach to Daytona Beach Shores, with excursions covering historic Beach Street and the Halifax Harbor Marina.

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