CENTRAL EAST FLORIDA:
Recreation For Young and Old

BY KEVIN FRITZ

Central East Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Florida is known for its playgrounds and Central East Florida’s 175-mile stretch is one of the most exciting and diverse the state has to offer. From the historic town of Stuart in Martin County north to Ormond Beach, beaches co-mingle seamlessly with the nation’s space program, the birthplace of modern racing, attractions and ecosystems, which together make up Florida’s eastern central coast.

WHAT’S NEW

In Martin County, the new 48,000-square-foot, 53-year-old Elliott Museum has re-opened in Stuart after undergoing a $20-million renovation. Stuart also debuted a new water park called Sailfish Splash, featuring two waterslides and a children’s area.

The permanent home of Space Shuttle Atlantis opened in 2013 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on the Space Coast. This $100-million attraction covers 90,000 square feet, complete with more than 60 interactive displays documenting the story of the space shuttle program. The main attraction is Atlantis, displayed at a 43.21-degree angle with its 60-foot-long payload bay doors open as if it were flying high above Earth. A simulator lets visitors manipulate the Canada Arm, a full-scale replica of the original, which is exhibited at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. Angry Birds Space Encounter is also new at the Space Center and features seven exhibits for all ages.

Daytona Beach unveiled Waterpark at Daytona Lagoon, as well as its renovated Daytona Beach Pier, featuring Joe’s Crab Shack. A new rollercoaster is an exciting addition to the nearby Boardwalk’s growing list of thrill rides, which features a 100-foot Ferris wheel.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

If you’ve never seen a sea cow, the Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce provides that chance at Moore’s Creek. The best time to view these 10-foot-long, graceful mammals is during the winter when they seek warmer waters.

Also in Fort Pierce, the National Navy UDT-Seal Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated to Naval Special Warfare, welcomes 70,000 visitors per year. This is where the Navy trained frogmen for World War II for the infamous landing at Omaha Beach.

While in Fort Pierce, drop by the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit to view living models of coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass beds, providing a window to the state’s underwater world. A free, behind-the-scenes tour of the research station allows families to meet scientists and learn about their important marine research.

Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum in Sebastian is a favorite with kids—and adults. Displays of salvaged coins and weapons from a Spanish fleet, wrecked off the coast in 1715, tell the story of a time long ago.

At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, 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 or experience the five-story screens in two IMAX theaters delighting viewers with actual footage shot by NASA astronauts during missions.

South of Daytona Beach in Ponce Inlet, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, built in 1886, is the tallest lighthouse in Florida and one of the tallest masonry lighthouses in the country. Climb the 203 steps to the top of the 175-foot tower to enjoy spectacular views.

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 year-round. Stroll down Flagler Avenue as part of Art and Wine Walks, or browse through famed galleries such as Galleria Di Vetro and its one-of-kind glasswork.

Inland, the Athens Theatre in DeLand is said to be a “jewel of Italian Renaissance architecture.” Designed in 1921, the theatre showcases film festivals, classic movies, independent art films, concerts and other live performances.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

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.

While the US Space Shuttle program has been retired, NASA and private industry unmanned rockets continue to launch from the Kennedy Space Center, so check with the center for upcoming launches during your visit.

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. Year-round, Daytona USA at the Speedway offers activities for race 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.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

A bi-coastal community allowing you to catch the sunrise and sunset in the same day, Martin County offers the Sunshine State’s version of the Panama Canal—the only place in Florida where you can pass entirely through the state by water. Watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean while sunsets are best viewed at Port Mayaca on Lake Okeechobee.

Vero Beach has a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous, however anyone can enjoy this well-to-do community. Because it is located in a climatic transition zone, aged oak trees and pine forests blend effortlessly with majestic palms and floral blooms. The area is recognized as the “Citrus Capital of the World,” and tenders some of the most premium, hand-picked Indian River citrus you’ll find anywhere.

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, this beach town was 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.

Historic DeLand transports 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.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

Archie’s Seabreeze, a fixture in Fort Pierce since 1947, is known for great food, beer and wine, live music and dancing. Very casual and on the beach, Archie’s is a place y’all will feel at home.

Osceola Bistro in Vero Beach is all about fresh local food. The American-style bistro is owned and operated by Chef Christopher Bireley, who strives to purchase as many fresh ingredients from local farmers and fishermen as possible. Try the shrimp and grits, one of his most popular entrées.

At The Cove on Port Canaveral’s waterfront, fresh seafood abounds. At Rusty’s Seafood & Oyster Bar, indulge in oysters, peel-and-eat shrimp and mussels. 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.

Capt. Hirams 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.

For a change of pace, the Dolphin View Seafood Restaurant in New Smyrna Beach now offers dinner and scenic river cruises for only US$19.95 per person.

Daytona Beach is home to whatever your palate craves, but is known for its casual seafood restaurants, live music and high-energy clubs. Check out the Oyster Pub located right on the beach—it’s the city’s largest oyster and sports bar.

In DeLand, Cress Restaurant, named the top restaurant in Central Florida by Zagat in 2013, is owned by award-winning Chef Hari Pulapaka (a professor at Stetson University by day) and is only open evenings. Seafood, curry dishes, rabbit and ribeye dot the menu.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

In March, the crack of the bat beckons fans 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.

Since 1938, Indian Hills Golf Course has challenged golf enthusiasts in Fort Pierce. Indian Hills also offers quality instruction by PGA professionals, which includes 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.

Sport fishing is all the rage on the Central East coast. Stuart is known as the Sailfish Capital of the World for the many sailfish found in the ocean off Martin County. Another premier saltwater fishing spot on Florida’s east coast, Sebastian Inlet is popular for catching snook, redfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel.

Off the shores of Sebastian in the Indian River Lagoon, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, 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.

An overlay to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, 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.

For a unique experience you won’t soon forget, bioluminescent kayaking tours allow you to naturally light up the waterways on the Indian River. Whether it’s from a paddle, a hand or a fish, every movement generates white light through the water due to a natural phenomenon that makes organisms called dinoflagellates glow. The bioluminescent tour from Haulover Canal Launch is located 20 minutes east of Titusville.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

Known for its upscale boutiques and scores of small independent shops, Vero Beach’s Ocean Drive showcases items that cannot be found elsewhere. Deals can be scored at the Vero Beach Outlets, one of the largest outdoor malls on the Treasure Coast, where more than 80 retail stores cater to children, men, women and home fashions.

If surf and skate are more up your alley, the Cocoa Beach area features at least a dozen such shops that speckle the Space Coast town and adjoining Indialantic and Merritt Island.

For historic Florida charm, Flagler Avenue and Canal Street in New Smyrna Beach are made for strolling and exploring unique shops.

RECOMMENDED DRIVES

In Martin County, the Martin Grade is a 12-mile road shaded by a canopy of 100-year-old oaks surrounded by pastures, groves, swamps and woods.

The Ormond Scenic Loop & Trail is a 30-mile double loop that offers gorgeous views of natural scenery and homes from the 1930s and 40s along a tree-covered roadway. The road provides access to the Atlantic Ocean and parks offering trails, boating, fishing, hiking, swimming and bicycling.

FAMILY ACTIVITIES

In Melbourne, the Brevard Zoo features unique perspectives, such as a behind-the-scenes tour, treetop excursions, giraffe feeding and guided kayaking tours through “Expedition Africa."

At DeLeon Springs State Park north of DeLand, griddle your own pancakes at your table at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill. Each table has its own griddle and wait staff brings pitchers of homemade pancake batter and all the fixings for a delicious, fun meal. After filling up on ’cakes, 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 will witness evidence of Timucua Indian habitation as a result of the large shell mounds you’ll encounter while hiking through the park.

ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS

In Stuart, the centrally located Old Colorado Inn offers a choice of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and vacation rentals.

Vero Beach is where you’ll find the Costa d’Este Beach Resort, an exquisite oceanfront property owned by Gloria Estafan and her husband.

In Daytona Beach, check out the Shores Resort & Spa with its breathtaking views.

INSIDER’S TIP

For great family entertainment, discover the Daytona Beach area by trolley. The CityLine Trolley travels from Ormond Beach to Daytona Beach Shores, with excursions covering historic Beach Street and the Halifax Harbor Marina.

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