CENTRAL EAST FLORIDA:
STEEPED IN TRADITION

BY MELODY PITTMAN

Central East Florida Tourism Guide

Florida’s Central East region proves to be a big draw for families, art lovers, history buffs and beachgoers. Located on 175 beautiful miles of sandy beaches, its towns include family-favorite activities and vacation opportunities that won’t break the bank. Discover many beloved Florida classics as well as undiscovered areas unbeknown to most. Caution: You may fall in love with Florida.

ARTS AND CULTURE

In historic Fort Pierce you’ll find the only National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum. With exhibits ranging from hands-on equipment to rare objects from previous missions, this is one museum to which your kids will beg to return. Fort Pierce is also home to the nearly 100-year-old Sunrise Theatre for the Performing Arts, which hosts top-notch entertainers, comedy acts, musicians and performing artists.

Located in the middle of Central East Florida, Vero Beach has two very special venues. The Riverside Theatre runs six off-Broadway performances per season and a Comedy Club event on select weekends. Riverside’s 2017 highlights include Mame, Saturday Night Fever and Chicago and hosts four Premiere Lecture Series that are popular among locals. Second is the Vero Beach Museum of Art, which houses regional, state and national art exhibits. Admission is free on the last Saturday of the month.

Melbourne’s Eau Gallie Arts District is a cultural pearl that supports the arts through galleries, museums, local stores and antiques. You will find a combination of poets, dancers, potters and painters in this cute neighborhood. Commonly referred to as EGAD, it is home to Brevard County’s top fine art galleries and the Foosaner Art Museum. A noteworthy activity occurring in 2017 is EGAD Rocks, a series of musical festivities covering multiple genres built around the most popular events: April in Paris and Dog Days of Summer.

If you find yourself in Cocoa Beach, catch a show at the beautiful and famous Cocoa Village Playhouse, part of the Cocoa Beach community since 1924 and included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Situated between Cocoa Beach and Orlando, the award-winning main-street community of DeLand holds onto its historic past as it moves into modern times. DeLand is a thriving community full of pride and passion that is apparent by its numerous art murals, friendly patrons, shops and galleries. The Athens Theatre is a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance architecture, offering classic movies, independent films and live entertainment.

The Hub on Canal, in New Smyrna Beach (NSB), is unsurpassed for its individuality and original artworks. Nearly 80 artists convene in this contemporary exhibit hall, which doubles as a workspace where visitors can observe artists at work and buy directly from them. This is only one offering within the town’s four-block radius that makes up the Arts District filled with boutiques, galleries and cafés. Be sure to check out the Atlantic Center for the Arts, which draws aspiring artists from across the country to study dance, poetry, writing and painting and create unique unified experiences. They also have a free summer concert.

A newer artsy community is located in the greater Daytona Beach area. A visit to the Museum of Arts & Sciences (in association with the Smithsonian) gives you access to a train and railroad station exhibit, the Root Family collection of Coca Cola memorabilia, priceless Cuban and Chinese art displays, and the favorite giant ground sloth. For art, check out the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art, home to the largest collection of Florida-themed paintings in the world, with many dating back to the 1800s.

ATTRACTIONS

Fort Pierce’s Downtown Farmers’ Market is a big draw on Saturday mornings from 8 AM to noon, rain or shine, with local foods, crafts and artwork for sale. Live music is also featured. Come and see why this has been a crowd-pleaser for 19 years.

For family fun-filled activities in Melbourne, visit the Brevard Zoo or Andretti Thrill Park. The zoo houses monkeys, jaguars and kangaroos, plus you can kayak through 22 acres of wetlands. The Andretti Thrill Park includes batting cages, kiddie amusement rides, paddleboats, a large arcade and indoor Lazer Tag. Best of all, there are several go-cart tracks, one of which is restricted to fans with a valid driver’s license who wish to travel 40 miles per hour on a European-style course.

One of Florida’s most famous attractions is the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral. This 90,000-square-foot metropolis showcases all things related to the American space program. Browse astronaut uniforms and pay respects to the fallen heroes at the black granite Astronaut Memorial. A favorite activity is a buffet-style Lunch with an Astronaut in an air-conditioned setting, during which your host, a retired astronaut, shares some of his or her fondest memories via a slideshow. Following the meal, there’s time to have photos taken with the hosting celebrity. Be sure to check the center’s website for rocket launches.

The Ponce de Leon Lighthouse, Florida’s tallest, is located in the town of Ponce de Leon, slightly south of Daytona. It’s a great place to watch the sun set or catch a moonrise.

Feel the need for speed? Whether you are a devoted NASCAR fan or have no idea what all of the hype is about, the world’s first and only motorsports stadium, the Daytona International Speedway, will blow you away. Having just undergone a US$400-million renovation, there are tons of things to see and do. Book a 30-minute or a 90-minute VIP tour. NASCAR fans should sign up for the Richard Petty Experience, where they can drive on the track or be a passenger for laps with a professional driver. The Daytona International Speedway brings in millions of visitors annually.

BEACHES AND OUTDOOR GEMS

South of Stuart, the Jonathan Dickinson State Park offers awesome biking and hiking trails, ranging from normal to rugged terrain, mangroves and river swamps. Primitive campgrounds and water stations are available throughout the park. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the kayaking and boating experiences.

Have you ever dreamed of riding horseback on the beach? This experience becomes a reality on the beaches of Hutchinson Island and is just one of the gems to be enjoyed in St. Lucie County.

Sebastian Inlet State Park, 10 miles south of Melbourne Beach, is an excellent choice for family camping. Spread over more than 600 acres, the park is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail and offers myriad activities including swimming, surfing, geocaching and scuba diving.

Outside of Deltona, the St. Johns River Eco Tour invites passengers to tour the St. Johns River by boat. Once a main highway for trade and commerce, this river has been designated an American Heritage River. It is home to Florida native wildlife and tropical plants, making it perfect for photo ops.

The seaside community of New Smyrna Beach evokes an atmosphere of Old Florida in its sidewalk cafés, boutiques and charming B&Bs and boasts one of the finest beaches on the Atlantic coast. NSB provides a perfect venue for surfing, world-class fishing, boating and kayaking. And like Daytona Beach, cars are permitted to drive on 13 miles of hard-packed white-sand beaches found here.

ENTERTAINMENT

The first ever Okeechobee Fest took place in 2016 with headliners such as Robert Plant, Mumford and Sons and Skrillex. This four-day/night camping, music and arts festival welcomed more than 32,000 concert fans in 2016 and is scheduled to take place March 2–5 in 2017. The festival is ADA accessible.

The Treasure Coast’s Comic Con happens in September at the Port St. Lucie Civic Center. Meet fans from all areas of the comic world, buy new and used comics and spot celebrity guests.

Florida is a hot spot for gambling and the Fort Pierce Jai Alai and Poker facility will please those seeking thrills. The sport of jai alai dates back 400 years. Another option is Club 52, in Melbourne’s Greyhound Park, featuring poker, live racing and a simulcast of horse and greyhound racing from across the nation. Club 52 hosts a “laugh your aces off” comedy show every Saturday night. Guests must be 21 years old to enter either establishment.

Central East Florida’s premier music and arts entertainment center is the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne. Furnished with 2,016 seats, this 100,000-square-foot venue hosts musical, cultural and community events.

DeLand recently welcomed a newer sport, rugby. The Central Florida Warriors team is a member of the United States of American Rugby League (USARL). Games run June to August at the Spec Martin Municipal Stadium. The world-class Skydive DeLand facility attracts people from around the world. There are tandem jumps for non-professionals, where an experienced instructor uses a parachute system built for two and jumps with you. Skydive DeLand also offers an Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) course, an instructional program for beginners hoping to become skydivers.

The DAYTONA 500 attracts 40 of the world’s best drivers to compete in the biggest NASCAR event with the grandest purse. Dubbed the Great American Race, it’s the most important event on the annual racing calendar. The Jackie Robinson Ballpark, in Daytona, is home to the Daytona Tortugas baseball team, a Cincinnati Reds team affiliate. The premier Ladies’ Professional Golf Association (LPGA) headquarters, also located in Daytona, offers two four-star courses.

LGBT SCENE

Although Central East Florida’s LGBT offerings are not as plentiful as they are in other parts of Florida, the LGBT community in this area is rapidly growing and new activities are planned all the time.

Based out of Port St. Lucie, the non-profit organization Pride of the Treasure Coast strives to advance LGBT acceptance by playing a large role in the community and hosting numerous events throughout the year. Dining with the Stars is a fundraiser where attendees are treated to dinner and a celebrity impersonation show. For 12 years running, the non-profit has organized the annual highly anticipated PrideFest, which takes place at St. Lucie’s Civic Center in April. Admission is free and it is the Treasure Coast’s only pride festival. Pride of the Treasure Coast also regularly hosts family beach days and breakfasts.

Space Coast Pride is Brevard County’s LGBT group, founded in 2007. The Space Coast Pride Parade and Festival takes place in the Eau Gallie Arts District of Melbourne every September. Although the festival itself lasts only seven hours with live music, entertainment, food and a kids’ zone, festivities actually span an entire week and include events such as the Rainbow Run 5K, Disco Brunch, Cold Keg Nightclub Fundraiser, Colors Prom Party, Miss Space Coast Pride Pageant, Hangover Beach Party and a parade. This annual event draws people from around the world to Melbourne.

Another draw in Melbourne is the rather new Project Nebula meet up, a Space Coast LGBT community, which organizes events in an attempt to transform Florida’s culture and bring people together. It is a source of support and connection that meets at the Space Coast Wellness Center.

The Volusia Pride Festival has taken place at Old Fort Park in New Smyrna Beach since 2012. Two women (Lisa-Marie Mueller and Kristen Colesanti) had a dream for Volusia to organize a pride festival and, with the help of their community, they pulled off the first festival in just eight weeks. This new annual October event features food, entertainment and more than 70 vendors.

ROAD TRIPS

Located in Volusia County’s Port Orange, Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens combines a history, nature and garden visit all rolled into one.  The historic remains of the sugar cane refinery, leftover from the 1800s, is adorned with kitschy dinosaur statues throughout the park, ensuring fun for the entire family. The gardens are visually appealing, which is why many choose this site for marriage ceremonies. Bring a picnic lunch and make a day of it. Donations are accepted.

Take a trip to the Stetson Mansion in DeLand. This gorgeous Victorian mansion was the winter home of the famous milliner  John B. Stetson and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tour this spectacular home and note the intricate parquet floors and more than 10,000 sparkling lead-glass windowpanes.

Visit Titusville and explore the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum, which displays a collection of aircraft carriers and artifacts of all types from around the world, from pre-World War I to the present.

A road trip for conservationists must definitely include the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a 20-mile stretch between Melbourne Beach and Wabasso. Best known for sea turtle conservation, this area is a natural habitat for 25 to 35 percent of all loggerhead and green sea turtle nests in the United States. It’s also a nesting area for leatherback turtles, a very rare kind of sea turtle.

SHOPPING

The adorable town of Stuart is ideal for browsing boutiques and dining. From beach-themed to upscale kitchen shops, it is a favorite destination for tourists and locals alike. You’re sure to find clothing, shoes, jewelry and handmade arts and crafts.

When it comes to shopping in Central East Florida, Vero Beach is the crème de la crème. Ritzy boutiques on Ocean Drive are filled with items to make you ooh and aah. Nearby Miracle Mile features shopping venues such as Bark Avenue (goodies for your pet), Chico’s and Cottonways. The Vero Beach Book Store is one of the best independent bookstores in the state, due to its jam-packed calendar full of best-selling author signings and presentations.

Florida is renowned for outlet shopping and one of the best is in Vero Beach. Conveniently located at exit 147 off I-95, the Vero Beach Outlets showcases 60 designer and brand-name shops, including Williams Sonoma, Coach, Banana Republic and an expanded Restoration Hardware.

Avenue Viera, on the outskirts of Melbourne, is a pleasant outdoor shopping mall flanked with specialty restaurants, shops and a huge Carmike Cinemas movie theater on palm tree-lined sidewalks. Visit all the chain store biggies such as Kohl’s, Cost Plus World Market and Books A Million.

Historic downtown Melbourne’s main street, East New Haven, is three blocks of fun packed with international eye-catching delights, boutiques, consignment shops and antique stores. Better yet, most are dog-friendly.

Looking for a unique shopping experience? Cocoa Beach’s historic tree-lined Cocoa Village is home to one-of-a-kind shops, souvenirs and other points of interest. In this surfers’ paradise, be sure to check out the Ron Jon Surf Shop, a Cocoa Beach landmark and the largest surfing shop in the world.

New Smyrna Beach offers exceptional shopping and art galleries along both Flagler Avenue and Canal Street. The route stretches from the river to the ocean and is a wonderful reminder of old-school Florida. Note the Flagler Walk of Fame, made up of engraved bricks along the sidewalk.

Daytona Beach’s famous Boardwalk is lined with funky shops while the historic downtown offers a bounty of distinctive boutiques and restaurants. And, bargain hunters will be thrilled with the new Tanger Outlets, which just opened in November 2016.

SPAS

Looking for a new hairstyle? If so, visit the Deidra Marcus Salon and Spa in Stuart, where an impressive list of hair services includes straightening and extensions, Japanese “thermal reconstruction,” and Brazilian keratin treatments. Another spa choice in Stuart is the Spa Essence Retreat. Enjoy all this establishment has to offer with a relaxing 90-minute Swedish massage, foot treatment, pore-perfecting facial and scalp massage.

A local’s favorite in Vero Beach is White Orchid on Ocean Drive, which features traditional services plus medi-spa procedures, including acupuncture for pain management and sleep-disorder treatments. At Vero Beach’s Royal Day Spa, opt for the nail and skin services, as well as more complex treatments like microdermabrasion and glycolic peels.

Embrace your Zen at the glitzy oceanfront Costa d’Este in Vero Beach. A winner of the World Luxury Spa Award in 2016, The Spa at Costa d’Este offers gentlemen’s services, body treatments and facials. Beachgoers love the Sun Rescue Body Wrap.

The Spa at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort not only gives patrons a reason to visit this oceanside family favorite hotel, but also rejuvenates them after a busy vacation or stressful workweek. Let go of your cares and woes with a Vichy Shower Treatment followed by a Tropical Shower Scrub. Be sure to inquire about the Tween Package, designed exclusively for teenagers.

The Daytona Beach Wellness Center specializes in skin care and a smorgasbord of massages, including bamboo, hot stone, reflexology, deep tissue, prenatal and neuromuscular. Daytona’s Ocean Water Spa at the Plaza Resort & Spa is another pampering option where the staff invites you into their oasis to revitalize and renew yourself. From the enticing smells of the spa products to relaxing in the Utopia Room, leave your cares at the door and enjoy a break from everyday life. Full make-up application, airbrush foundation and hair styling are also offered. Daytona Beach brides should definitely check out this spa. Do not miss their eucalyptus steam room and hydrotherapy tubs.

In Ormond Beach, de-stress at the Amazing You Day Spa, where treatments range from acne to anti-aging facials and eyelash extensions. Like them on Facebook and save US$5.

ALL IN A DAY

DAYTONA BEACH

Unwind along 22 miles of hard-packed beaches. Enjoy a casual shopping spree at the Riverfront Shops of Daytona Beach. Schedule tee time at a tropically lush golf course. Sample local brews along the Daytona Beach Ale Trail. Tour Daytona International Speedway and meander through the local galleries, museums and historical sites. Dine al fresco along the Halifax River while watching for dolphins. Take in an electrifying performance at The Peabody Auditorium. Finish with a leisurely stroll and watch the stars come out over Ponce Inlet.

MARTIN COUNTY

Sit in splendor as the sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean. Next take a trip on the Loxahatchee River, Florida’s first federally designated Wild and Scenic River at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Tour the last remaining House of Refuge; touch a stingray at Florida Oceanographic; cross the street to the Elliott Museum to be amazed at the antique car collection. Visit Jensen Beach, both downtown and the beach. End the day in Stuart, the first town in Florida to be designated the “Happiest Seaside Town.”

OKEECHOBEE COUNTY

Rise early to hook up with your hired guide and find out why Lake Okeechobee offers one of the world’s most amazing freshwater game fishing expe-riences. Back in Okeechobee, enjoy good old-fashioned home cooking at a local restaurant or lunch at your favorite national chain. Grab your camera and hike or cycle along the prettiest part of Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. Or drive to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, home to an array of endangered plants and animals, to enjoy its hiking, cycling or equestrian trails. Spend the night stargazing.

ST. LUCIE COUNTY

Relax on miles of uncrowded beaches or ride the beach on horseback. Kayak on the famous Indian River Lagoon, floating through tunnels of mangrove trees. Pack your clubs and choose from over two dozen golf courses, including Port St. Lucie’s 54-hole, 35-acre PGA Village practice facility with its one-on-one instruction opportunities. Immerse yourself in “Old Florida” culture in downtown Fort Pierce, one of the most historic and idyllic main streets in the USA, where Spanish period architecture is plentiful and local seafood is the main staple.

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