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This Florida Beach Town Has Bioluminescent Lagoons, Some of the Best Surf Waves on the East Coast, and Rocket Launches Visible From the Sand

13 min read
This Florida Beach Town Has Bioluminescent Lagoons, Some of the Best Surf Waves on the East Coast, and Rocket Launches Visible From the Sand

Plus, it’s less than two hours from Orlando’s theme parks.

<p>Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism</p>

Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism

With rocket launches visible from the honey-colored beaches and the biggest swells on the East Coast, Cocoa Beach, Florida, has all the ingredients for a stellar beach vacation. In fact, it’s the gateway to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Add to that the glowing bioluminescence emanating nightly from one of the many lagoons and rivers, well-maintained parks, and trails, and you have plenty of adventure, too. There’s also deep-sea fishing, surfing, hiking, paddling, and lots of fresh seafood to go around. Plus, this charming Florida destination is less than an hour’s drive to the bevy of amusement, water, and theme parks in Orlando —Travel + Leisure called it one of the best beaches in the vicinity of Orlando.

The once sleepy fishing village exploded with growth when the space race heated up in the 1950s, going from a population of 23,653 in 1950 to 230,006 by 1970. Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, grew up in Cocoa Beach and remembers seeing the first shuttle launch in 1981 from the Kennedy Space Center. “I could almost feel the heat of the rocket on my face. The ground rumbled and shook. I was hooked. I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of launches since then — some at the base, some out on the beach, some from my backyard — and it never gets old,” he said.

We tapped Cranis to find out what makes Cocoa Beach a perennially great destination on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He said, “The beaches are in the best shape ever. The town caters to families. Cocoa Beach has Thousand Islands Conservation Area, which is full of mangroves, manatees, and dolphins for those who love to paddle and explore nature. And you can stand on Cocoa Beach, look north, and see the Kennedy Space Center, which is more active than I’ve seen it in years. We had 72 rocket launches last year.”

Cocoa Beach

  • Learn to ride the waves in the warm waters where 11-time world champion Kelly Slater learned to surf.

  • Make your way to the beach to see rockets taking off from the nearby Kennedy Space Center.

  • Kayak through the mangroves at Thousand Islands Conservation Area to spot manatees, dolphins, and lots of birds.

  • Spend the night at Beach Place Guesthouses for a secluded stay on the beach where you might see nesting sea turtles and can join a morning yoga session.

  • Eat at Fish Camp Grill, where the Apollo astronauts used to hang out, for old Florida vibes, a wide menu of “swamp food with a flair,” and baby alligators wandering around.

<p>Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images</p>

Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Best Hotels and Resorts

Beach Place Guesthouses

The Beach Place Guesthouses is ideal for those seeking a secluded space with a full kitchen and access to amenities like morning yoga, beach chairs and umbrellas, and personalized concierge services. “I adore this oceanfront hideaway in the southern reaches of Cocoa Beach, where the dune-backed beaches are the most beautiful,” said local Terry Ward. “There’s a talking pet parrot near the reception desk, a fire pit for evening hangs, hammocks, loaner board games, and a deck where guests gather to barbecue — if you’re looking for the real Florida, it’s here. You might even catch a rocket launching or sea turtles hatching while strolling the beach.”

The Inn at Cocoa Beach

A quaint family-owned and operated property, The Inn at Cocoa Beach exudes charm with its flamingo-hued exterior and 50 individually styled rooms, most with oceanfront views and balconies. Guests enjoy complimentary breakfast, wine and cheese socials daily, access to beach chairs and umbrellas, and conversations with resident parrots Tango and Tangee. The adults-only property is smoke-free, has an on-site fitness center and pool, and offers free parking.

Hilton Garden Inn Cocoa Beach

When Cranis has guests in town, the Hilton Garden Inn Cocoa Beach is his top recommendation. “The Starlite Restaurant & Bar is a great space where guests can get locally sourced food with an oceanfront view right in their hotel,” he added. Like other Hilton properties, visitors can expect free Wi-fi, a fitness center, and a pool. And if you’re traveling with your pup, this property has pet-friendly rooms.

Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront

Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront has direct beach access, an EV charging station, a pool overlooking the sand, bike and boogie board rentals, beach volleyball courts, and even surf lessons. When thoughts of umbrella-topped frozen drinks hit, guests can sidle up to the Castaway Beach Bar or Longboards Tiki Beach Grille for a frosty beverage just steps from the sand.

<p>Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure</p>

Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure

Best Things to Do

School of Surf

This beach town in Florida was just named the best surf spot in the U.S. for its enviable swells and year-round warm waters. It’s the perfect place to learn the basics of surfing or brush up on your board skills. The School of Surf offers group and private lessons, as well as full- and half-day camps during the week. Cranis added, “Kelly Slater, 11-time world champion surfer, grew up here. Cocoa Beach is known for surfing, and getting a few lessons from a local outfitter is always a good idea.”

Lori Wilson Park

Cited by American Surf Magazine as one of the best surf spots in Cocoa Beach, Lori Wilson Park has waves for all levels. The 33-acre space has multiple dunes, three pavilions, a playground, restrooms, outdoor showers, and more. The 1,000-foot boardwalk takes visitors out onto the water to experience Florida’s natural coastline, and an off-leash dog park invites your canine friends to run free. Cranis grew up going to this park and loves the $4 million renovation the destination just completed. He added, “Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, it was a great place to go surfing and just hang out. It’s cool to see the new boardwalks, new crossovers, new bathrooms that make it feel like new for the next generation.”

Cocoa Beach

The main draw of Cocoa Beach is its soft sand and big waves, so spending some time on the beach is a must. Beyond sunning and surfing, visitors can enjoy a game of beach volleyball. There are three oceanfront parks with restrooms, showers, and picnic tables, and 40 beach access points. Cranis added, “If you just want to relax, you can find a quiet stretch of beach here — almost every little side street has a beach parking area and you can hang out with nobody around. And, of course, the Atlantic Ocean has the waves. As a kid, I loved surfing here and now I love to bodysurf and boogie board in those same waves.”

<p>Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism</p>

Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism

Florida Surf Museum

It may be the surf capital of Florida, but there are plenty of things to do in Cocoa Beach when the waves fall flat or you’re too tired for another round. Inside Ron Jon Surf Shop’s water sports rental building, directly north of the flagship store, sits the Florida Surf Museum (FSM). Founded in 1999, the museum hosts exhibits, events, and programs that celebrate the history and culture of Florida surfing. Their signature event, Surfing Santas, brings more than 800 holiday-clad surfers to Cocoa Beach on Dec. 24 when they ride the waves to support FSM and their work.

Kennedy Space Center

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center sit directly north of the beach and seeing a rocket launch live is a once-in-a-lifetime event for many. Visitors can check out the exhibits and shows at the space center, or take a bus tour of the spaceport. According to Cranis, though, the beach is one of the best places to catch a rocket launch. He recommends checking the Florida Space Coast app to find out when the next rocket launches. He added, “If you’ve never seen a rocket launch, felt the rumble, heard the roar, it’s exciting.”

Related: Florida’s Space Coast Has Incredible Beaches, Food, and Dolphins, according to Travel + Leisure.

<p>Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure</p>

Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure

Best Shopping

Ron Jon Surf Shop

Plenty of souvenir shops dot the landscape of Cocoa Beach, but there’s one stop not to be missed: Ron Jon Surf Shop. A world-famous brand, this is their flagship store. You can rent a foam surfboard for four to eight hours for just $10, while a fiberglass board will only cost you $20 for a day.

The shop also has bodyboards, wetsuits, chairs, beach bikes, umbrellas, beach carts, and stand-up paddleboards for rent. Cranis added, “They’re open 24 hours a day, so if you want to check out the T-shirts, flip-flops, and surfboards in the middle of the night, you can shop to your heart’s content. They’ve got everything you need for the beach in this giant two-story property.”

Best Nightlife

Jonathan’s Pub

Established in 1970, Johnathan’s Pub is Brevard County’s oldest bar. There’s liquor, beer, wine, fresh-squeezed juices, and a menu with the words “World’s Worst Sandwich” emblazoned across the top. Johnathan’s is a study in juxtapositions: The dim lighting, blacked-out windows, and strip mall-like location all scream dive bar, while the fresh juices and delicious French dip sandwich tell another story. Pool, darts, and live music keep the atmosphere lively at this late-night spot, which stays open until 2 a.m.

Pig and Whistle

Cranis sings the praises of Pig & Whistle, which does English pub food well. “If you like bangers and mash, this place knows how to make a mean plate, but I always get the fish and chips,” he said. Visitors can always catch a soccer (or football, if you’re using proper British terms) game, traditional English food, and plenty of tasty pints as this spot that stays open until midnight seven days a week.

Sandbar Sports Grill

Located right on the beach, Sandbar Sports Grill stays open until 2 a.m. nightly. Cranis loves the fish tacos and live music on weekends, but this venue also serves up regular trivia nights, karaoke, and plenty of specialty cocktails. The motto here is, “We don’t run from the hurricanes, we drink ‘um” — and their menu of hurricanes comes in categories 1 to 5 for strength.

<p>Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure</p>

Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure

Best Restaurants

Fish Camp Grill

Located right next to the historic Cocoa Beach Pier, Fish Camp Grill serves up “swamp food with a flair,” including frog legs and moonshine amid taxidermied trophies, vintage signs and lanterns, and baby alligators. Cranis loves bringing out-of-town visitors here. “The Cajun food is delicious — get the gator bites — plus they have the original bar where the original astronauts on the Apollo program hung out.”

Rikki Tiki Tavern

Make your way to the palapa at the end of the historic Cocoa Beach Pier that was built in 1962, and you’ll find yourself at Rikki Tiki Tavern. The open-air eatery, operated by Westgate Resorts, has 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean and Cranis loves it for a post-surf drink. Visitors can expect an extensive menu of fresh seafood, meaty sandwiches, and tasty starters. Don’t miss the clam bowl — the clams are locally sourced, sweet middlenecks steamed and tossed in a house-made garlic lemon butter sauce. Come for the fiery sunsets; stay for the beach bites and Pier Punch served in a souvenir bucket perfect for shell collecting and sandcastle building.

Whisk & Grind

A drive-thru coffee bar? Yes, please. Whisk & Grind is a family-owned breakfast and lunch spot that has all the favorites, including biscuits and gravy, a wide selection of omelets, pancakes, French toast, deli sandwiches, burgers, and salads. “If you like bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches, you’ll love the BLTE with the egg added. It’s really good, and the bread is slices of thick whole wheat slathered with pesto mayo,” said Cranis.

4th Street Fillin Station

Once a gas station, 4th Street Fillin Station is now a gastropub with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, including a hanging table under a 100-year-old oak tree. Visitors will find a hearty selection of plant-based dishes, classic breakfast and lunch offerings, and the big draw: the dessert bar. Cranis recommends a burger and sundae (they’re monster-sized with every topping under the sun) to slake that appetite worked up on the beach.

Slow & Low Bar-B-Que

Florida is the South, and if you’re in the South, barbecue is king. Cranis loves locally owned and operated Slow & Low Bar-B-Que, and though they’ve expanded to other areas, Cocoa Beach is home to the original location. Known for its barbecue nachos and baby back ribs, among other items, this restaurant also has live music on weekends and a full catering menu if you want to pick up lunch or dinner.

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Cocoa Beach is during its shoulder season as hotel rates drop, beaches get less crowded, and the weather remains beautiful without the humidity. Cranis let us in on a few events that occur throughout the year. Cocoa Beach’s Easter Surf Festival, the second-longest-running one in the U.S., has found new life as the Brevard Humane Society East Coast Dog Surfing Festival. Held at Lori Wilson Park and presented by Ron Jon Surf Shop, it features surfing lessons (for children and canines), a doggy costume contest, and a bunny paddle out. The event is free and open to the public. In November, the Cocoa Beach Art Show rolls into town with up to 150 artists and exhibitors from across the country. The three-day event includes a street party, live music, and lots of art for people of all ages to enjoy.

According to Cranis, though, May is the best time to visit. “Thunder on Cocoa Beach, also known as the Space Coast Super Boat Grand Prix, happens here in mid-May. For four days and nights, top boating teams from around the world compete, some reaching speeds of more than 175 miles per hour. This event, one of the largest in central Florida, is fun for the whole family.”

How to Get There

Even though there isn’t an airport in Cocoa Beach, Orlando International Airport and Melbourne Orlando International Airport are both close — Melbourne is a quick 15 minutes away, while Orlando takes about 45 minutes. Direct flights from Charlotte and Atlanta are offered daily. From there, you can grab a shuttle, Uber, or Lyft, or rent a car. Both airports have robust car rental counters. Cranis added, “If you want to have the flexibility to go to Kennedy Space Center or Port Canaveral, rent a car, but if you just want to park at the beach and not worry about anything, there are plenty of Ubers and Lyfts around.”

If you’re driving, take I-95 and get off at exit 75. Head east on 520 for 10 miles and you’ll arrive at Cocoa Beach. Highway A1A then runs right through Cocoa Beach. Once you get there, bike, scooter, and golf cart rentals abound.

<p>JodiJacobson/Getty Images</p>

JodiJacobson/Getty Images

Cities, Neighborhoods, and Islands to Visit

Cocoa Village

Just over a couple of bridges sits Cocoa Village, a historic downtown founded by fishermen 150 years ago. Cranis said, “The area is lined with shops, restaurants, and pubs (like my favorite, Dog ‘N Bone), and sometimes there are concerts in the park, or you can take in a show at the Cocoa Village Playhouse, built in 1924.” For a real taste of this hidden gem area, book a Cocoa Village food tour that combines tasty local bites with a side of culture and history.

Port Canaveral

Just north of Cocoa Beach, Port Canaveral has plenty of restaurants, bars, and prime rocket launch views. Cranis likes to bring visitors here “to watch the cruise ships come in and out or catch a rocket launch on Playalinda Beach. I love Fishlips — it’s a great hangout with live music on weekends. The two-story restaurant has a bar upstairs where you can sit outside and watch the massive ships with 6,000 people on the deck waving. You can wave back while sipping your margarita.” He also recommends Rising Tide Tap & Table for fish tacos and local craft brews.

Thousand Islands Conservation Area

This 338-acre site located on the Banana River and adjacent to Cocoa Beach is made up of a series of islands in the Indian River Lagoon. Thousand Islands Conservation Area, accessible almost exclusively by boat, is home to mangrove tunnels where stork, alligator, manatee, and endangered tropical plant sightings abound. Fin Expeditions offers several options for kayaking the islands, as well as night bioluminescent tours. Cranis added, “I would recommend booking a tour because the guides are knowledgeable about all the flora and fauna here. They’ll make sure you get the best opportunity to see a dolphin or manatee. If you’ve never seen a manatee up close, they’re amazing creatures.”

How to Get Around

According to Cranis, you don’t need to rent a car if you just want to hang out and relax on the beach. There are plenty of restaurants and shops nearby. Bike rental stores — including A1A Beach Rentals or Bob’s Beach Bicycle Works, which also organizes group rides — can be found all along the beach. Visitors can also hop on the Cocoa Beach Trolley. All buses are equipped with a wheelchair lift, and service runs seven days per week throughout Cocoa Beach for $1.50 per ride. Uber, Lyft, and taxis are also an option and easy to find across Cocoa Beach. But if you want to explore Kennedy Space Center, Cocoa Village, or one of the theme parks in nearby Orlando, a rental car is a must.

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