The Impulsive Traveler: Florida's 'Space Coast' has surf, shopping and baseball

By Diane Daniel
Sunday, February 7, 2010; F06

The plan was to pop by Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach during a drive through Florida to show my husband my old stomping grounds. When I'd lived on the "Space Coast" (a.k.a. Brevard County) in the mid-1980s, beaches and bars were plentiful, but the rest of the place was dullsville.

So when I recently read that Melbourne, then dullest among the dull, is now a happening place with a popular zoo, a thriving historic downtown district, an up-and-coming arts district and even a boutique hotel, I felt compelled to examine the evidence.

Admittedly, the visit started off sourly, when the Tides Hotel Waterfront turned out to be more fauxtique than boutique, so scratch that hallmark. Dance music in the lobby and fake-grass decorations did not make up for faulty wireless service, lukewarm water and what we later discovered was a plastic-wrapped breakfast. Magnifying the pain was the Tides's landlocked location -- a six-lane highway stood between the hotel and the glistening Indian River.

My crank-o-meter decelerated as we explored parts of the roughly 70-mile-long county, whose population now hovers just above half a million. Indeed, the growth of the Space Coast, so named for housing the Kennedy Space Center, had rocketed.

If all you care about is the ocean, rest assured that Brevard has 35 miles of public beaches, most of them very clean, many attached to parks with facilities and several frequented by surfers year-round. But the chilly late-December air left us more interested in sites than in sand.

In the north of the county, we found the once all-industrial Port Canaveral humming with cruise ships and with diners filling the patio tables along a row of waterside restaurants. In Cocoa Beach, the famed Ron Jon Surf Shop has grown up and out, adding a second story, a rental shop and even a surfing museum. A surf-music duo was playing in the middle of the packed store the day we stopped to shop. In downtown Cocoa, historic Cocoa Village, a retail and dining district, was bustling. Since my days as a local, it had expanded to cover several blocks.

Farther west and a bit south is the sprawling New Urbanism community of Viera, home of the Space Coast Stadium, where the Nationals hold spring training. In the '80s, this area around Interstate 95 was nothing but farmland and scrub brush.

Near Viera sits another relative newcomer, the much-loved Brevard Zoo, which opened in 1994. I'm not a fan of animals in captivity, but this zoo charmed me. Built from the ground up by more than 16,000 volunteers, it features a giraffe-feeding platform, excellent Florida flora and fauna exhibits, and a most unique attraction: kayaking through either 22 acres of restored wetlands or around the Africa exhibit. Who could resist?

As our volunteer guide paddled backward in front of us while reciting zoo facts, we passed giraffes, cranes and impalas. Save for the traffic sounds from the interstate, we could have been in Africa. We idled in front of the lemurs, watching a showoff black and white ruffed splay himself in a patch of sun only a few feet from us.

"We've had a few of them jump into the boats," the guide told us. That seemed unlikely, but kind of fun in a scary way.

What we'd really wanted to do but didn't have time for was to kayak in the wild, in the Indian River Lagoon. So to get our fix of free-roaming animals, we made a quick visit to the Viera Wetlands. Driving paths wind through the lovely 200-acre park, which is popular among birders, photographers and nature lovers. We rolled down the windows, turned off the engine and let the abundant waterfowl serenade us.

Then the promise of culture beckoned, first in historic Eau Gallie (pronounced Oh Galley), a once thriving little town and now a work in progress. The community was folded into Melbourne 40 years ago, and "some people still have hard feelings about the annexation," noted Carlin Long, co-owner of Nosh Ganache, a tiny chocolatier and cafe on the main drag, Highland Avenue. "There's always been a rivalry between Eau Gallie and Melbourne."

Eau Gallie's self-billing as the "cultural center of Melbourne," with "museums, galleries, studios, and an array of shops and restaurants" is a little overstated, but it does have a couple of each, including the Brevard Art Museum. Also deserving a walk-by are the charming early-1920s homes along Highland Avenue and Houston Street, and the early-1900s James Wadsworth Rossetter House, managed by the Florida Historical Society.

Save time for a stop at Squid Lips, a restaurant and bar with broad views of the Indian River and the town pier next door. It even has its own little sandy beach.

We finally made our way to downtown Melbourne, or rather "Historic Downtown Melbourne."

First we checked out Crane Creek Inn Waterfront Bed & Breakfast, where we should have booked our stay. I nearly cried when we saw the Key West-style house with a back lawn sloping to the river-size creek. It's right downtown and, yes, it's truly waterfront. That hurt.

While Eau Gallie promotes its culture, Melbourne is morphing into an entertainment area, though it's also known for its yearly Melbourne Art Festival, which last April drew a weekend crowd of 50,000.

"You know how kids used to go to Orlando to party?" resident Bob Shearer asked. "Now kids from Orlando come here."

By day, families and friends stroll New Haven Avenue checking out the gift "shoppes," clothing stores and services (office supply store, hair salon) housed in buildings of varying historical restoration, or lack thereof, from the 1920s on.

But as happy hour commences, the revelers appear, gravitating toward trendy Matt's Casbah, with its hopping bar and ever-changing palette of patio lighting; sports-minded Off the Traxx; and especially the wildly popular Meg O'Malley's Restaurant and Irish Pub.

Meg's closed for six months in 2008 after a fire and reopened with a million-dollar expansion, including covered patio seating and a "Guinness room" modeled after the St. James's Gate Brewery in Dublin, where the Irish stout originated.

My discovery process sealed with a frothy Guinness draft, I am happy to report that the dull is null.

Daniel is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. She can be reached at diane@bydianedaniel.com.

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