For many travelers, the golden stretches of sand along Florida’s central east coast, near Orlando, are the obvious beachy add-ons to a theme park vacation. But this booming region of diverse attractions—from a near-continuous schedule of commercial rocket launches in the sky to the nonstop wildlife action at sea level in the Indian River Lagoon (one of the most biodiverse estuaries in North America)—merits a trip all its own.
From all the outer space activity in Cape Canaveral and the mellow vibe in surf towns like Cocoa Beach and Melbourne Beach, just south, to upscale oceanfront communities (see: Vero Beach and Stuart) farther south still, along Florida’s Treasure Coast, tons of wonder awaits.
Read on for what to put on your radar along central Florida’s diverse east coast for a memorable trip.
Where to stay in east Florida
Book now: From $147/night, expedia.com
Space Coast artist Christopher Maslow’s graffiti-inspired art defines the public spaces at the industrial-chic Hotel Melby, which opened in April 2021 along the brick lanes of leafy downtown Melbourne.
The hotel has a sceney new rooftop bar, the Landing, which draws the local rocket scientist crowd (from the area’s booming commercial space industry) as well as the barely dry surf set. Come at happy hour for craft cocktails and epic views of the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean.
Book Driftwood Resort now: From $185/night, expedia.com
Just south of Melbourne, in tony Vero Beach, a rustic stay right on the ocean awaits at Driftwood Resort, which opened its flotsam-and-jetsam-aesthetic doors in 1937 and is in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Kimpton Vero Beach & Spa
Book Kimpton Vero Beach & Spa now: From $850/night, expedia.com
Right up the road and also oceanfront, the Kimpton Vero Beach & Spa offers a more upscale stay and a new complimentary Stargazing on the Sea experience for guests. During it, you can cruise aboard a riverboat on the Indian River Lagoon with the local astronomy club president as your guide.
See rockets launch along Florida’s Space Coast
It’s boom times along Florida’s Space Coast again, with SpaceX and United Launch Alliance set to be joined by new commercial rocket launch companies in 2022. That will bring a near steady stream of monthly (and sometimes weekly) launches to the skies here. It’s worth planning your trip around a launch—both nighttime and daytime. Watching rockets streak across clear blue skies is a singular experience like nothing you’ve ever seen on TV.
The closest public viewing location to see launches is at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. But there are many more spots around Titusville, Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, and points south for views to remember—including Jetty Park in Port Canaveral and Space View Park in downtown Titusville.
Discover world-class wildlife refuges
The rise of NASA’s space program at Kennedy Space Center and the buffer zone of security it required led to the creation of protected areas for wildlife, including Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which surrounds the launch area and is home to many endangered and threatened species. On any given day here, you might spot West Indian manatees, gopher tortoises, or even the endemic Florida scrub jay. The best way to experience the refuge is by driving along the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven-mile-long route with several places to pull over to observe animals, snap photos, and take in views of salt marshes, pine flatwoods, and other unique habitats.
Other protected areas in the shadow of where rockets launch include Canaveral National Seashore, a vital nesting ground for four sea turtle species from April through October. And the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon, which stretches from near New Smyrna Beah to Jupiter Inlet in the south, is the most biodiverse estuary in North America and a prime place to kayak alongside manatees and dolphins.
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in South Melbourne Beach runs sea turtle watch programs in June and July and has relatively empty beaches most of the year that are perfect for strolling or surfing. The roughly 20-mile stretch of coastline here is the most significant nesting area in the world for loggerhead sea turtles (and the most important one in North America for green turtles, too).
Further south, on Hutchinson Island near Jensen Beach, the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center opened a new Ocean EcoCenter in 2021 with 2,000 gallons of aquariums and exhibits dedicated to Florida coastal ecosystems. Right between the Atlantic Ocean and Indian River Lagoon, the center is home to a stingray, nurse shark, and gamefish lagoon you can peer into.
Don’t miss this farm-to-table reservation
Timed with winter’s citrus-growing season, Schacht Groves, just inland from Vero Beach, is staging a series of 10 farm-to-table dinners this winter and spring set right in its gorgeous orange groves. Chef Michael Lander from beloved Vero Beach restaurant Michael’s on 7th is working with local Indian River County purveyors to create themed menus for each event, including a golf-themed one in April (a nod to the Masters Tournament) and a Cinco de Mayo festival in May. (Citrus-themed and cowboy-themed menus are also in the works.) You’ll want to reserve in advance for this one.
Surf some epic breaks around Cocoa Beach
Cocoa Beach is the hometown of surfing’s most legendary shredder, Kelly Slater, who claimed 11 world championship surfing titles after spending his formative years in Florida.
Consistent beach breaks around Cocoa Beach and south welcome all levels of surfers but are particularly friendly for beginners, as the waves rarely break above waist high. More advanced surfers head to the break called Spanish House, just north of Sebastian Inlet, where wintertime brings the most consistent swells.
Looking to take a lesson? Calvin Holland, son of former pro surfer Todd Holland, outfits you with a rash guard, leash, and board at his School of Surf shop, a block from the sand, for lessons in front of Cocoa Beach’s most legendary beach bar, Coconuts on the Beach (where you should definitely head for a piña colada and poke nachos afterward).
Coming to east Florida in 2022
The Treasure Coast Wine and Ale Trail is set to welcome a new brewery-distillery hybrid sometime in 2022 when Stuart Brewery & Distillery opens to proffer its creative beers (Mango Milkshake IPA and Salted Caramel Russian Imperial among them) and innovative liquors like pepper vodka and coffee-infused whiskey.
St. Lucie County has exciting additions coming in early 2022 with its artificial reef program. More than 60 artificial reefs have been sunk off the coast of St. Pierce since 1942 to provide better habitat for marine life and enhance local fisheries and scuba diving options, too. January 2022 will see two new vessels deployed off the coast—the 65-foot-long Spirit of Palm Beach and 97-foot-long The Last One.