A Florida Dream Trip You Can Take NOW

By Peg Tyre
April 9, 2012
A pelican sits perched on Cocoa Beach Pier.
Whitney Tressel
If you've got three days and a tank of gas, the beautiful beach towns of Florida's "Space Coast" make for a perfect winter getaway!

 It was my second day at the Orlando theme parks, and I was waiting in yet another long line when I spotted what I assumed was an animatronic squirrel. "That's amazing," I mused to my family. "Those inventive Disney engineers managed to make that mechanical squirrel seem so lifelike." "Mom?" asked my younger son, sounding slightly worried. "I think that might be a real squirrel." We all looked at it. "I can't really tell," my older one faltered. We were in a kind of stupor. For the past 48 hours, everything we touched, saw, sat on, or ate was a calculated part of the theme park experience.

What this vacation needed, I decided then and there, was balance. So leaving the big admission fees, long lines, and ersatz charms of Orlando behind, we took a three-day detour to Florida's Space Coast. There, about an hour's drive from downtown Orlando, in the shadow of the incredible Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral (a must-see for families with kids), we enjoyed the funky sensibility and down-to-earth prices and had some up-close experiences with nature that became the centerpiece of our vacation.


The Space Coast, a scenic, 72-mile stretch roughly between Titusville and Melbourne, is in transition. Back in the 1960s, it was at the white-hot center of an ambitious national space program—the area is so rocket-crazy that the locals even had the area code changed to 321. The beachside towns along the Atlantic coast became a powerful draw for big-domed rocket scientists and future-minded tourists who lined up to gawk at the frequent liftoffs.

Visitors today are discovering the area's terrestrial pleasures: hiking, surfing, scuba diving, and swimming. "Our greatest asset has always been our beach access," says Rob Varley, the Space Coast Office of Tourism's executive director. That goes for visitors and locals alike: "I can make an appointment to see my lawyer," Varley says, "but I know he'll cancel if the surf's up!"

Day 1

Orlando to Titusville

44 miles

As I drove east into Titusville from Orlando, I did something for the first time during my trip to Florida: I rolled down the window and shook out my ponytail, content to let the breeze, not a sub-zero air conditioner, ruffle my hair. A string of strip malls soon gave way to Titusville's historic downtown—a few sleepy blocks of late-19th-century brick buildings along the Indian River. By the time I had driven through, on Route 406, to get to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/merrittisland, day pass $5 per car), my family had replaced our mouse-ear hats with binoculars.

The 140,000-acre preserve consists of brackish estuaries and marshes, home to egrets, herons, manatees, feral hogs, tortoises, and American alligators. We sampled a few hiking trails, from a quarter-mile to five miles, that were perfect for family members, especially the ones with short legs. Less physical, but no less rewarding, was the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven-mile road that allowed us to steer straight into the habitats of bald eagles, osprey, and cartoonish-looking roseate spoonbills.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at pristine Playalinda Beach, part of Canaveral National Seashore, across the water from the Space Center. It's a great place to observe—but not disturb!—nests of giant loggerhead turtles.  At sunset, we headed to the five-room Casa Coquina Bed and Breakfast (4010 Coquina Ave., Titusville, casacoquina.com, from $79) for the evening. A tall suit of armor greets you in the lobby, and local legend has it that Al Capone, who wintered in Titusville in the 1930s, rested his head and his guns here.

Day 2

Titusville to Cocoa Beach

30 miles

If most theme parks are generic enough to appeal to the average American, Cocoa Beach is just the opposite: excessive, exuberant, and defying good taste at every turn. The hub of tacky T-shirt shops, hotels, and restaurants—think large neon signs and bubble-letter ads pinned on every available surface—is redeemed by its unpretentiousness.

You've got to love a place that's home to the Mai Tiki Bar (401 Meade Ave., Cocoa Beach, cocoabeachpier.com, beer at happy hour $1.35), the Mai Tiki art gallery (251 Minuteman Causeway, Cocoa Beach, maitiki.com), and a "Welcome to Cocoa Beach" sign flanked by—what else?—a tiki torch. What all that tiki really means is that the beach is never far away. Even the cheapest hotels have, if not a view of the ocean, then at least the sound of lapping waves floating through your open window. Cocoa Beach's six-mile stretch of white sand plays host to world-famous surf competitions and was the stomping ground for surf legend Kelly Slater. It's also home port to the two retail monoliths that have grown up in his shadow: Ron Jon Surf Shop (4151 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, ronjonsurfshop.com, lessons from $50, surfboard rentals $10 a day) and Cocoa Beach Surf Company (4001 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, cocoabeachsurf.com, hourlong group lessons $40 per person, four-hour surfboard rentals $30). Both stores sell plenty of tchotchkes—fake plastic leis, bamboo back-scratchers—as well as more serious surfer garb like rash guards and board shorts. Both also rent gear and offer surf lessons. Bonus: Cocoa Beach Surf Company has a massive, 5,600-gallon tank with blacktip sharks and exotic fish, which my kids loved.

Down the street, we checked into the oceanfront South Beach Inn (1701 S. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, southbeachinn.com, doubles from $90), where our basic room had a pull-out couch and was comfortably big enough for my family of four, before heading to dinner. On the north edge of town, we discovered Roberto's Little Havana (26 N. Orlando Ave., Cocoa Beach, robertoslittlehavana.com, Cuban sandwich and black beans $7.25), a cozy, family-run spot specializing in seafood and Cuban fare. I opted for a savory Cuban sandwich, served with an ample side of black beans topped with freshly cut onion.


Day 3

Cocoa Beach to Melbourne

10 miles

From Cocoa Beach, Highway A1A winds south past a series of appealing, well-maintained public beaches. My family didn't make it 20 minutes before pulling over to get some sand between our toes. At the beach across the street from Patrick Air Force Base, we found gentle waves and a foot-friendly, sandy bottom. You can always see pelicans bobbing on breaks, and if you arrive early enough, as we did, you can spot what the natives boast about, too—regular visits from families of dolphins.

Next door, locals also favor family-run Sun on the Beach (1753 Highway A1A, Satellite Beach, sunonthebeach.co, breakfast $7), where the owners import their own brand of Lowcountry cooking to Florida. "Everybody comes here," our waitress told us without a gram of false modesty. And for good reason. At lunch, fried chicken dipped in buffalo spices is served on top of buttermilk waffles. But even food this good couldn't keep us indoors for long.

After lunch, we made a stop at Hatts Diving Shop in Melbourne (2006 Front St., Melbourne, hattsdiving.com, open-water scuba class from $299). "We want to introduce all different kinds of people to scuba diving," says co-owner Starr Hatt, who exudes the implacable calm of someone who's spent a fair bit of time underwater. Hatts offers an open-water scuba course where, for the cost of renting equipment and gassing up a boat, you and your family (kids must be over 12) get easy-to-follow instruction to help get you face-to-face with the sea world's own version of Technicolor. Yes, theme parks are fun, but it's also nice to be reminded that when it comes to locations where you can find once-in-a-lifetime thrills, it's not such a small world after all.

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Dream Trips for Kids

TAKE A SPIN ON THE TRAPEZE If jumping on the bed isn't cutting it for your little ones anymore,Trapeze Schoolmight be the answer. Kids will be surprised by how quickly they get the hang of it: During a two-hour beginner class, they'll pick up an arsenal of tricks, from simple knee hangs to the more advanced whips and splits. By the end, they'll be ready to throw caution-and themselves-to the wind, as they learn how to dismount, flying through the air 23 feet above the safety net into the (hopefully) waiting arms of an instructor. The school has branches in Boston, New York (above), Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and, most recently, Chicago. WHEN TO GO: Classes are offered indoors year-round and outdoors in warmer weather. WHAT TO PACK: Snug but comfortable clothing (such as yoga pants or tights). WHO SHOULD GO: Ages 6 and older. THE BOTTOM LINE: trapezeschool.com, classes from $47. DANCE WITH THE NEW YORK CITY BALLET Let's face it: Even the most promising of budding ballerinas may have trouble understanding the plot of a classical ballet. That's where the New York City Ballet Children's Workshop leaps in. Before select matinees, children can take part in a 45-minute class that offers a stripped-down, kid-friendly guide to the music, themes, and techniques they're about to see onstage. Under the guidance of a corps member, dancers learn simple choreography while donning pint-size costumes, such as a black or white tutu for Swan Lake. The best part? Classes end with a performance for family members. WHEN TO GO: May 19, 26, June 9 at 12:45 p.m., with more dates to be announced for winter 2012/2013. WHAT TO PACK: Leotards, tights, and ballet slippers. WHO SHOULD GO: Ages 4 to 7. THE BOTTOM LINE: 70 Lincoln Center, 165 W. 65th St., 7th floor, nycballet.com, $12 (both kids and adults need tickets). SWIM WITH WHALE SHARKS There's a 60-foot sea creature lurking in the waters off the Mexican island of Isla Mujeres that makes the 20-foot great white look like a guppy. But don't fret: The whale shark-the world's largest fish-dines only on plankton. In fact, the polka-dotted giant is so gentle that the minimum age for a shark swim with Ceviche  Toursis only 5 years old. Ceviche, which has  been leading half-day boat tours from this Cancun-adjacent island since 2007, touts a 97 percent shark-spotting record. That means the likelihood of your child's being disappointed is practically zero. WHEN TO GO: The 2012 season runs May 17 to September 17. WHAT TO PACK: A bathing suit and an underwater camera. WHO SHOULD GO: Ages 5 and older. THE BOTTOM LINE: Tours leave at 8 a.m. from the Isla Mujeres Gas Dock (100 yards to the left of the ferry dock), cevichetours.com, six-hour boat tour with lunch $125. GET IN AN ENORMOUS FOOD FIGHT Start a food fight in the cafeteria and you'll earn a trip to the principal's office. Start one in Reno's City Plaza and you'll be helping charity. Based on the famed tomato melee in Buñol, Spain, the annual benefit La Tomatina en Reno has been bringing America's biggest food fight to the Biggest Little City in the World (less than an hour from Lake Tahoe) since 2009. Last year, the city hauled out 75,000 pounds of tomatoes-the event's size depends on the success of the year's harvest-which yielded a one-hour free-for-all. Past festivals have also featured a cherry tomato toss for littler devils. WHEN TO GO: August, date to be announced (dependent on the tomato crop). WHAT TO PACK: Clothing you don't mind getting dirty. WHO SHOULD GO: Ages 14 and older, with a parental waiver. THE BOTTOM LINE: Reno City Plaza, Downtown Reno, visitrenotahoe.com, entry fee $10. HANG OUT WITH HARRY POTTER The books have all been published. The films have all premiered. As wizard withdrawal sets in, Warner Bros. Studio Tour London-The Making of Harry Potteris ready to fill the Hagrid-size void. The 150,000-square-foot studio (20 miles from London) where the eight movies were filmed has been converted into a self-guided playground of all things Potter. Fans can explore, photograph, and touch every nook and cranny of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, Dumbledore's office, and Diagon Alley (above). Note: Little Potterphiles may want to skip the creature-effects workshop, where Aragog the giant spider comes to animatronic life. WHEN TO GO: Year-round; reservations are a must. WHAT TO PACK: Comfy walking shoes-the studios are huge! WHO SHOULD GO: All ages. THE BOTTOM LINE: 20-minute train from London Euston Station (from $15 round trip), then a free shuttle, wbstudiotour.co.uk, adults $44, children ages 5-15 $33.

Skiing in Summer in Chile

 A summer ski trip is more than a novelty. It's a self-indulgent subversion of the natural order. It's dessert before dinner, a Bloody Mary at breakfast, a weekend on Wednesday. It feels impossible, yet there it is. It's something every skier should try at least once. SEE MORE TRAVEL-INSPIRING PHOTOS! Europe's Alpine glaciers offer year-round skiing, though that's mostly a lark—a few sunny turns in the morning high above Zermatt, maybe a run or two in shorts so your spouse can take a funny picture, then back down to the usual sightseeing. No, Europe won't do. For the full experience, you need to head to South America. And for one of the ski world's few truly unique experiences, you need to visit the Ski Portillo resort in Los Andes, Chile. Los Andes is deep in the southern hemisphere, roughly in line with Cape Town and Sydney, so winter runs from June through September. There's something undeniably decadent about plumbing the depths of fresh powder while folks back home sweat through another dog day afternoon. But the Portillo resort bends time in other ways, too. With its surreally scenic—and, at more than 9,000 feet, notably lofty—perch amid the jagged Andes Mountains, it feels like the sort of place where you might stumble across a lost civilization. And, in many respects, that's exactly what Portillo is. The outrageous LEGO-yellow Hotel Portillo serves as the resort's main lodging and self-contained center of gravity. It's a delightful throwback, an uncontrived retro relic, where, if you squint, you can make out the specter of a jet-set past—just beyond that framed print of dogs playing poker. From the formal dining room, where uniformed waiters serve guests three meals daily (plus high tea in the afternoon) at assigned tables, to the dark wood, soaring ceilings, and stocking-foot ethos of the common areas, there's an appealing aura of lived-in luxury here. In a ski world dominated by endless stone-and-timber lodges, uniformed drones dispensing training-manual hospitality, and interchangeable wood-fired pizzerias and mochaccino latterias, Portillo stands out for its absence of artifice. The service is abundant and genuinely friendly. The dining is fine without being fussy—Chilean wines and fresh local seafood figure prominently. And the experience is singular. Portillo operates predominantly on the old-style ski-week model: Saturday to Saturday stays with meals and lift tickets included, yet another welcome anachronism in an age of à la carte, rush-in, rush-out recreation. Not only do package deals make Portillo surprisingly affordable, especially within the costly context of ski travel, but the weeklong stays also encourage friendships and foster a sense of shared experience among guests who see one another day after day, night after night, and, in many cases, year after year. North Americans, South Americans, Europeans; skiers and boarders young and old, nascent and world famous—everyone mixes over Pisco Sours (Chile's signature cocktail, which tastes a little like baby aspirin) and après-ski sushi in the hotel's bar or amid the late-night throb of the in-house disco (not club-disco). At its best, a week in Portillo can feel like a colossal slope-side house party. Grown-ups gab and kids run free (or partake in any number of organized activities—bread-baking class is a perennial favorite). It's probably not surprising that none of the sleek and simply appointed guest rooms contains a television—yet another nod to a more genteel past—though a communal TV room and high-speed Internet access cater to those who can't quite cut the cord. Accommodations range from twin rooms to suites to practical family apartments consisting of adjoining rooms, one equipped with a double set of bunks. Adjacent to the hotel, the resort operates two smaller, less elaborate lodges: the Octagon, which offers four-person rooms outfitted with two sets of bunk beds; and the spartan Inca Lodge, a hostel-style setup aimed at younger travelers. Octagon guests take their meals in the grand dining room at the main hotel, while those at the Inca have access to a cafeteria. Beyond that, all of Portillo's offerings are open to everyone staying at the resort. Of course, Portillo's overriding amenity is its skiing. The first folks to ski in the area were 19th-century railroad engineers, who found it easier to slide than ride as they worked to establish a link between Chile and Argentina. Today, the resort, purchased from the Chilean government by American investors in 1961 and still American-owned and -run, offers skiing suitable to all abilities on 35 trails from 12 lifts, as well as innumerable acres of off-piste terrain. Portillo's altitude results in wide-open, treeless ground blanketed by reliable annual snowfall. If you see a lift line in Portillo, take a picture. Otherwise, nobody will believe you. The slopes are largely the domain of the resort's 450 guests, supplemented by a smattering of local day skiers and perhaps a few Chilean army mountain troops engaged in "training" that looks suspiciously like R&R. You may also encounter—on the slopes or horsing around on the sundeck—members of the various national ski teams who actually do train at Portillo, or perhaps a ski-film star preparing to jump cliffs for the cameras. You probably shouldn't attempt that yourself, though experts interested in exploring beyond the resort's defined boundaries may hire an experienced guide, and anyone looking to brush up on technique will find a top-notch multilingual ski school. Portillo's underpopulated slopes have a lot to do with the resort's uncommonly relaxed atmosphere, which may require an adjustment for many American skiers, who are notorious for their harried and often competitive pursuit of maximum mountain plunder. Why rush in the morning? Why not take a break to bask in the sun? Why not spend an hour (or three) watching condors circle as you enjoy a lunch of grilled meats and chilled wine at on-mountain eatery Tio Bob's? Take a dip in the outdoor pool, soak in one of the pond-size hot tubs, grab a nap, get a massage, read a book. The snow isn't going anywhere, you're not going anywhere-and Portillo isn't changing anytime soon.   SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 10 Most Precious Places on Earth Secrets to the 10 Most Popular Cruise Ports 15 Food Etiquette Rules That Might Surprise You How to Get a Free Upgrade 15 Places Every Kid Should See Before 15

The Cruise You MUST See to Believe!

The first surprise is that they're blue—startlingly blue. A glacier in Alaska doesn't look anything like an ice cube in your freezer. That's because the ice in tide-water glaciers is so densely packed that it absorbs all visible light except the short, blue spectrum. There is some white near the surface, where the ice traps air bubbles, and there are patches of brown throughout from dirt and rocks and debris. It's all a reminder of how, on its slow trek downhill, the mighty glacier's movement scrapes up everything that lies in its path, including the earth. SEE PHOTOS OF GLACIERS! We all think we know what a glacier looks like—how many times have you watched Titanic? But seeing South Sawyer Glacier in person—in one of the last wild places on the planet—is nothing like you expect. At first, the glacier looks almost like a toy. As you head out on the Disney Wonder cruise ship, you pass sparkling blue bergs bobbing like ice cubes in a punch bowl. On a few of them, you spot seals and eagles sunning themselves lazily on their icy rafts. As you get closer, however, the mood changes. You're confronted with what looks like a massive blue river of ice pouring down the mountains. The individual pieces are indeed pretty—you can see why the slang for a diamond is "ice"—but they are also threatening, with their jagged peaks and sharp crevices. Yet for all the visual drama, what's surprising about getting up close and personal with a glacier is how it hits the other senses. Listen carefully, and you'll hear low groaning and popping and maybe even a distant roar that sounds like thunder. That's the sound of an impossibly large force hauling its weight around the world. You can feel a glacier, too, even when you're not touching it. Even in the middle of the summer, you shiver in your hat and gloves, due not as much to the cold as to the chilling realization that you're witnessing a kind of raw, natural power that makes everything else feel insignificant. At no time is that sense of helplessness greater than when a glacier calves. Calving (a term that has nothing to do with cows but is related to the word cave, as in cave in) happens when massive icebergs are set loose from the motherland. You see it first: a spray, like a frozen mist or fine sleet, shimmying through the air. Then comes the violent sound of a hotel-size piece of ice falling into the water. If you're close enough, the glacier says good-bye in ripples that rock your boat, as if you'd strayed too close to a waterfall. You don't realize until afterward that you were holding your breath. And then it really hits you: The glacier is dying. Whether that's the result of global warming or the natural ebb and flow of nature is a matter of debate. But there's no question that what you've been witnessing is a piece of earth fading away. Like Luca Brasi in The Godfather, a part of South Sawyer Glacier has just gone to sleep with the fishes.

Snorkeling Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Luke Mairs's 4 p.m. departure time seems, at first, like a mistake. When his 47-foot white catamaran, On Ice, is finally prepped and putters out of Airlie Beach for a two-night sailing trip in Australia's Coral Sea, it's far too late to go beneath the waves and get face-to-snorkel with the trip's star attraction, the Great Barrier Reef. But as On Ice slips farther away from the east coast of Queensland the light starts to fade, and you suddenly appreciate the method to Mairs's mad schedule. The sun sinks behind the boat and sets the scene ahead of us on fire, with a spectrum of oozing reds and pinks cast across the water. A string of islands, the Whitsundays, comes into focus, only to fade from a rich hunter green into an inky black silhouette. It's like someone just turned on an IMAX nature film and projected it in front of your face. "If it's your first time to the Whitsundays," Mairs says, "then this is the perfect introduction." SEE PHOTOS OF AUSTRALIA! There are countless access points to the Great Barrier Reef. Americans tend to set off from Cairns, a mid-reef port that's also a major cruise-ship hub. The Whitsundays are where the Australians go, and not just because they're less crowded. They're also arguably the only spot along the 1,400-mile Reef that offers attractions above the waterline that rival what's below. There are 74 Whitsundays in all, and aside from a few given over to posh resorts, 66 of them are undeveloped, with a fragrant mix of hoop pines and lowland rain forest at their hearts and postcard-worthy beaches on their edges. You have all the thrills of the Reef—the sherbet-colored coral, tropical fish, giant turtles and rays—with the added bonus of a tropical-island chain. Plenty of companies offer sailing trips out of Airlie Beach, but for years they fell into two categories: upscale charters that can run $1,000 or more per day, or shoestring party boats where the beer-guzzling passengers easily out-drink the fish. In 2007, Luke and his younger brother, Tristram, moved to town from Melbourne and started offering affordably civilized overnights aboard On Ice and another vessel called Iceberg. Each boat sleeps 10—there are four surprisingly roomy cabins along with three bathrooms, a galley, and a dining area. Luke's girlfriend, Isabelle, serves as first mate and cooks all the meals, and all of them are delicious (though after a full day in the water even a piece of salty driftwood would go down easy). Each morning, Luke heads to sheltered coves perfect for beginners like us. Squeezing into our full-body wet suits, we novices are about as quiet as a pack of elephants, and I'm convinced that we've scared away any fish within 50 nautical miles. Yet within seconds of dipping in, I'm surrounded by such a variety of colorful sea life, it's hard to identify what's what—a bright orange-and-white clown fish darts behind a purple brain-shaped coral just as a turtle, as big as I am, glides right next to me. I spend a good half hour following in its wake along the coral ledge. "The fact that Luke is a local is pretty rare—most of the tour leaders just come into town for seasonal work, so they're not as familiar with the islands," says Daniel Fisher, a Perth native who signed on for an On Ice trip with two friends. "Luke has contingency plans if the snorkeling scene is too crowded or the waves are too rough at one place." He even has toys lashed to his boat in case you'd rather not snorkel at all. There's a collection of stand-up paddleboards, which are wider, more manageable versions of surfboards that let you balance on top and use an oar to navigate to shallow waters. You can easily see the Reef just beneath the surface. There's also a clear-bottomed kayak, made of translucent plastic, which gives the illusion of sitting on an aquarium. There's no way anything on land could live up to that kind of show, right? That's what we skeptics are thinking when Luke suggests heading ashore. Our first stop is Betty's Beach, which looks like a slice of the New England coast, plopped into the Caribbean. Thick stands of pine collide with milky white sand and aquamarine water so clear that when we hike up to a scenic overlook a half hour later, we can spy the outline of a manta ray cruising in the bay below. It's nearly perfect—aside from the presence of a dozen other sailing groups. "This is where everyone comes," Luke says later, as he's steering us away from Betty's. "You kind of have to see it—but it shouldn't be the only beach you see."  We anchor next at Whitehaven Beach, a few miles south. Whitehaven turns out to be just as gorgeous as Betty's, only we have the place to ourselves, save for a few pieces of coral and a lone starfish. Some folks take off their shoes and stroll along the waterline, but the rest of us simply lay out and relax in the sun. The sand is so fine, soft, and startlingly white that it seems like baby powder. A few hours later, when Luke offers to take us to another snorkeling spot or let us stay put, a few people say they'd rather hang at Whitehaven. Everyone ultimately agrees to go snorkeling—I, for one, want to find my turtle buddy again. But the fact that we've found a piece of dry land nearly as tempting as the magical maze of the Great Barrier Reef makes one thing clear: We've just had the surf-and-turf vacation of a lifetime.