June 13, 2012

Can an old mom really learn new tricks? After a 45-minute classroom lesson on the dangers of riptides and the basics of surfing, I found myself contemplating that exact question as I paddled out into the Atlantic, my hunky instructor, James, swimming, by my side. Belly down on my surfboard, awaiting the perfect wave, I spot my son, waving excitedly from the beach. When James shouts “Pop Up!” I try to find my balance and get up on my two bare feet, but before I’m able to attempt to hang ten I’m splashed back in the cool ocean. Repeat this scenario six times. Then the lucky number seven “Pop Up!” arrives and I do just that: I pop up like a spring onto the board, find my balance, and ride the perfect beginner’s wave towards the shoreline (for a grand three seconds). As the seconds lengthened from three to five to six, I finally understood why some people pursue waves with a passion, traveling from beach to beach, surfboard balanced atop the head, throughout the world.

My ten-year-old son would agree. Effortlessly and enthusiastically he managed to pop up onto his board on his second try. It was smooth sailing after that. Even his spills into the ocean were a thrill. Watching him as he simply beamed – proudly smiling from ear to ear on his board – stands as one of those perfect vacation souvenirs that I’ll keep forever etched in a corner of my brain.

Florida’s Space Coast is the ultimate family vacation, with just the right dose of learning, fun and adventure – plus a dash of beach bum lessons thrown into the mix. Located about an hour from Orlando (35 miles, to be exact), it’s easiest to fly into Orlando and rent a car directly from the airport.

We set up camp in Melbourne, at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza (2605 North Highway AIA, Melbourne; 321-777-4100; cpmelbourne.com). We’d spend so little time at our hotel – and so much time on the beautiful stretches of beach – that a clean, comfortable place to lay our heads was all we needed, and this hotel fit the bill. Check out the accommodation listings at the official tourism website for everything from historic bed and breakfasts to packed-with-amenities resorts, from campgrounds to rental sea view villas.

Our surf school of choice was the renowned Ron Jon Surf School (150 E Columbia Lane, Cocoa Beach; 321-868-1980, ronjonsurfschool.com), where private lessons start at just $60. You’ll be versed in surfer safety and surfing basics, and your instructor will be certain to coax you up on that board and onto a wave. Celebrate surf success and chat with the locals over tasty burritos and cool Coronas at DaKine Diego’s (1360 Hwy A1A, Satellite Beach; 321-779-8226).

The Kennedy Space Center defies every expectation. We spent an entire day here, from the time it opened to the closing minute, and found ourselves wishing we’d reserved two days to be better able to explore all the attractions. We opted for the NASA Up-Close Tour, which took us via tour bus to the closest view of the Space Shuttle Launch pad and ended with a stop at the Apollo Saturn V Center, where we were able to stand below a massive, real Saturn V rocket. Little kids will love the space themed 3-D shows; older kids (and adults) will appreciate blasting off to space via the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulator that feels like the real deal to non-astronauts.

Plan ahead and you can actually watch a rocket launch. Sign up for launch alerts at kennedyspacecenter.com. For a fee, you can set out a blanket and picnic along the space coast at the Kennedy Space Center as you witness what’s sure to be an amazing and unforgettable experience for the whole family.

Don’t miss a trip to the nearby Brevard Zoo (Melbourne, FL; 321.254.9453; brevardzoo.org). This intimate zoo brings you up close and personal with a wide variety of animals. Be sure to buy some giraffe biscuits at the gift shop so you can feed the giraffes (beware of their slurpy, long tongues) or pick up some nectar for the friendly lorikeets. We kayaked through the 22 acres of restored wetlands, passing through the Expedition Africa area and feeling like true explorers as we spotted giraffes and rhinos on the shores. The Wild Florida exhibit educated us on the natives: crocodiles, alligators, bobcats and bald eagles, among others. The daily alligator feedings will give you all the more respect for Florida’s official state reptile (and have you thinking twice before setting foot in any local creeks or ponds).

All these fun activities left us with just a bit of time to delight in the other major attraction of the Space Coast: the beaches. We woke early some days to collect shells on the shore, built sand castles while soaking up the sun, and spent many happy moments just splashing in the waves – the perfect amount of relaxation to round out a great family trip.

Image Source: Space Coast Office of Tourism