Travel

Alligators, Astronauts, and Art Await on This Road Trip Along Florida’s Space Coast

Shutterstock
Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Visitors to the central part of Florida are typically there for one of two reasons: Theme parks or the Kennedy Space Center. But if all you see during your time there is NASA and cartoon characters, you’ll miss much of what makes this part of the state so special. Add a couple of days on to your vacation, rent a car, and take a road trip through Florida’s Space Coast, where alligators, sea turtles, surf lessons, and fantastic food all wait along A1A.

Domenic Agostini
Domenic Agostini
Domenic Agostini

Day 1: Orlando to Melbourne

Whether you’re leaving from the theme parks, downtown Orlando, or MCO airport, your first stop when leaving the city should be the Wave Hotel in Lake Nona. The high-tech hotel is worth a look even for non-guests as it has one of the best collections of modern art featured at any hotel in the US. A couch set on its side welcomes guests into the lobby, which is illuminated by oscillating chandeliers. The back terrace doubles as a chrome sculpture garden which, among other works, has a companion bull to the one on Wall Street, and a provocative depiction of “Leda and the Swan.”

You can opt to check out the bustling suburb of Lake Nona, or head out on US-192 to Melbourne. The drive isn’t particularly scenic, but as you roll through the Central Florida swampland, you may find yourself wondering if any alligators are lurking by the side of the road. And just as you’re nearing Melbourne, you find a place where your questions are answered: Camp Holly Airboat Rides offers a truly Floridian experience, where salty pilots take you into the marshlands and, yes, the thick of alligator country. It’s one of the few airboat tours you’ll find north of the Everglades.

After delving into the swamps, you’ll likely be hungry. Skip the snack stand at Holly and save yourself for the Intracoastal Brewing Company in the heart of Melbourne’s Eau Gallie Arts District. While the beers are fantastic, the food is even better. Enjoy the breezy, dog-friendly patio and savor chicken bacon ranch tacos and teriyaki steak bites among the brewery’s colorful murals.

After you eat, get a little exercise wandering the colorful streets and boutiques of the Eau Gallie Arts District. Melbourne offers an official mural trail, but you’ll be equally entertained wandering in and out of the independent artisan shops. Each offers clothes, crafts, and other unique items that make for great conversation pieces once you get home.

As evening rolls in, check in at the Hotel Melby, a chic, art-adorned boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Melbourne. It’s the only hotel of its kind along the Space Coast, and the rooftop offers a spectacular place to watch the sunset. After the sun goes down, walk a block or so for dinner at Crush XI, where inventive stuff like sriracha-marinated flatiron steak and smoked duck fettuccine are on the menu. Or opt for sweet, smoky barbecue at Cyderman’s.

Getty Images courtesy of Enterprise
Getty Images courtesy of Enterprise
Getty Images courtesy of Enterprise

If you’re feeling inspired to plan a road trip, you’re going to need a vehicle that takes you the distance. Enterprise provides award-winning customer service, streamlined service through its mobile app, and a fleet of vehicles to help meet any road tripper’s needs. Reserve a vehicle at one of Enterprise’s convenient neighborhood or airport locations worldwide and find your new place to love.

Zimmerman Agency
Zimmerman Agency
Zimmerman Agency

Day 2: Melbourne to Cocoa Beach

In the morning, log some beach time at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge about a 25-minute drive to the south. It’s a completely undeveloped stretch of sand whose surrounding hammocks (coastal habitat) have been restored to what they looked like before rampant development. In addition to being a great place to enjoy the coastline without crowds, the refuge is the world’s largest nesting beach for green turtles. You can stop into the welcome center after your beach day to learn all about the refuge’s conservation efforts.

From there, head north on A1A, and watch the Atlantic peek out from behind beachside homes and condo buildings as you venture towards Cocoa Beach. The hour-ish drive takes you through Patrick Space Force Base, and right into the heart of America’s space country.

The main attraction here is obviously the Kennedy Space Center, home base of America’s space program. The tour offers an education in the past, present, and future of NASA, and features artifacts from the Apollo missions as well as several others. The Kennedy Space Center also just debuted All Systems Are Go, a 20-minute music and light show that teaches visitors about the space program.

Cocoa Beach is about more than just the space center, though, so after your requisite trip to NASA, take a stroll on the Cocoa Beach Pier. Walk to the end and enjoy a meal over the water at the Rikki Tiki Tavern – Cocoa’s most scenic lunch spot – with everything from Korean bibimbap bowls to gator melt sandwiches accompanying a 360-degree view of the ocean.

Cocoa Beach is also Florida’s surfing capital, and no trip here is complete without a visit to the original Ron Jon Surf Shop. If the boards and surf wax get you itching to hang ten, walk a couple of blocks to the School of Surf. Here, a family of lifelong Cocoa Beach surfers will take you out into the water and show you that even on the smaller waves in Florida, surfing can be a rush. After an active afternoon, check into the Beachside Hotel and Suites, Cocoa’s only hotel with its own lazy river, where you can float and gaze up at the sun and relive the second day of your road trip.

Once you’ve relaxed and showered, hit the town for dinner. Tucked next to a downtown jazz club is Flavour Kitchen, arguably the best restaurant on the Space Coast, which could hold its own with anything in a big city. The chef-driven spot features unique dishes like smoked salmon nachos with black caviar, fig jam flatbread with black pepper ranch, and maple chili glazed bacon, plus an impressive wine list.

If you’d like some further unwinding after dinner, grab an ice cream cone and play 18 holes at Lighthouse Cove Adventure Golf. Or if it’s still light out, book a sunset sail with Sail Cocoa Beach. You just might find yourself sharing the Intracoastal Waterway with a pod of local dolphins.

Sunrise Bread Co.
Sunrise Bread Co.
Sunrise Bread Co.

Day 3: Cocoa Beach to Titusville

If you time your trip right, you can also catch a rocket launch while you’re on the Space Coast. You’ll likely have to wake up early, but if you’re up for it, drive about 25 minutes north to Kennedy Point Park in Titusville. It offers an ideal vantage point to watch the rockets take off across the water. If you can’t focus without your morning coffee, stop into Sunrise Bread Co. a few blocks away and grab some fresh made pastries to munch on while you wait for the launch.

Now that you’re in the space spirit, delve even deeper into America’s space history at the American Space Museum. While not affiliated with NASA, the smaller museum’s exhibits go into painstaking detail about specific missions throughout the American space program, and lets you get closer to 1960s-era artifacts than you can at Kennedy.

A short walk through downtown Titusville brings you to the museum’s Walk of Fame, set in Space View Park. You’ll be able to see how your hands stack up to the ones eternalized in concrete by famous Apollo-era astronauts.

Post up for lunch at Playalinda Brewing in downtown Titusville. It’s located in a historic hardware store, and eating here feels a little like walking into a 1930s street-side restaurant in small-town America. If the weather is pleasant, grab a table outside and people-watch as you enjoy the murals along the city’s main drag. The red pepper hummus is cool and refreshing on such an afternoon, though the pulled pork nachos are a can’t-miss.

Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum. Visitors can explore a massive collection of military planes, featuring Blue Angels, Russian Migs, and even a B52 cockpit that you can climb inside. It’s an Instagram dream for plane buffs and a fascinating look at America’s airborne military history.

Cap off the evening at Third Culture Kitchen, where cuisines from across Latin America and Asia merge in a delightfully varied menu. And while the mojo pork bao buns, phaenang curry, and brisket burritos are all outstanding, you can get a true taste of Florida with the Public sub (fried chicken, mayo, shredded lettuce, tomato). 

As the sun sets, drive back down towards Cocoa Beach, and enjoy one last night by the ocean. In the morning, it’s a short drive down the Beachline Expressway through Central Florida to Orlando. From there, you can continue exploring the city or head home. Either way, you’ll have done the Space Coast like a true space enthusiast, and hopefully learned a little about what makes Florida so special along the way.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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