COCOA BEACH — There is more to this sprawling beach town than meets the eye.
Visitors are drawn like a magnet to the cluster of chain hotels and crass commercialism lining the beach near the pier, including the landmark Ron Jon’s Surf Shop, its imitators and wannabes.
But is that all there is?
Beaches less traveled
The real action in Cocoa Beach is four miles south of the pier in the real downtown, where this “Old Florida” beach town is alive and well.
In fact, it’s bustling, a carnival for locals when weekends roll around.
Walking out to the beach here is a rite of passage between two notorious watering holes — Coconuts on the Beach with it’s sprawling outdoor deck and bikini parade, and the Beach Shack, a dive bar that favors locals.
Informally known as “Coconuts Beach,” this stretch of sand is almost always packed and a focal point of “the scene.” It’s the beach to see and be seen.
But parking is hard to find, so you may want to wander a little further south to the less-traveled 16th Street Beach, largely ignored by tourists other than those comfortably lodged in nearby mom and pop motels. Access the 16th Street Beach from Robert P. Murkshe Memorial Park, 1600 South Atlantic Ave, 2 1/2 miles south of the Minuteman Causeway.
This beach is home of Surfet321, an all-girls surf camp run by girls for girls.
Another good option is Lori Wilson Park, although it brings you back north into a cluster of high-rise beach resorts and condominiums, but there’s plenty of available parking.
Fish Shack Row
A promenade of funky seafood restaurants line the south bank of Port Canaveral, next to the cruise terminal, and most offer outdoor seating with premium views of ships coming and going.
By the look of the crowds, the most popular of those eateries is Grills Seafood Deck and Tiki Bar, the first restaurant you encounter along Glen Cheek Drive, but we rolled a little further along the strip and found our nest at the rustic Baja Chowder and Seafood.
We loved the menu, and the genuine fish-shack atmosphere. We also loved that it was not as crowded as Grills. Baja’s menu is creative (Grouper Pot Pie with crab cake crust, $12.95) and prices are moderate, under $20 for most entrees. You can eat outdoors or indoors, or at the covered outdoor bar on the deck.
I would suggest that any of the restaurants along this strip are worthy: Fishlips Waterfront Bar & Grill, Rusty’s Seafood and Oyster Bar, Seafood Atlantic and Milliken’s Reef, all of which enjoy solid reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp!
Sail or paddle the Banana River
Across the Banana River from Port Canaveral, Kelly Park’s 16 acres roll out along the Merritt Island waterfront. (Not to be confused with Orange County’s Kelly Park/Rock Springs.)
The park features plenty of parking, picnic pavilions, tables, grills and rest rooms, as well as a concession where you can rent sailing catamarans, windsurfing boards, kayaks and paddleboards.
Or simply set up a beach canopy on the grass and launch your own boats from the boat ramp or the natural beach.
The concession is run by Calema Windsurfing and Watersports, offering windsurfing boards for $55 for three hours, kayaks and paddleboards for $20 to $25 an hour, and $65-$85 for three hours on a sailboat. The concession also offers kayak tours.
Another excellent paddling destination is the 338-acre Thousand Islands Wildlife Preserve’s mangrove tunnels with islands bursting with wildlife. In these wetlands, channels and ponds, wading birds, leaping dolphin and waterfowl flourish, and you can enjoy them from a kayak, paddle board or canoe.
Access to the Thousand Islands Nature Preserve is south of Minuteman Causeway from Ramp Road Park, where you can launch your boats. You can also schedule a guided kayak tour through the islands with Adventure Kayak of Cocoa Beach, which you can book online or by calling 321-480-8632.
Stroll through Historic Cocoa Village
Cocoa Village was the big surprise for me. On the mainland, off the beaten path, you wouldn’t know it’s even there without somebody telling you. We stumbled across it by accident.
Like many Florida communities, the city of Cocoa is redeveloping it’s historic downtown, encouraging unique shops and gourmet restaurants to locate here. And they are.
The narrow, tree-lined and walkable streets offer respite from the beach’s stark commercialism, serving up a bit of character along with boutiques, art galleries and craft shops. Stop for a late lunch at a British pub.
A focal point of the district is the Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse, which hosted its first performances in 1924. By Florida standards, that’s historic. For another dose of history, visit S.F. Travis Hardware, which has been in business for 125 years.
Government and business offices are nearby, so the village has a core of activity that will keep it alive year around.
OK. I’ll give you Ron Jon’s
You already knew Cocoa Beach is a surfing mecca, and you’ve seen the ubiquitous billboard promotions for the “world’s largest surf shop.” Yes, Ron Jon’s is in the heart of all that commercialism near the pier that I’ve suggested you avoid.
But have you actually stopped and shopped?
Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’ll find everything in this amazing store from sandals to surfboards, T-shirts to trinkets, beach umbrellas to chairs. And the parking is free.
You cannot leave this wonderland of surf and sand without buying something. I return every few years to replace my Ron Jon beach hoodie, my go-to wrap for cooler weather.
While I’m there, I peruse (and often buy) the latest Ron Jon T-shirt designs, which change every year.
Even though I’m not a true surfer (I opt for Hobie Cats and kayaks), I am always fascinated by the colorful surfboard displays at Ron Jon’s, long and short and in between, lining the walls of the store’s mezzanine like so many toy soldiers.
Yup. I’m a beach bum, and if you live in Florida, you are likely one as well. Ron Jon’s is your temple. (Ron Jon’s is at 4151 North Atlantic Avenue, near the intersection with the Cocoa Beach Causeway, amid a sea of shops hoping to capture some of Ron Jon’s glamour.)
More things to do near Cocoa Beach