Florida’s East Coast presents a tremendously built-up mix of hotels, resorts, beaches and affluent developments north of Miami all the way to St Augustine. This is not to say this section of Florida is without merit, but it’s a lot less laidback than the state’s western Gulf Coast. Fort Lauderdale, no longer the party town of popular imagination, is today a sophisticated cultural centre with a bubbling, increasingly upmarket social scene. To the north, Boca Raton and Palm Beach are quiet, exclusive communities, their Mediterranean Revival mansions inhabited almost entirely by multimillionaires. Beyond Palm Beach, the coast is less developed; even the Space Coast, anchored by the extremely popular Kennedy Space Center, is smack in the middle of a nature preserve. Just north, Daytona Beach attracts race car- and motorcycle-enthusiasts with its festivals and the Daytona International Speedway. Just south of the Georgia state line, St Augustine is the spot where Spanish settlers established the first permanent European foothold in North America.
By car, the scenic route along the coast is Hwy-A1A, which sticks to the ocean side of the Intracoastal Waterway, formed when the rivers dividing the mainland from the barrier islands were joined and deepened during World War II. When necessary, Hwy-A1A turns inland and links with the much less picturesque US-1. The speediest road in the region, I-95, runs about ten miles west of the coastline, and is only worthwhile if you’re in a hurry.Read More
The Kennedy Space Center
The Kennedy Space Center
The Kennedy Space Center is the nucleus of the US space programme: it’s here that space vehicles are developed, tested and blasted into orbit. Merritt Island has been the centre of NASA’s activity since 1964, when the launch pads at Cape Canaveral US Air Force base, across the water, proved too small to cope with the giant new Saturn V rockets used to launch the Apollo missions. With the shuttle Atlantis in 2011, NASA concluded its manned launch programme for the foreseeable future; hundreds of workers were phased out and the area businesses that catered to them have taken a bit of a hit.
Crowds are thinnest at weekends and in May and September – but at any time, allow an entire day to see everything. The various exhibits in the Visitor Complex – mission capsules, spacesuits, lunar modules, a mock-up Space Shuttle flight deck – will keep anyone with the slightest interest in space exploration interested for a couple of hours. Afterwards, be sure to watch the two impressive IMAX movies and take a stroll around the open-air Rocket Garden, full of deceptively simple rockets from the 1950s, cleverly illuminated to show how they looked at blast-off. The newest attraction is the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulation ride where passengers get to see what it’s like to be an astronaut, vertically “launching” into space and orbiting Earth aboard the Space Shuttle. The remainder of the visit is comprised of a two-hour guided bus tour, which passes the 52-storey Vehicle Assembly Building (where Space Shuttles are prepared for launch), stops to view the launch pad and winds up with an opportunity to inspect a Saturn V rocket and witness a simulated Apollo countdown. For the dates and times of real-life launches, check the website, or sign up for event reminders by email.
Near the Space Center, on Hwy-405 in Titusville, the Astronaut Hall of Fame (included with regular admission) is one of Florida’s most entertaining interactive museums, where exhibits allow you to experience G-force and a bumpy ride along the surface of Mars.
Forty miles north of Daytona Beach, US-1 passes through the heart of charismatic ST AUGUSTINE. Eminently walkable, with a densely packed city centre and a Mediterranean feel, it bucks the daunting sprawl of much of Florida’s East Coast. The oldest permanent settlement in the US, with much from its early days still intact along its narrow streets, it also offers two alluring lengths of beach just across Matanzas Bay.
Bordered on the west by St George Street – once the main thoroughfare and now a tourist-trampled, though genuinely historic, pedestrianized strip, its entrance anchored by the eighteenth-century City Gate – and on the south by Plaza de la Constitución, St Augustine’s Old Town holds the well-tended evidence of the town’s Spanish period. It may be small, but there’s a lot to see: an early start, around 9am, will give you a lead on the tourist crowds, and should allow a good look at almost everything in one day.
Though Ponce de León touched ground here in 1513, European settlement didn’t begin until half a century later, when Spain’s Pedro Menéndez de Avilés put ashore on St Augustine’s Day in 1565. The town developed into a major social and administrative centre, soon to become the capital of east Florida. Subsequently, Tallahassee became the capital of a unified Florida, and St Augustine’s fortunes waned. Since then, expansion has largely bypassed the town – a fact inadvertently facilitating the restoration programme that has turned this quiet community into a fine historical showcase.