Destination: Cocoa, Florida

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Take some time and tie up at this snowbird stop on the Intracoastal Waterway

Take some time and tie up at this snowbird stop on the Intracoastal Waterway

The word is out:Cocoa welcomes cruisers with cheerful service and a taste of “Old Florida,” albeit with modern amenities. Not to be confused with neighboring Cocoa Beach, Cocoa is on the western shore of the Indian River about midway along the Sunshine State’s east coast.

Tie up at Whitley Bay Yacht Club’s marina just off Intracoastal Waterway Mile 897.5, and you’re only steps away from downtown restaurants, pubs, shops and theaters. That’s what Bill and Linda Cobe of Pasadena, Md., did.

“We’d heard good reports about Cocoa, so we came here this year,” says Bill Cobe, a longtime boater who has cruised the ICW for 35 years.

His wife is making her third “snowbird migration” aboard their 42-foot Post, Toyot.“Most boaters come for the downtown shopping and restaurants,” says Sonya Norris, marina office manager. Volunteers in the Historic Cocoa Village

Visitor Center and Brevard Art Association (four blocks from the marina) offer maps, menus, bus schedules and helpful advice.

Historic downtown begins just across Route 520 from the marina, encompassing the waterfront and about six blocks of Brevard Avenue, Delannoy Avenue and the connecting cross streets. Gas-style lamps, benches beneath shade trees, brick sidewalks, and planters of flowers invite relaxing, strolling and browsing. Antiques, collectibles, jewelry, fine art, crafts and specialty gifts predominate in the 75-plus shops and galleries. You may catch craftspeople at work in some. You can indulge your inner child at Annie’s Toy Chest

(www.anniestoychest.com) or pamper your adult self at several hair and nail salons or the Red Hat Boutique Headquarters. Book Xchg stocks new and used reading material, or check the Brevard County Library.

“No one should miss Travis Hardware,” says Norris. “It’s been here since 1885, one of the oldest family-run businesses in Florida.”

S.F. Travis Hardware also is just across Route 520 from the marina. “We’ve been in the same spot, though U.S. 1 has moved twice and the river once,” says Travis “Mac” Osborne, who represents the fourth generation of his family to own the store. “We used to have a dock for customers who came by boat, and we delivered supplies up and down the river. When [the government] built the bridge, the river silted in. Now there’s a park behind us.”

Osborne acknowledges that Cocoa has become a destination for snowbirds. “They always need something for the boat, and they come here first,” he says.

Travis Hardware’s aisles are crammed with gear often associated with wooden ships and iron men, plus modern necessities for boaters and landlubbers alike. Prominently displayed are vintage photos of Cocoa in the 1920s and ’30s, when the town shipped citrus grown in the surrounding region. Quite successfully, too, as you’ll see from the grand coquina stone home built in 1916 for prominent citrus grower Edward Porcher. (The mansion is open to the public.)

Murals on downtown stores fancifully depict the prosperous era when Cocoa was the shipping hub for the citrus industry. In the 1920s the massive Brevard Hotel attracted winter guests from the North, many of whom came for the fishing. A vintage photo in Travis Hardware shows three people struggling to hold up an ocean trout. The Florida Historical Society on Brevard Avenue (www.florida-historical-soc.org) also displays a trove of vintage photos. In fact, some show historic downtown buildings marked on the walking tour map.

You can still fish from the pier in Lee Wenner Park, just south of the bridge, and boaters anchored out can tie dinghies here in the daytime. The park includes a boat ramp, playground, gazebos and a boardwalk along the river to Riverfront Park. Children usually prefer the park’s interactive fountain to the vast lawn ringed with pavilions and an amphitheater. Riverfront Park also contains outdoor showers, basketball courts and public restrooms.

Downtown’s relaxing atmosphere is enhanced by the many sidewalk cafes, where people-watching vies with dining. “There’s something good to eat all over town, and out-of-this-world lunches,” says Norris, the marina office manager. Bakeries, coffee shops and ice cream parlors will satisfy any sweet tooth, and some 20 downtown restaurants range from pizza joints to elegant dining establishments.

Many say Norman’s Raw Bar and Grill has the best seafood in town. Others prefer upscale Café Margaux or The Black Tulip’s gourmet cuisine, ranked among Florida’s best. Murdock’s whimsical decor is accented with stained glass windows, wooden gingerbread, and furniture salvaged when the 1926 Brevard Hotel was demolished. (Return to Murdock’s with your

receipt for a free cup of coffee with breakfast.) Or head for Ossorio’s for the locals’ favorite breakfast: a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. Or cook your own meal with natural foods from Gardener’s Cottage or Boar’s Head Provisions from Bay Park Deli.

Downtown’s pace picks up after dark. Theater and music groups perform in the restored 1924 Cocoa Village Playhouse, an Art Deco landmark on Brevard Street. Live music takes over at Big Daddy’s Jazz Club, Cocktails, Murdock’s, Martinis & More, and The Dog ‘N’ Bone British Pub.

As in other Southern towns, downtown businesses may be closed on Sunday, particularly in the off-season. That may be the day to visit Cocoa Beach’s Atlantic sands, or rent a car and head to a golf course, Merritt Square Mall, Cape Canaveral or Disney World. Or just stroll downtown Cocoa and enjoy Old Florida.

Cocoa sits midway along Florida’s east coast, on the western shore of the Indian River at Intracoastal Waterway Mile 897.5. Whitley Bay Yacht Club — (321) 632-5445, VHF channel 16 — is Cocoa’s only transient facility, around 200 yards north of the twin Hubert Humphrey Bridges (fixed 65-foot clearance). A marked 7-foot-deep channel leads from the ICW to the downtown facility. Cruisers requesting more assistance will be “talked in over the radio” by office manager Sonya Norris or dockmaster Bill Davidson, who lives aboard at the marina. They warn northbound boaters not to cut the corner too closely.

A wooden breakwater protects the 100-plus slips, many reserved for transients. The face dock accommodates megayachts, and slip depths range to 7 feet. Rates are $1.15 a foot per night, plus electricity. Pumpout, showers, laundry, lounge, free Internet access, and a small store are on site. Services and minor repairs can be arranged. Banana River Marine on Merritt Island’s eastern shore and boatyards in Port Canaveral do major repairs and haulouts. Free short-term boat tie-ups are allowed; dinghy dockage is prohibited.

Fuel is available on the ICW at Titusville around 21 miles north or in Eau Gallie, about 17 miles south. Marinas on the Canaveral Barge Canal also sell fuel.

Rental cars can be arranged, though many boaters take the Space Coast Area Transit bus to the beach and supermarket.

The anchorage off Lee Wenner Park (south of the Hubert Humphrey Bridge approach, west of the ICW channel) has 7- to 10-foot depths, but it apparently can get rough. You can dinghy to the park docks during the day. The park has a four-bay boat ramp.

NOAA chart 11485, ICW, Tolomato River to Palm Shores, covers Cocoa and approaches.

If you decide to go

Information

• Historic Cocoa Village Association, Visitors Center, Brevard Art Association, (321) 433-0362. www.cocoavillage.com

• City of Cocoa, www.cocoafl.org

• Cocoa Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, (321) 459-2200. www.visitcocoabeach.com

• Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism, (321) 637-5483. www.space-coast.com

Events

• Dec. 3-4: Holiday Craft Show, with more than

350 artists and crafters displaying wares along Brevard Street in Cocoa Village, (321) 631-9075.

• Early December: Cocoa Beach Christmas Lighted Boat Parade along the Banana River from the Cocoa Beach Yacht Club in Port Canaveral, (321) 783-1207.

• Dec. 31: Family First Night Celebration, with food, music, games, and entertainment at the Civic Center, (321) 639-3500.

• Dec. 31: Rocking the Dock New Year’s Eve Party, with food, music, bubbly and midnight fireworks over the Atlantic, Cocoa Beach Pier, (321) 783-7549.

• March 3-4: Spring Craft Show, with 250 artists and crafters displaying wares along Brevard Street in Cocoa Village, (321) 631-9075.

• Fridays (in-season): Brown Bag Jazz Lunch, with live music from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the gazebo on Brevard Street, (321) 631-9075.

Cocoa’s neon neighbor

Cocoa Beach, located on a barrier island between the Atlantic and the Banana River Lagoon, is eons from quaint or historic. Flashing neon signs along beachside Highway A1A (aka the strip) promote the food, gear, tans and lodgings considered necessary for fun, fun, fun on Cocoa Beach’s miles-long sandy Atlantic beach.

Ron DiMenna and other surfers discovered in the 1960s that Cocoa Beach’s surf is awesome, and the rest is history. DiMenna’s Ron Jon Surf Shop and nine other surf shops along A1A sell board-sports equipment, beach accessories and swimwear. The famous 52,000-square-foot flagship Ron Jon store is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and draws more than 2 million visitors annually. (The PT Cruiser woodie outside isn’t for sale.)

Parks line Cocoa Beach’s oceanfront, where young and old alike crowd the sands and surf year round near the many public access points. You might even find yourself on a surfboard for a lesson.

The 800-foot wooden Cocoa Beach Pier has been a landmark since 1962. On the shore end you’ll find shops, restaurants, snack bars and The Boardwalk, where live entertainment is featured for the “Boardwalk Bash” Friday nights. The outer end of the pier is reserved (at a fee) for anglers, bench-sitters and patrons of the tiki bar. The most persistent patron of the bait and tackle shop, where you can rent equipment, is a cattle egret that deftly spears and eats any bait shrimp tossed its way. From anywhere along the pier you’ll have a commanding view of the activity on the beach and in the surf, as well as of space launches from Cape Canaveral.

Between the pier and Ron Jon Surf Shop stands the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame Museum. Displays follow the development of the sport from its Hawaiian beginnings through the rise of Cocoa Beach as the capital of East Coast professional surfing today. There’s dramatic video of surfing in wild conditions, and one exhibit features Kelly Slater, a Cocoa Beach native and seven-time world surfing champion.

Beach chairs, umbrellas and rubber rafts are available for rent, and you can lug a cooler onto the sands. However, dozens of the 192 eateries on the three-block-by-5.5-mile island are within walking distance of the beach. Ricky’s Ice Cream Parlor, by the pier, also has a video arcade.

Though synonymous with sand and surf, Cocoa Beach — an 8-mile car or bus ride from Cocoa — has a quieter side: its western shore along the Banana River Aquatic Preserve. The brackish river is part of the 150-mile Indian River Lagoon system that covers 40 percent of Florida‘s East Coast. It’s said to be the most biodiverse lagoon in North America, home to some 4,200 species of temperate and tropical plants and animals.

The Banana River is several miles wide in places, but it’s fairly shallow, from 6 inches to just 7 feet. Local boaters carefully follow privately marked channels and the canals along the shoreside subdivisions. From Cocoa, it’s probably easier to hop aboard a water taxi or tour boat than to take your own vessel, since the closest access is four miles north through the Canaveral Barge Canal and Port Canaveral Inlet. The other access is 17 miles south around Merritt Island. (Island Boat Lines — http://www.islandboatlines.com — offers eco-tours and taxi services from various locations.)

In the Banana River Aquatic Preserve you’ll always see seagulls, ospreys and pelicans. Brown pelicans live here year-round, and hundreds of white pelicans winter in the river. Over the grassy flats and among the mangrove islands you’ll sometimes spot eagles, roseate spoonbills, terns, nesting great blue herons, possibly an alligator. Some 50 manatees winter in the small canals. Local dolphins number in the hundreds and often play near tour boats.

The dolphins apparently never leave the lagoon. Naturalists have studied them for years and found that they are a little smaller than ocean dolphins and have shorter-range sonar, likely because of the shallow water.