Yeah, regular Bunnyists know that we’re big fans of Sunshine State exploration. We’ve scoured the lower Keys, braved Orlando in season, and have contemplated a permanent hideout on the Gulf shores of Anna Maria/Longboat/Sarasota area.
But there’s more coastline in Florida than in any other state in the union, so in October we dusted off our Lewis & Clark membership cards, hitched up the Bunny Wagon, and aimed south, this time for points not yet traveled. Fall is our favorite time of year to visit Florida–the crowds are smaller, air and water temps are still in the 80s, and pricing tends to be less expensive (although that definitely seems to be trending for the worse).
Mrs Bunny’s research was stellar as usual, and we ended up on the Space Coast barrier island of Cocoa Beach. If you’re like us, your Cocoa Beach awareness comes almost solely from re-runs of the classic 1960s TV show “I Dream of Jeannie”.
Much of Cocoa Beach still holds fast to that Old School Florida look & feel, with snazzy classic beachfront properties that seem perfectly suited for a bartender who’s well-versed in proper Rob Roy, Manhattan, and Whiskey Sour mixology. You can practically hear the big brass jazz music wafting in the breeze. Like much of the mid-and upper part of Florida’s Atlantic side, the Space Coast is decidedly devoid of the South Beach glitz & glamor, which is just fine by us. They have a passion for strip clubs (we counted 4 within a few miles of our condo), barbecue joints (at least 5), and Thai restaurants (6+).
Cocoa Beach is also the East Coast’s surfing epicenter, um, dudes. Every day, dozens of boarders were out there doing their thing as the sun rose, which also lent that 1960s mood. Lessons, board rentals, and surfer lore were rampant all over town.
It’s also easy to reach. The closest airport is Orlando, about 50 minutes northwest (as are the Big O’s theme parks, if you’re so inclined). If you’re driving down, Cocoa sits about 15 minutes east of I-95, an hour or so south of Daytona.
As usual, we steered clear of the whole hotel/motel thing, and went condo. Mrs. Bunny worked her magic, and decided on Chateau by the Sea (5300 Ocean Beach Blvd, Cocoa Beach), a cheesy-named yet unassuming 5-story direct oceanfront property with off-street parking and heated pool that’s just steps from the famed Cocoa Beach Pier (more on that later). Our condo was a top floor end unit, with two bedrooms, two full baths, washer/dryer in unit, full kitchen, two balconies, amazing panoramic views, and free wi-fi. The unit was clean and decently furnished, and even had a walk-in closet loaded with beach stuf. With October pricing, this gem set us back just $100 per night. In our book, that’s a GB No-Brainer. In fact, it was so inexpensive that we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: insect infestation, loud neighbors, sulfur water, poltergeists? Nope, none of the above. It really was absolutely fine. Even our bed was comfortable.
There were a few mildly wacky things. For one, the shower curtain/rod in the master bath fell on our heads a few times while bathing. And not that we saw a gathering of interlopers (or any, really), but in order to get to the beach, you have to do this Get Smart operation of a key-lock gate leading into the pool area, circumnavigate the pool, and then unlock a second gate to reach the sand–a juggler’s challenge when you’re laden with sand chairs, cooler, beach bag, umbrella, etc. Still, that’s nit-picking of the first degree. We’d absolutely return, and with smiles on our faces.
Mad Jacks Grillin Shack (6006 N. Atlantic Ave)
Yeah, honestly, the cutesy name scared the hell out of us. But after several locals pointed us that way, we listened. And we’re glad we did. Mad Jack’s is as real a barbecue joint as any we’ve found in NC, TX, or beyond. It’s sooo not the tourist trap we were envisioning, either. The owner was warm, laid back, and welcoming, and when he found out we were first-timers he had the server bring out samples of their pulled pork, brisket, and tri-tip for the table. Each were fantastic, and down-home authentic as a bar fight. They also make their own sauces (sorry, Aramark), which were equally amazing. But be warned: their “extremely hot hot sauce” lives up to its name. Our oldest son had it on the Maverick Burger (which also features fresh jalapenos) and was sweating when he was done. The deadly sauce is so dee-lish that we ate it til we were mouth-on-fire like Lloyd and Harry, stopped til the heat went down and, then went right back for more.
The Sandbar (4301 Ocean Beach Blvd)
Sensing a theme here? We didn’t find a preponderance of fine dining whilst in the area, so when in Rome…The Sandbar is a classic beach shack dive, with great wings, huge sandwiches, and an extensive drink menu that would even keep Ozzy busy for awhile. The “Cat 5” Hurricane is mixed with five different rums (including Bacardi 151), yet went down smoothly, although it did strip some of the varnish off the table when I spilled a bit.
3ARides (210 N. Orlando Avenue 321-868-8820) 3A offers private and group surfing lessons, and board and bike rentals, and the owner was a wealth of knowledge of all things Cocoa Beach. Our youngest (the athlete) went out with an instructor, and after a few expected wipeouts he was riding freely. We rented a board for him to try for a few days for around $50. Another point worth noting–we bought a few 2-for-$10 T-shirts with their logo on them. On the first wearing, one of them tore like I was wearing Kleenex. Given the price point, I didn’t expect much retribution, but after reaching out to the owner and letting him know what happened, he explained there was an acid washing error, apologized profusely and shipped two us new shirts that so far have held up just fine. Well done, sir.
Ron Jon Surf Shop (4151 N. Atlantic Avenue 321-799-8888) Iconic Ron Jon now boasts 12 locations up and down the East Coast, but this is the very first one. What started out as a simple shack has blown up into a superstore and attached resort, kinda like South of the Border without the urine smell. Prices are high, and the place is packed with surfers, surf posers, and general tourists, but there’s plenty to see and buy, and is worth at least a brief visit.
Cocoa Beach Tennis Club (Tom Warriner Blvd, off Minutemen Causeway 321-868-3224) Tennis in Florida is a beautiful thing, which is why so many pros and coaches call it home. The Cocoa Beach Tennis Club is owned and run by the city’s Parks and Rec Dept; a first class facility that blows away the private clubs back home. CBTC has both clay and hard courts, as well as a pro shop, stringing, lessons, and a small clubhouse.
Membership DOES get you a price break, to be sure, as does being a resident. But the price for non-member, non-resident players? A paltry $7 per 90 minutes for clay, or $4 for hard court per player! To compare, Cross Courts in Easton, MD charges more than $30 per hour per court for non-members, with no clay. Plus, the CBTC staff was laid back, and super-easy to work with.
Cocoa Beach Pier (401 Meade Ave 321-783-7549) This is a true slice of old school Florida. Walk onto the pier, with its collection of gift shops and food spots and it’s the Nixon Era all over again. Most of the pier is free to see, but it’ll cost ya a mean $2 to go all the way out to the end and spectate where the fishermen are doing their thing (you sort of need to meander to navigate your way out there too). But there’s a sweet little tiki bar out on the tip (be sure to ask for a “real” margarita) and live music in the afternoon, not to mention a Grade A people-watching opportunity.
Mangoes @ International Palms Resort (1300 N Atlantic Ave 800-916-4339) We passed this place on the main drag all week long, and the “Live Reggae Music Every Sunday Afternoon” sign lured us more every time we saw it. Come on, Sunday!!!
But such is life that the expectation never came close to the reality.
Mangoes is a beach bar attached to an aging “resort” hotel that had a 1980s heyday feel to it, at least on the outside. The bar itself is technically on the water, inasmuch as there’s nothing between it and the Atlantic, which is sorta over there. Walking in, we immediately picked up the scent of Ultimate Tourist Trap, but still, margaritas and reggae music were beckoning. So we found a table (place was maybe half-full), ordered drinks from sticky menus (I hate that), and took in the surroundings. First of all, the reggae was only half-live: two guys in bad Hawaiian shirts; one with an acoustic guitar, the other playing keys, with a pre-recorded backing track that sounded a lot like the organ store in the mall. No, we weren’t expecting Toots & the Maytals, but this was as true reggae as Taco Bell is authentic Mexican cuisine.
We sat through versions of ‘Red Red Wine’ and ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ that would’ve bored Mormons, and our cocktails and server were still MIA. So I went to the bar and explained our situation to the two tenders chilling out. One of them assured me that our waitress would be “right over”.
‘Right over’ is, of course, a relative term. Ten minutes later, we were still high and dry. And done. Mrs. Bunny told the bartender to cancel the order, and we split and went to the Sandbar instead. Maybe Mangoes’ food and drinks were amazing, and maybe Damien & Ziggy Marley sat in for the 2nd set. We’ll never know.
Cocoa Beach is a solid go-to for a family getaway. Water was warm, and the easy waves make it a great place to learn to surf. If you don’t require fancy, or have the need to see a Bentley Continental on every street corner, Coca is nice, reasonably clean, affordable, and rife with food and stuff-to-do options. It’s also a great spot to put a drink in your hand and your toes in the sand and simply watch the surfers surf, the pelicans dive, and the cruise ships come and go.