Coo-Coo for Cocoa Beach

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.

LODGING

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.

The Cocoa Beach Pier was right there, and as kitchy as we’d hoped.

Does this look like a $100/night oceanfront condo?

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.

OUR RECOMMENDATIONS

FOOD

Mad Jacks Grillin Shack (6006 N. Atlantic Ave)

mouth....watering....

mouth….watering….

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)

We love joints like these.

We love joints like these.

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.

Entertainment/Shopping

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. 

The original Ron Jon surf shack has grown a tad.

The original Ron Jon surf shack has grown a tad.

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.

the pier is a throwback o old school Florida

the pier is a throwback o old school Florida

THINGS TO AVOID GB "ewww" face

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.

Conclusion

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.

GB

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Getaway Bunny’s Guide To Mid-Shore Tiki Bars

Kent Island’s Dirty Dave’s is the perfect place to unplug for a few hours.

When the weather outside gets good, our thoughts here at Getaway Bunny Worldwide turn to the same thing every year: outdoor drinking. (Shameful, I know).

Here on Maryland’s Mid-Shore, we’ve got a number of options if we wanna be waterfront when we sit and sip. And I ain’t gonna lie to ya; we’ve tried them all. I mean, how else can we give you our professional opinions?

What we look for in a beach/dock/tiki bar is pretty simple:

  1. A sweet, waterfront location/exceptional  view
  2. A chillaxed, drama-free vibe(aka: low meathead quotient)
  3. An easygoing staff that’s almost as happy to be there as you are (uptight bartenders and roid- raging bouncers like some of those places downy ocean need not apply)
  4. Prices that don’t make you jump off the nearest pier when they bring you the check

NOTE: (we’ll rate each venue on these criteria, 1-5 golden carrots, based on our experiences.)

Personally, I think the gold standard of beach bars is found throughout Florida and the Caribbean (more on that in future posts). A truly proper beach bar happens for all the right reasons; and almost by accident. Try too hard to replicate the island way, and you end up with a tacky Holiday Inn lounge that’s sporting a bad mural painting of a palm tree sunset, and some cheesy guy in a Hawaiian shirt warbling Margaritaville off-key in the corner. No thanks.

So, here are our Mid-Shore favorites, our “it’ll do’s”, and the ones that we go out of our way to avoid like a Richard Simmons infomercial.

 

A.    GB TOP PICKS

 

Dirty Dave’s Tiki Bar

Kentmorr Marina, Stevensville  www.Kentmorr.com

Dirty Dave’s is a true hidden gem; a thatched shack that’s half-buried in the sand, smack dab on the Chesapeake Bay’s front row. You can get to DD’s by land, sea, and even by air, thanks to the landing strip that’s right there in the neighborhood (please don’t drink and fly; that’s just plain scary).

This place is a destination all its own. Show up there on a Summer Saturday and it’s almost sensory overload. Walk up from the parking lot and you’re met with mountains of steamed crabs on diners’ tables, a long line of bikini-laden boat parties along the south bulkhead, live music grooving on the massive deck, people coming and going from all directions, and the thatch-top tiki bar itself, surrounded by good-timers, with the blue-green bay waters of the bay providing the perfect backdrop.

Dirty Dave’s cocktails are pristine, the seafood at Kentmorr Restaurant (same property) is mostly local, and the sunsets are among the best you’ll find this side of Mallory Square. Like my friend Christine says, “this place feels like a vacation!” Nuff said.

OUR CHOICE FOR: Best place to insert toes in sand while cocktailing.

LOCATION: ◊◊◊◊◊          

VIBE:  ◊◊◊◊◊     

STAFF: ◊◊◊◊                         

VALUE: ◊◊◊◊

DOCKING? Yes                    

LIVE MUSIC? Regularly                 

KID FRIENDLY? Sure

 

 

The Sandbar

Rolph’s Wharf Marina, Chestertown www.RolphsWharf.com

The GB team and friends, beachfront at the Sandbar last Friday.

The Sandbar is exactly that—a covered bar fashioned out of an old fishing boat, sitting in the sand on a secluded bank of the historic Chester River. It’s a lot like one of those unique little hole-in-the-wall joints in Key West or lower Outer Banks that’s loaded with colorful local characters and ageless sea salt atmosphere.

Bartenders at the Sandbar are supremely talented, pouring drinks that pack the same punch as a Ray Lewis 3rd down stop. It’s beautiful to witness, and can make the most amazing things happen. Last time there, I ended up doing shots of Patron with a jazz singer from New Jersey and a DC lobbyist whose boat was bigger than our house. We also met a guy who may be the world’s foremost expert on unfastening bras without the bra-wearer knowing. True story.

Beyond that, there’s plenty of beach seating, and a river to wade into (complete with snakes), and some decent bar-food options including hot wings that are actually HOT.

Sandbar ain’t fancy, and definitely not high-fallutin, but it’s pretty close to perfect.

OUR CHOICE FOR: Best place to hide from the rest of Planet Earth.

LOCATION: ◊◊◊◊

VIBE:  ◊◊◊◊◊

STAFF: ◊◊◊◊                        

VALUE ◊◊◊◊◊

DOCKING? Yes                    

LIVE MUSIC? Sometimes             

KID FRIENDLY? Kinda/sorta

 

B.    DEEZE ONES ARE OK, TOO

 

Harbor Shack

Rock Hall www.HarborShack.net

Harbor Shack, during Rock Hall’s “Pirates & Wenches” Weekend. Pretty wild. 

The Shack has been a solid go-to for several years now; an open air bar/restaurant that always feels like THE place to be in Kent County. There’s a good-sized deck that overlooks Rock Hall Harbor, and a really cool indoor/outdoor bar that gets a steady offshore breeze.

It’s an unassuming place where it doesn’t matter what you drive, or how fat your wallet is. People are constantly buying drinks for other people at the bar, whether they know each other or not. And once the band gets going, you just might get to hear Sharon the singing bartender grab a microphone and belt out a little Janis Joplin.

The food is ok, but they could probably benefit with having less options on the menu. But for a great spot to sit under the stars, have a few drinks, and enjoy local music, Harbor Shack is perfect.

OUR CHOICE FOR: Cold beers, live music, and singing bartenders.

LOCATION: ◊◊◊◊

VIBE:  ◊◊◊◊

STAFF: ◊◊◊◊                         

VALUE: ◊◊◊◊

DOCKING? Yes                      

LIVE MUSIC? Regularly

KID FRIENDLY? Sure, but don’t stay late

     

Hemingway’s

Bay Bridge Marina Stevensville www.HemingwaysBayBridge.com

The new, fancy-schmancy Hemingway’s still has that monster location.

 Hemingway’s has been a Kent Island institution since the Kennedy Administration, featuring fresh seafood and an amazing view from the eastern foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. But a few years ago, the longtime owners stepped away, and Corporate America swept in and flattened the tired old building, replacing the rustic charm with a cleaner, slicker layout and chain resort feel. Yes, it’s still cool, but we all agree that we liked the old decrepit one better.

Food is meh, and drinks can get expensive; about what you’d expect from a venue with an A-list location like this. But one thing’s for sure: the place still delivers.

OUR CHOICE FOR: Impressing clients, first dates, and out of town guests.

LOCATION: ◊◊◊◊◊          

VIBE:  ◊◊◊

STAFF: ◊◊◊◊                         

VALUE: ◊◊◊

DOCKING? Yes                    

LIVE MUSIC? Sometimes

KID FRIENDLY? Sure

 

SEMI-HONORABLE MENTIONS

Bridges

Kent Narrows, Grasonville www.BridgesRestaurant.com

PROS: Excellent waterside view of the Kent Narrows & Eastern Bay, and top notch signature cocktails.

CONS: On the short list of the worst service I’ve ever encountered (waited 20 minutes in a half empty lounge for someone to even acknowledge me), prices more expensive than a date with Lindsay Lohan.

GB SAYS: Sit at the indoor/outdoor bar, and tip the bartender as you go. Mojitos are good, but at $9 a pop, YOU’LL have to decide just HOW good.

 

The Jetty

Kent Narrows, Grasonville www.JettyDockBar.com

PROS: This oversized hut on a pier is a fine place to kick it with friends during the day, although they can get really crowded on warm weekend afternoons.

CONS: When the sun goes down, the drama goes up, complete with fights, bouncer rage, server apathy, and other nonsense. And the more crowded it is, the bigger your breasts need to be in order to get a drink at the bar.

GB SAYS: If you can find parking (big if), go on in and enjoy yourself. But if you’re not out by 10pm, you could be eaten by vampires. Just sayin.  

 

C.     WE’D RATHER STAY SOBER THAN RETURN

 

Waterman’s Crab House

Rock Hall 

Tourists have been mobbing Waterman’s for years now, eager to gobble down soggy, lukewarm crabs and fried shrimp. But the locals I know steer clear like it’s a Red Lobster with Bubonic Plague.

Maybe it’s just me, but Waterman’s has been about as exciting as a podiatry seminar when we’ve been there. Sure, it LOOKS right. There’s an outdoor bar there on the water, etc. But no enthusiasm. No fun. No laughter in the air. No electricity, even while the band was playing. (and a lotta bands we know refuse to play there for that reason). The most memorable part of being there last time was when their stumblin-drunk entertainment manager insisted (loudly) that he get up onstage to sing with the band, only to lay waste to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” utterly and completely. Now, THAT was funny.

And again, maybe it’s me, but the bartenders approached their jobs with a mix of apathy and rudeness. The two girls working that night weren’t friendly, and acted like we were bothering them every time we asked for another beer–even though we tipped with each new order.

I can tell you that I’ve never gone to Waterman’s and NOT ended up at nearby Harbor Shack before the end of the night. Which is precisely where we’ll start out next time.

OUR CHOICE FOR: Pennsylvania tourists who don’t know any better.

LOCATION: ◊◊◊◊             

VIBE:                 

STAFF:                                    

VALUE:

FOOD ? Technically          

LIVE MUSIC? Yes

KID FRIENDLY? Yes

 

Big Owl Tiki Bar

Grasonville, MD  

This place makes me sad. See, the Owl used to be the site of one of our beloved Tiki Bar legends, The Shanty. The Shanty had the perfect Island Time vibe, and we mourn its loss to the extent that we still hold an annual party in its honor, every Friday of Memorial Day weekend. This year’s was at The Sandbar.

This place a pompous mess. New owner Al is a wedding DJ, and the venue FEELS like it’s owned by a wedding DJ, with a desperate “hey gang! Look how Jimmy Buffett we are!” poseur approach. Last time I was there, we had a crowd of about 25 with us, and in the midst of a warm, idyllic afternoon of cold beer and perfectly acceptable acoustic music on satellite radio, the owner hastily broke out his DJ gear and bombarded us with the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson at ear-twisting volumes (surprised he didn’t play the Chicken Dance too). Adios conversation and relaxation.

We also hear that they’ve now cancelled Happy Hour on Fridays, charging full price instead. Beyond that, the service is slower than my kids taking out the trash. No mas. Never again.

OUR CHOICE FOR: People whose entire Buffett album collection consists of “Songs You Know By Heart” and still have the audacity to call themselves a Parrothead.

LOCATION: ◊◊◊◊◊          

VIBE:                 

STAFF: ◊◊                               

VALUE:

FOOD ? Be patient            

LIVE MUSIC? Yes                             

KID FRIENDLY? Technically, but why bother?

That oughta keep you busy for awhile. Of course, your results may vary. As always, these are merely our opinions; nothing more, nothing less. One of our favorite things on the planet are tiki bars, and we know what we like, and what sucks.

  Got a favorite waterfront watering hole that didn’t make our list? Let’s hear about it!