It's an ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail. On a sun-splashed April weekend, artist Todd Brittingham turned up in Cocoa Beach, Fla. to create his own giant Ouroborus. It marked the 28th Annual Earth Work, during which the artist along with a gang of helpers built a massive environmental sculpture in the sand. He called it a "Sky Message," and it took up the length of two football fields.
The sand art seems a natural fit. An iconic and quirky beach town, Cocoa Beach is celebrated for wide beaches and surfing teachers, fishing rigs and dinosaur digs, a surf megastore and art galleries galore, rocket launches, oceanfront happy hours and candy colored sunsets.
Set in the heart of Florida's Space Coast — that stretches 72 miles along Florida's east coast — the kitschy beach town has 321 for its area code. For good reason: it's just a short drive north on Route A1A to the John F. Kennedy Space Center.
Cocoa Beach came to life during the 1960s when America’s space program took off. Over the next decade the local population swelled from 23,000 to 70,000. Before there was a Silicon Valley for high-tech entrepreneurship, Cocoa Beach and other surrounding towns were brimming with the best and brightest technical minds around. Young families flocked here with one or both parents working on some aspect of the space program.
Their kids were dubbed the “Cape Brats.” After manned space flights, the town staged parades with astronauts riding in flashy Corvettes. Space fever was everywhere. Motels named The Sea Missile and Satellite popped up alongside offbeat diners like The Moon Hut. Dining out, locals often rubbed shoulders with astronauts and packs of rocket scientists.
Today a new era of private spaceflight is thriving with companies manufacturing rockets, rocket engines and satellites throughout Brevard County. Elon Musk's upstart SpaceX made history in April when it successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket on a barge floating in the Atlantic. Next year SpaceX will ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Let's face it, few experiences in life captivate the imagination more than a rocket launch.
Fifty years ago the space program put Cocoa Beach on the cultural map with "I Dream of Jeannie." The sitcom ran from 1965 to 1969 and was set in and around the beach town, even though most of the show was actually filmed in California. The comedy told the story of how astronaut Major Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) set free a 2,000-year-old genie (Barbara Eden) from her magic lamp and she followed him to Cocoa Beach, "a mythical town in a mythical state.”
Today, a historical sign honors the show at Lori Wilson Park and there is a "Jeannie" day each summer. Those tributes dovetail nicely with a new Space Coast tourism campaign that promotes the "cool" beach vibe of decades past and how tourists can recapture those memories today. One key tagline is: "Cocoa Beach: Still Cool."
It has reigned as the East Coast's unofficial "Surf City" since the 1960s. Celebrated as the "small wave capital of the world," Cocoa Beach was home to the first aerial maneuver and the first 360 rotation. In 1966 Gary Propper won the East Coast Championships by beating California legend Dewey Weber. Propper's Hobie surfboard became the best selling signature model and he was the highest paid surfer of his generation.
Cocoa Beach's Kelly Slater was the youngest (20) and oldest world champion (39) capturing 11 world titles. Competing in his 23rd season on the world circuit, Slater, 44, has broken every competitive record in surfing. Innovation has been one of his trademarks. The son of a local bait-and-tackle shop owner, Slater's love of the ocean has translated into his sustainable clothing line, Outerknown. The Kelly Slater Wave Company created a huge buzz earlier this year with the best man-made wave ever that is powered by solar energy. His home town paid him homage with a 10-foot gold statue capturing Slater executing a high cutback maneuver. It stands at the north entrance to downtown.
Thanks in part to the ubiquitous Ron Jon Surf Shop billboards on Florida's interstate highways, the name Ron Jon is synonymous with Florida's surf culture. Set in an art deco castle on A1A, the 52,000-square-foot store is open 24 hours, 365 days a year. A reported two million people visit annually for its world famous "One of a Kind" T-shirts, surfboards, snorkeling gear and hundreds of fashion accessories. Ron Jon stickers have been spotted on the space station Mir, 200 miles above earth. Across the street you'll find the Florida Surf Museum filled with surf magazines, pictures, trophies, and all kinds of memorabilia where you can experience the heritage of the surfing community.
Each November one of the quirkiest surf events of the year rolls into Lori Wilson Park-- the annual Florida Dog Surfing Championship. Yes, you read that right. Not just limited to surfing, it also includes dock jumping, beauty (and ugly) contests, an agility competition, educational seminars and exhibitions and dog adoptions.
On Christmas Eve morning of 2015 more than 600 red coated, beard clad "Surfing Santas" hit the waves off Minuteman Causeway. Not to be outdone, 45 skydiving Santas landed on the beach in two zones marked "South Pole" and "North Pole." Now in its eighth year, more than 6,000 people came to watch.
Since 1962 the Space Coast's lovably scruffy side has turned out at the landmark Cocoa Beach Pier. Last year Westgate Resorts purchased the property and is undertaking a $4 million renovation over the next four years to transform the pier into a family-friendly destination. Stroll up the boardwalk and choose from four unique restaurant environments, or just head out the 800 foot pier to Rikki Tiki Tavern, an open-air bar overlooking the beach.
We stopped into Pelican's for lunch corralling a nice corner table that overlooked a dozen surfers dodging an occasional tourist swimming too deep in the water. We enjoyed the buttery lobster tacos stuffed with chunks of tender lobster tossed in Old Bay butter with lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese and sour cream. Another treat was the pan-seared scallops. Like candy from the ocean, they had a nice caramelized crust on the outside, soft and sweet inside.
After lunch we headed up A1A to Port Canaveral and the Exploration Tower. A $23 million, seven story, sail shaped structure, the tower has an iridescent exterior that seems to change color when viewed from different angles. Celebrating Brevard County's role in shaping Florida, the 22,000-square-foot building is designed to inspire visitors to learn about the history and nature of the port and beyond.
Take the elevator to the seventh floor outdoor observation deck where you can watch the unloading of a enormous container ship or the massive Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center visible ten miles to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Other floor exhibits highlight the region's rich maritime and surfing heritage, bird and sea life as well as the history of NASA, including historic moon-landing photos, newspaper clippings and artifacts from the Apollo missions.
A virtual ship's bridge allows visitors to experience what it's like to pilot a boat through the Canaveral Channel and into the Atlantic. There are a series of portraits that honor Central Florida historical figures from explorer Ponce de Leon to author Zora Neale Hurston. A theater shows a 20-minute film dedicated to the history and treasures of Brevard County.
Cocoa Beach has a lot going for it: a wicked sense of humor, a serious case of nostalgia and a bright and promising future. As the locals like to say, there's a special energy here when either of two things happens: big waves or a new launch.