When it comes to famous U.S. surfing destinations, Hawaii and California may be the best known to non-surfers, but the swells along Florida’s east coast — the waves that come onshore at Cocoa Beach — are worthy rivals.
The region known as the Space Coast (the Kennedy Space Center is about 20 miles north) is where surfing champions Kelly Slater, C. J. Hobgood and his twin brother, Damien Hobgood, grew up. The Hobgoods and Slater are part of a prestigious fraternity of surfers from Florida’s east coast that includes multiple world champions, high-achievers on the professional circuit, innovators and cultivators of surf talent and community. The area is also the site of major surfing competitions and the headquarters for the world’s largest surf shop, Ron Jon.
I took an impromptu road trip to visit friends and see what all the fuss is about. I was in for an amazing four days of surf, swells and unrivaled happy hours.
Just south of the city of Cocoa Beach, you’ll find terrific breaks along the A1A Highway, all named after local features that are easy to spot — Picnic Tables, 2nd Light (as in traffic light) and Hangars, near Patrick Air Force Base. They’re popular sites, but newbies should be careful in the crowds on the waves.
Continuing south, Hightower Beach is a must-surf, with strong breaks that can rise 5 to 8 feet high. It’s also where non-surfers can watch wildlife, with more than 500 feet of boardwalk, two observation decks and a picnic pavilion from which to take in the scene.
Next up is Satellite Beach and its world-class breaks, where C. J. (who has retired, but still lives nearby) and Damien Hobgood learned to ride. You can learn more about their stellar, lengthy careers — not to mention the coast’s entire surfing history — at the Florida Surf Museum.
A few miles south, Sebastian Inlet has been attracting world-class surfers since the 1960s. Most recently, it was home to the O’Neill Sebastian Inlet Pro surfing event from 2005 to 2011, which ended partly due to the loss of its sponsorship.
“It was the biggest pro surfing contest on the East Coast, and got us a lot of buzz and a lot of attention,” says Mitch Varnes, a Satellite Beach resident and sports promoter who helped coordinate the event and is trying to start a new one.
The Inlet is known for its famed First, Second and Third Peaks — named and ranked for their difficulty. First Peak’s legendary waves have been altered over the years because of construction to a nearby jetty (“I miss Sebastian (Inlet), truly,” Kelly Slater told Surfer magazine in 2016. “I’d do anything to bring it back to its glory”) but still attracts surfers looking for a challenge. Second and Third Peaks are smaller, better for less experienced surfers.
If you want to try some waves outside Cocoa Beach proper, head north of the city. About an hour away, you’ll find New Smyrna Beach, named one of the world’s top surf towns by both National Geographic and Surfer, where the waves break consistently — there’s rarely a bad day for surfing.
When it’s time to take a break from the breaks — but not the surfing life — drive along North Atlantic Avenue in Cocoa Beach and stop by Ron Jon’s brightly colored headquarters. This famous surf retail chain was founded in 1959 in New Jersey by Ron DiMenna, who moved to Cocoa Beach a couple of years later and began an empire. In Cocoa Beach, Ron Jon also serves as a place to get surfing and kiteboarding lessons as well as rental equipment.
The surfing festivals and competitions attract as many visitors as the actual waves:
- The popular Ron Jon Van’s Pro Surf Competition, held during Ron Jon’s annual Beach ’N Boards Fest every March, is a spring-break highlight.
- In June, the Waterman’s Challenge Surf Contest, geared for surfers of all ages and levels, offers amateurs the chance to compete like the pros.
- The USA Junior Olympic Windsurfing Festival is scheduled for late June.
- The massive NKF Rich Salick Pro-Am Surf Festival, a competition and major fundraiser for the National Kidney Foundation (it was started by a surfer who’d had a kidney transplant), runs every Labor Day weekend. Pro-am surfing, beach parties and more bring in the crowds and the cash.
But this part of the Sunshine State offers more than surfing. If you want stellar live music and amazing happy hours, Cocoa Beach is home to some of the best.
“It’s honestly cheaper to eat out here than go grocery shopping,” says Cocoa Beach resident and snowbird Bryan Jackson.
His wife, Catherine, has been coming to Cocoa Beach since she was young. “It has a special place in my heart.”
While enjoying seared ahi tuna, ultimate nachos and delicious drinks at Coconuts on the Beach, a spacious seafront restaurant and bar located on the ocean, I watched local surfers ride smaller swells. It’s also a great vantage point to spot porpoises, see gorgeous sunsets and take in starry nights.
The next two nights, we took in excellent live music over dinner at The Island Waterfront Bar & Grill (1891 E. Merritt Island Causeway, Merritt Island; 321-806-3661) and Sandbar Sports Grill (sandbarsportsgrill.net), home to the extremely strong Category 5 Hurricane drink, made with triple sec and five kinds of rum. Jump’s Tiny Tavern is a fun dive bar worth a stop.
And lest you forget, the region is called the Space Coast for a reason. Stop at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where rockets have been lifting off since the 1960s, for a tour of the starting point for humankind’s greatest journeys. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see a launch.
Between flights, though, the astronauts knew that Cocoa Beach was the place to party — and it’s still the place to catch a great wave today.