Right now my body is in Thailand and my blog is in Florida, but my heart is in Las Vegas…
I don’t know about you, but when I think major surf destinations in the United States, I think Hawaii and California. And that’s it.
So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Cocoa Beach to find a vibrant and enthusiastic surf culture making the best of the waves on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. I guess I shouldn’t have been too shocked — these are the beaches that raised up Kelly Slater, arguably one of the greatest professional surfers of all times. Cocoa Beach also happens to be home to Ron Jon, the largest surf shop on the planet. I later learned it’s considered the East Coast surfing capital of the US!
Though I’ve taken surf lessons everywhere from Oahu to Bali to Maui to Nicaragua, surfing is more of a spectator sport for me at the moment — so while this won’t be a detailed guide to where to catch the best waves for hardcore board-bums, it will be a fun overview of where to soak up the unexpected surf culture of the Space Coast.
1. Watch Surfers at Cocoa Beach Pier
Cocoa Beach Pier is one of the most reliable places to catch surfers in a line up — pay $2 to walk out to the end of the pier and you can watch with a drink in your hand from Rikki Tiki Tavern. Plus, it’s a local landmark!
Other local favorites? Second Light Beach and Sebastian Inlet. If you’re a photographer, check local sunrise times for stunning surf shot backgrounds, as well as a popular time for locals to hit the waves.
2. Take A Surf Lesson
Why just watch when you too can get in on the fun? I’ve taken surf lessons all over the world, but the private lesson I took from Ron Jon Surf was one of the best. While surf lessons can be very cheap in Central America and Southeast Asia, there’s often a language barrier that can prevent explanations of some of the greater nuances of such a hard-learned skill.
My instructor Larry met me at sunrise and as we walked our boards down to the beach he explained that he had been surfing Cocoa Beach since he was a kiddo. Yet his passion for it hadn’t waned. When Larry explained a complicated concept or gave me feedback I couldn’t quite visualize, I’d ask him to hop on his board and show me, and his eyes would light up like he was about to surf pipeline. It’s always inspiring to spend time with people who love what they do and this was no exception. Towards the end of our hour, when dolphins started surfacing a wave away from us, I could see how someone would be thrilled to start every day like this. Plus, he taught me what hanging ten means, and that’s a lesson I waited far too many years to learn.
Ron Jon lessons are $65 an hour for private lesson, $50 an hour for semi-private lessons with a four to one instructor student ratio. Not ready for waves? Ron Jon also offers kiteboarding and SUP lessons, too.
3. Attend a Surf Festival
I was incredibly lucky that my trip to Cocoa Beach coincided with the Florida Surf Film Festival, which I found out about while loitering in one of the surf cafés I write about below. Held at Cocoa Beach’s Surfside Playhouse, the event could have been mistaken for a support group for men with long hair and an aversion to shoes. I loved the community vibe of locals hanging out around the taco truck parked outside just as much as the films that played when the lights dimmed.
Five surf-inspired films were screened that night, with Under An Arctic Sky the absolute standout, for me. If you love surfing, Iceland, or great movies, you can’t miss it.
Keep your eyes peeled for other Cocoa Beach surfing events like the Easter Surf Fest, Beach ‘N Boards Fest, and the NKF Surf Festival, the National Kidney Foundation Pro-Am Festival, and beyond. If there aren’t any special annual events happening during your visit, perhaps you’ll luck into Cocoa Beach Friday Fest, happening on the third Friday of every month. Here you’ll find live music, lots of local camaraderie, tons of families and dogs, and vendors booths representing area charities, selling locally-made soaps and bath products, natural sunscreens, regional jewelers, a handful of food vendors — and double as many booze ones.
4. Shop Till You Drop
It’s near impossible to make it through a full trip to Cocoa Beach without dropping by Ron Jon Surf Shop’s 24 hour surf emporium. I found myself a gorgeous wetsuit and a few fun ocean-inspired home goods here. There’s even a Florida Surf Museum onsite, though sadly I found it closed for renovations when I tried to drop by. You can’t miss Ron Jon.
However, do make an effort to spread your business around to other small local surf retailers as well. Catalyst had some gorgeous rash guards — I left with two — beautiful looking boards and great vibes inside. If you’re looking to buy a surf or SUP board, you’ll be spoiled for choice of small, independent studios in the area handcrafting custom boards. Shop local!
When you do stop by Ron Jon’s (like I said, it’s inevitable), refuel post-shopping spree with a snack at Rock The Guac or the I Dream of Jeannie-inspired I Dream of Yogurt next door. Did you know dear old Jeannie was married to a Cape Canaveral astronaut, and the whole show was inspired by this very stretch of sand? Neither did I, until I arrived here!
Now, speaking of great food…
5. Eat at Surf Cafés
Surfing — and being a certified surfer groupie — takes a lot out of a girl! Luckily, Cocoa Beach is bursting with adorable places to fuel up for your next adventure. One of my favorites was Green Room Café, an organic eatery featuring primarily vegetarian and vegan options. I had a delicious vegetarian chili and the fresh brewed, unsweeted iced tea of the day, and both were excellent. I’m only sad I didn’t get to return and try their acai bowls!
Right around the corner was another favorite find, The Surfinista. This artsy gallery slash cafe felt like more than just a restaurant — it felt like home base for the Cocoa Beach surf and wellness community. Order a breakfast sandwich or an acai bowl, settle into an oversized chair with old surf movies playing on silent overhead, and enjoy.
I think I’d be a regular here if I was a local!
Also right around the corner from The Green Room Cafe and Cafe Surfinista — seriously, it’s the best little block ever — are Juice N Java, which has excellent salads and frequent live music, and Acai Express, which has great to-go bowls.
While not in Cocoa Beach, Quillen’s Taco Shack is in Titusville in the Space Coast and is a great stop on your way to or from the shore for cheap, no-frills delicious tacos.
Where To Stay
If you’re looking for affordable beachfront condos or Airbnbs, you’re in for a treat because Cocoa Beach is spoiled with them! (Save even more by getting $40 off your stay with my discount code.)
However, I actually ended up staying at the Homewood Suites in Cape Canaveral, where the average room rate is $148 per night. Normally I wouldn’t write too extensively about a corporate chain hotel, but the service here was so welcoming and attentive I was truly impressed. Every person I came in contact with, from the front desk concierges to the buffet attendants to the housekeeping staff were so hospitable it was the first thing I said when I checked out and the front desk manager asked me how my stay was. Plus, the rooms are enormous and there are complimentary snack socials every weeknight — score!
While I’m not quite following in Kelly Slater’s footsteps just yet, I think my time in Cocoa Beach left me all the more motivated to fulfill my lifelong goal of someday becoming a mildly competent surfer.
Are you a surf groupie like me? Where’s your favorite place to surf — or wish you did?