It’s more than a little ironic that one of the most extensive sections of natural coastal wetlands left in Florida became home to the launch pads of the nation’s space program. Though the natural aspects—thousands of seabirds and wide-open stretches of sandy beaches—are attractive enough in their own right to merit a visit, many people are drawn here by Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center. All the big milestones in the history of the U.S. space program—the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle launches—happened here, and if names like Alan Shepard, John Glenn, or Neil Armstrong mean anything to you, set aside time for a visit.

The Kennedy Space Center itself, eight miles west of US-1 via the NASA Parkway (Hwy-405), is open to the public, but only on guided tours. These tours require advance tickets, and all leave from the large visitors complex (855/433-4210, daily, $50 and up), where two IMAX theaters show films of outer space to get you in the mood. There are also some small museums, a simulated space shuttle mission control center, eight real rockets in the Rocket Garden, an actual space shuttle, and an exhibit previewing missions to Mars. The visitors center also has a couple of fast-food restaurants and a kennel for pets.

To see the Kennedy Space Center up close, board a bus for a tour; these leave every fifteen minutes and visit the Apollo and space shuttle launch pads and other sites, including the Vehicle Assembly Building. On other tours, you can visit the Cape Canaveral Air Force station or the Launch Control Center, or even have lunch with an astronaut and talk about outer space with someone who’s actually been there (glass of Tang not included).

To witness a rocket launch at Kennedy Space Center, you can either watch from the main visitor center, get passes for entrance into a special viewing area, or simply watch from the many good vantage points: Playalinda Beach, in the Canaveral National Seashore at the west end of Hwy-402 from Titusville; across the Indian River, along US-1 in Titusville; or the beaches west of Hwy-A1A in Cocoa Beach.

One of the best places to eat in this part of Florida is west of the Space Center, in the town of Titusville: the immense and immensely popular Dixie Crossroads (1475 Garden St., 321/268-5000, daily) for seafood, especially the massive all-you-can-eat plates of small shrimp ($40). The Crossroads is away from the water, two miles east of I-95 exit 220.