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A whirlwind visit to the Florida space coast to enjoy the outdoors followed by a visit to Orlando and time in the Universal parks.
NSB is a relatively undiscovered beach town with a lot of natural beauty and nearby wilderness, and the additional advantage of being about 60-90 minutes (depends on destination and traffic...)from the Orlando theme parks and even closer to the Kennedy Space Center. There is a beautiful beach, a lighthouse, and historical sites to visit in the area. We enjoyed the beach, restaurants, and the vibe of the town though my daughter commented on the advanced age of many of the fellow travelers we encountered. It is definitely NOT a spring break town - we actually saw tournament shuffleboard in the city park.
Tucked away in a strip mall, the Visitor Bureau is staffed and has a large supply of complimentary brochures and discount offers for local amenities. We picked up a map, fishing brochures, a National Seashore guide, and a helpful dining guide.
We had a difficult time finding a 3 night rental during mid-March; most of the units in NSB are condominiums offering weekly or monthly rentals. We were pleased with the Holiday Inn location and rates ($109/night) and though the decor is dated the roomy layout worked well for our family. The hotel restaurant is open for breakfast but with a full-size fridge and microwave we were able to provide our own breakfasts, snacks, and drinks. We were on the 8th floor and there was a beautiful view of the sunrise from the balcony. Another plus - we didn't hear any of the other guests during our stay.
This was a Chowhound.com recommendation. Just off the main drag is a fun, small, casual restaurant with indoor and patio seating. The chef Danny Veltri was away (a contestant on Hell's Kitchen Season 5). items we enjoyed were the conch fritters (overdone but with a wonderful dipping sauce) and a margherita pizza...very reasonable prices on beer and wine.
Husband and son wanted some time on the water and had looked up some guides on-line - they went with Captain Karty and had a great time. We dropped them off about 20 minutes at Riverbreeze County Park on Mosquito Lagoon as the sun was rising for a 7am departure. For $300 the guide provides everything but your lunch. They had a great time though they didn't catch a lot (1 large redfish and catfish), but since we weren't taking them back to the hotel room that was fine. The boys were really impressed with the way Captain Karty could spot the fish and enjoyed seeing water birds dolphin, and a manatee.
Mom and daughter explored the strip while the boys fished. There is parking available at the intersection of Flagler and the beach - and in fact, if you care to you can get a pass to drive down the beach. From the parking lot you can make your way west all the way to the intercoastal waterway past lots of shops, restaurants etc. We stopped at a salon and daughter had a pedicure - we had called ahead to the Riverview Spa but unfortunately they were booked. For a treat we split a smoothie (lots to choose from and homemade ice cream) from Heavenly near the bridge.
After picking up the boys we stopped for lunch at this local seafood counter (another chowhound.com recommendation) that has a few tables for dining in. We had Grouper sandwiches which were good (the husband's fried portion was significantly larger than my grilled which was rather lost on the bun) but even better was the daughter's large order of Rock shrimp steamed with Old Bay. About $35 for 3 with drinks.
The waves were big enough for surfers during our visit and the water was a bit chilly. You could literally walk south for miles as you enter the Canaveral National Seashore.The hotel has a beachside pool for those who prefer quieter water.
The dining highlight of our trip! We had passed this small place which looks to be housed in a former chain restaurant on Hwy 1, and since it got great reviews we decided to check it out for dinner. It was a weeknight and only about half full when we arrived about 7pm. We were seated at a lovely table and treated warmly the whole evening. The owner came by at least twice and the eighteen-year-old waiter was charming. We had delicious salads (our favorite was the Insalata di capretto) mussels in white wine, tilapia over pasta, and a pasta and shell fish stew. We sang happy birthday to other guests and were even served a complimentary slice of tiramisu. With coffee and a carafe of wine the bill was only $93 before tip - a real bargain for the quality of food and service.
We had to get our daughter to Orlando (Her high school choir was flying in that day for competition) so we decided to leave early and spend the day. If you like water parks Typhoon Lagoon is a great one and had just reopened after refubishment. We recommend arriving 30 minutes before opening; they will let you aways into the park and you can get a locker or use the restroom as needed. Since we didn't have small children (and therefore no need to be by the childrens' slides) we parked towels etc by the Shark Reef. It was quiet and uncrowded all day and we were surprised in the afternoon how crowded some of the other chaise lounge areas became. We took the first snorkle of the day and then returned to the Gushers and rode all of the slides and raft rides moving counterclockwise with next to no waiting. We spent time in the wave pool and lazy river before finding lunch. I would recommend you bring a cooler instead of waiting in line for the park food - the stands we went to were out of the ribs and strawberry/watermelon ice cream we had planned on, and the BBQ sandwich substitutes were way too sweet. Relax during the busy afternoon and then revisit your favorites spots in the 60 to 90 minutes before closing. There are showers available and we took our time and probably left the gate 30 minutes after closing - I was able to get some good photos after the crowds had gone and we weren't stuck in the parking lot.
Orlando traffic can be AWFUL at rush hour so we decided to eat dinner in town and let some of the rush subside before our drive back to NSB. Just outside the eastern border of Disney property (beyond Hotel Drive) are several chain restaurants including the large and bustling Bahama Breeze - it reminds me of a Rainforest Cafe for adults. We were seated without waiting and had dinner for three with drinks for $75. The house salads were good and my husband's paella was much better than expected, my son enjoyed his burger and was very happy that his side order of frit came with a small scoop of mango sorbet. Unfortunately, my Firecracker Shrimp were rather tough and oily and served with uninteresting white bread. Still an enjoyable dinner after a day of water and sun.
Our final NSB Chowhound recommendation was for this French bakery very close to the hotel and the minute we walked in the smell and the sight of their beautiful creations told us we were in a great place. We limited ourselves to one treat each (almond croissant, an eclair, and a cookie sandwich) and some sausage in pastry to share - all delicious! I wish I had a chance to try the key lime pastry...Publix is nearby and we hit the deli and olive bar for afternoon picnic supplies.
This parkland borders NSB to the south and is a must see stop for a visit in this area. The entry fee is only $3 per adult and there are miles of beach for swimming, walking, surf casting, some walking trails, historical buildings and archeological sites, lagoon docks for fishing and wonderful kayak waters. Use caution on the beach - there were multiple portuguese man-o-war stranded at low tide though we had seen no mention of them on the tide and info tables at the park entrance.
We drove back through town and south on Hwy 1 to enter this lovely refuge which borders Kennedy Space Center. One of the first stops as you enter the parklands is a canal between the Intercoastal and the Indian River in which Manatee are often seen. We took a chance and stopped and believe it or not we were rewarded with a manatee sighting after about 10 minutes! We enjoyed the palm and oak hammock walks and ate lunch at the shaded benches in the parking lot. We also enjoyed the nature drive - there were still lots of birds to see but we didn't see any alligators. The visitor center is a must - there is a small lake with beautiful boardwalk around it and you can see plenty of wildlife right there as well as getting information from the rangers. We also bought a beautiful photograph of a Great Egret as a souvenier.
There are SO many places to stay in Orlando; this was our 5th and shortest visit so we decided to save some money and stay near but not on park property (though I strongly recommend on-site lodging if you're a real park fan). This was a typical Hampton Inn (clean, comfortable, breakfast provided) clustered with half a dozen other hotels near the Universal Park entrance (inear the intersection of Kirkman and Vineland). There are restaurants within walking distance though we ate in the parks and in CityWalk. The hotel offers a park shuttle at set times but we chose to walk - there was sidewalk and crosswalks available for the ~1.5 miles to the park entrance. The only drawback was the lack of an airport shuttle. We scheduled to return our rental car on Thursday night and the cabfare from the airfare was almost $50 with tip!
I don't know if we can provide any new touring tips for the park - we bought express passes (an extra $25 per ticket for that Friday - free if you are staying on park property) and we found that not all of the employees scanned them so that you could use them more than once. We were at the park about 25 minutes before opening and they let us in about 10 minutes early. Not all of the rides are open right away and you will want to ride the high-volume rides early. You can get very wet on the flume and raft rides so ponchos are advisable. We were on a wheelchair accessible raft for the first time and noticed that it did not have storage for personal items. There are lockers available which are free for a certain amount of time and then charge you if you pass the time limit. We were frustrated at Dueling Dragons (where all loose items are required to be stowed in a locker) because there were so many patrons trying to use the full lockers that we were charged a fee due to the delay in waiting to pick up our things. There is supposed to be an attendant but she was so swamped that we didn't deem it worth the hassle. Our son was meeting friends from home who also happened to be at Universal that week so the boys were off on their own most of the day and they had a huge amount of fun with the talking (and spitting) fountain.
We enjoyed a respite from rides and the crowds at Mythos. We sat overlooking the central lake and enjoyed a glass of wine before lunch. Husband had a Cuban sandwich and I had the crabcakes with tomato & watermelon salad. Service was quick but not rushed and we were urged to take our time.
Our friends recommended this CityWalk restaurant after our day at Universal and though we weren't hungry enough for a big meal we wanted a little something special. We were seated pretty quickly and liked the atmosphere but were underwhelmed by our menu selections. Husband and I enjoyed our black bean soup but nachos were bland and uninspired (he had to ask for salsa) and my ceviche (which I love) was generous but not very flavorful. Even the margaritas were average. If I went again I would try to get some recommendations from the staff.
I really prefer this park to Islands of Adventure but then again I am 46 years old :) Once again we were in line 20 minutes before opening and had bought express passes (an extra $35/ ticket) for this Saturday. Upon opening we went all the way to the back of the park and enjoyed the Simpsons without any lines. We then rode Men in Black (my favorite! but those lockers are now required) three times in a row (talk to the attendants for scoring tips). The teenage son's high score was 409,000! When you score high you get an alternate ending from Will Smith. As we moved on to other shows we had a good 2 hours before we felt the crowds and we didn't use our express passes unless we needed them or if it was a show (we only planned on seeing those once and the passes allowed priority seating). Using our express passes and good time management we didn't wait more than 15 minutes for any of our rides or shows even on a crowded day. Once again, at the end of the day the attendants weren't scanning the express passes so we could reuse them (2 more trips on MIB!) Don't miss the Monster Make-up show - this was our second visit to Universal but we had skipped this show and it was hilarious - one of the highlights of our afternoon. There was a free Kelly Clarkson concert scheduled for just after closing which drew a lot of guest towards that venue. We went to the very beginning of the Mardi Gras parade at the opposite end of the park and found some empty curb just 15 minutes before the start. The participants were excited to be underway and we each collected over a dozen sets of beads and as we made our way out of the park (with a stop for a beer and smoked turkey leg) we gave them away to bead-deprived guests.
This was our luncheon respite at Universal and once again iIwould recommend it as a nice break. We were seated, promptly, next to an aquarium and everyone enjoyed their lunch; fish and chips & shrimp cobb salad for the parents. Son said his Lo Mein was okay but especially liked his strawberry chocolate AND banana shake - you really could taste all three.
Our schedule and destination were limited (we visited family in Georgia before NSB and needed to get our daughter to Orlando for the choir competition) but this combination of beach and park time worked well for the family. We spent less than usual on lodging and splurged a bit on food and entertaiment. NSB would also work for a large family as there are plenty of condominium rentals and if you want a bit more action Daytona is just a quick drive to the north.