Exploration Tower's ode to the ocean hanging sculpture. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Exploration Tower’s ode to the ocean hanging sculpture. photo by Karen Kuzsel

This begins my new “column” called Florida Fun. I realized when I was on this overnight getaway to Melbourne and Port Canaveral that I have written about many wonderful day trips, events, restaurants, adventures and venues, without drawing attention to them as tourist and group destinations within Florida and without including theme parks in the same breath.

Not that I don’t write about theme parks elsewhere in my blog or for magazines. I love theme parks. I consider myself a theme park-aholic without being obsessive, but I also realized how many Florida places I visit that perhaps others would enjoy knowing. So, here it is, the premiere of Florida Fun.

My husband and my recent 30-hour adventure began when he booked us into the Residence Inn Melbourne, located near the Melbourne International Airport and within a few minutes-drive to downtown Melbourne, where boutique shops and casual dining are aplenty. We chose that hotel because he’d earned a free stay from a Marriott promotion and honestly, we’d find any excuse to traipse down to a favorite restaurant, Pineda Crossings. His birthday and a free stay at a hotel not 20 minutes from Pineda Crossings and even less to all the fabulously funky boutiques framing the main downtown Melbourne area, seemed like finding out fudge brownie cake has no calories.

We’ve stayed at Residence Inns in other cities. They’re always clean, staff has always been amiable and helpful, and the complimentary breakfast has a variety of foods I’ll eat, like creamy grits that I can top with the minced green onions, cheddar cheese and occasional bits of bacon the hotel provides. This hotel had better coffee than is typical. We were thrilled that it tasted like real coffee and not warmed over dark tea. The exterior of the hotel could use some help. No curb appeal. Inside is nothing fancy, but the warm hues of deep burgundies contrasting with patterned walls of creams and browns lends a cozy ambiance. My husband loved that his back didn’t hurt the next morning from the bed and we both slept without being disturbed by street or hotel noises.

Pineda Crossings has been open about 18 years. Russ and I have eaten there (with and without family and friends) at least twice a year during most of that time. As it is well over an hour from our home, we tend to use other trips to Brevard County as our raison d’être to dine there. Never have we had anything less than a stellar meal. The portions are abundant. There are always several daily specials and even though locally sourced fish is the highlight, my husband swoons over their steak with Béarnaise sauce. We both think this is about the best Caesar salad dressing ever and have to pace ourselves getting through the generous salad before even thinking about our entrees.

Blackened Mahi Mahi topped with Catalan sauce at Pineda Crossings, Melbourne, FL. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Blackened Mahi Mahi topped with Catalan sauce at Pineda Crossings, Melbourne, FL. photo by Karen Kuzsel

This time my husband had the 8-oz filet dinner with potatoes au gratin. He said this was one of the juiciest, most flavorful filets he’s had, especially because the lean cut of meat isn’t known for being juicy. I chose the Mahi Mahi covered in a Catalan sauce, consisting of mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and artichokes in a creamy garlic sauce. I altered the meal by asking for sautéed spinach instead of the rice pilaf. Fresh veggies of brightly colored steamed broccoli and summer squash accompanied the meal. The chunk of fish was huge and cooked to perfection. The restaurant offers at least half a dozen different toppings for grilled or blackened fish. I had blackened. It was seasoned without being bitingly peppery.

Pineda Crossings itself is low key, from its unremarkable exterior to the ambiance that says this is a treasure locals guard jealously.  Attire is whatever makes you comfortable, from jeans to dressy for the  pre-theater crowd. We’ve never had an unfriendly server, nor one who wasn’t knowledgeable and attentive (without being pushy). A husband and wife (Cathy) duo own the place. Culinary Institute of America graduate Chef Rand Morgan, C.E.C.  has been the Executive Chef for the past 13 years. Cathy heard we were return visitors (from our server) and that it was my husband’s birthday, so she came by,  chatted as if we were old friends, and then persuaded Russ (who was too full to eat another bite) that a piece of flourless chocolate torte with a peanut butter mousse topping was being packaged to enjoy later. Happy Birthday!

The next morning we drove the 45-minutes to Port Canaveral to rendezvous with my sister Debbie and Paul for a three-and-a-half hour Yummy Florida food tour led by owner Erika Van Buren. Our meeting place was Exploration Tower (ET), the first stop on our tour. We wondered what ET had to do with food as it’s a seven-story museum opened in November 2013 and is focused on the port, space news, and activities found in the Cocoa Beach-Cape Canaveral area. The museum, minimally priced, includes a gift shop featuring expected souvenirs but also many local artisan crafts and products. I snagged a jar of pink grapefruit marmalade that I can’t wait to pile atop my toast. Most impressive about the lobby gift store area is the two-story hanging sculpture, an ode to the ocean created by Sayaka Ganz from recycled objects, kitchen utensils, plastic toys and bottle tops. Next to the lobby is a small café, where we tasted astronaut ice cream, a freeze-dried ice cream sandwich that is served as dessert when in space.

Erika guided us on an hour-long narrated tour of the museum, pointing out a gallery of famous faces who all had contributed to the growth of the area. I lived in Brevard County for many years and attended high school there. I was unaware of many of these folks so I thought it personally educational. We paused to watch the short and excellently-produced informative film about the area. The 7th floor balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows gave us far-reaching views of the ocean, the cruise ships preparing to depart, and the plethora of seafood-oriented restaurants and businesses strung along the shoreline. The 4th floor is an event space, suitable for 74 seated and 148 reception style.  I am sure the nighttime views of the ocean and busy restaurants are spectacular.

This particular tour is a seafood fest, much to Russ’ chagrin as he doesn’t eat seafood. Erika leads many other tours in other parts of Brevard and can customize a tour for up to 15, as well as arrange for transportation. Tell her you read my blog post and she’ll give you $10 off a booked food tour.

On this tour, we walked across to the oceanfront and visited four restaurants and Wyland Gallery. At each stop, representatives from that establishment would give a brief talk on the history and specialties of the house. We sampled food and occasional adult beverages at each of these establishments. I will tell you what we had, but be aware these were brief visits with planned tastings so I can’t attest to the quality of any menu item. They each looked like great places to watch the port’s activities, eat fresh seafood in a casual setting, and each had patios and event spaces ripe for partying.

Wild Ocean Seafood Market: This place was packed with weekend buyers, each trying to get the attention of the counter clerks. I’ve never seen so many varieties of shrimp. We sampled at least four types and had a choice of bottled water or soda.

Milliken’s Reef: There are three bars, music inside and outside. We sat on one of the decks, listened to the Saturday afternoon duo of the Cocoa Beach Boys (wide range of music done well) and munched on delicious fish dip and other goodies while sipping on Milliken’s house special cocktail, The Grabber, a combo of fruit juices and rum. Milliken’s touts itself as family friendly, with a large beach area designed for kids to romp without annoying anyone else, especially their parents. Millikens has a semi-private room for 75 and a total buyout for 565.

Baja Tavern: There are outdoor spaces, music, and we sampled their award-winning New England clam chowder. They accommodated Russ by giving him some hot goat cheese bread served with chunky, fresh made salsa. We didn’t how those two worked together, but individually, each was delish.

Fishlips: Think California casual to describe the décor and attitude. It abuts the Wyland Gallery, which includes an extensive collection of artists other than just Wyland’s pieces. Fishlips (I just love that name!) is a 10-year-old two-story establishment and with seating for 500, has the largest event space (they say) in the port. What really sets this restaurant apart is that it has been the “go to” place for successful “return to Earth” celebrations by astronauts. We sampled three of their chowders: lobster bisque (thick and cream but a tad too orange colored for me), spicy gumbo (rich and peppery), and a New England clam chowder that we all liked best.

Signature key lime pie at Rusty's Seafood and Oyster Bar, Cape Canaveral, FL. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Signature key lime pie at Rusty’s Seafood and Oyster Bar, Cape Canaveral, FL. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Rusty’s Seafood and Oyster Bar: This 298-seat establishment emphasizes that it is family focused and it would be a shame to leave without trying their famous cornflake-crusted mahi Mahi. We didn’t get to taste that particular dish, but we did clean our plate of the signature key lime pie and slurped up a margarita that my finicky husband pronounced “smooth” in a pleased tone.

www.yummyflorida.com

www.millikensreef.com

www.wildoceanmarket.com

www.bajatavern.com

www.fishlipswaterfront.com

www.visitcocoabeach.com/Wyland-Galleries-of-Florida-10-4920.html

www.residenceinn.com/mlbap

www.rustysseafood.com

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

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