Cocoa Beach – The Space Coast

COCOA BEACH – THE SPACE COAST*

             It was a warm, cloudy morning when my family and I lifted off out of Midway onboard our 737, bound for Orlando International at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend.  We had reservations for Disney World later the following week, but our first stop would be Cocoa Beach.florida 4

After a half-hour wait at the rental car counter, we loaded up the luggage and were soon driving out of Orlando along the 528.  It’s a straight road most of the way to Cocoa, until it turns into part of the A1-A and heads out over the water on a pair of long causeways, just before you reach Port Canaveral.  There, the big cruise ships are almost always in port, loading up passengers for 3 and 4 day excursions into the Caribbean.

We followed A1-A south, and about an hour after leaving Orlando found our hotel.  As usual, we stayed at the Four Points Sheraton, just a couple of blocks from the beach in downtown Cocoa.

The Atlantic rollers on the Beach that afternoon were higher than I remembered from previous trips, but that made swimming and body surfing much more exciting.  Quite a few locals said it would be crowded this weekend, and I suppose it was; but, compared to an August weekend at Oak Street Beach in Chicago, it wasn’t that bad.

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The shoreline at Cocoa Beach is impressive.  I felt I could walk for miles along the sand and not come to the end of it, and so visitors could really spread out.  The kids were soon lost to the waves and seashells, with my Wife tagging along behind to keep them from getting lost.

You could quickly pick out tourists like myself, painfully pale and liberally dosed with sun screen.  I envied those lucky residents who could hop in their cars, park for a few quarters in the meter, and head down to the sea whenever they felt like it.

After an afternoon in the sun and sand, we headed back to the Sheraton for some dinner and shopping.  The Cocoa Beach Surf Company makes up about half of the Hotel, and includes the Shark Pit Bar & Grill and a surf board rental shop.

I rented a body board the next morning, and we were back at the beach around 9 a.m., to soak up more rays and do some serious body boarding.  I’m the first to admit that I have no talent or skill in this area, but the couple of times I was able to ride a decent wave all the way into the shallows made all of my efforts worthwhile.  There’s a joy in it, that makes all those times getting knocked down seem less important.

We headed back to the Hotel when they closed the beach for half an hour around noon, due to a shark sighting, or so the lifeguard told me.  We grabbed lunch, and still had a long afternoon of fun in the sun before finally calling it a day.

Later that afternoon, after a short walk from the Hotel along a boardwalk near the beach, we stopped into Captain J’s, a bar and grill with upper deck seating overlooking the ocean.

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Good food and service, the main attraction is watching the Disney, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean cruise ships as they head out to sea.  That Sunday night, the ships appeared in line heading southeast, and we watched as they sailed out of sight into the vast Atlantic.

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I walked the beach alone that evening for the last time:  listening to the sound of the surf as they sky darkened, looking at the lights out to sea and those of the resorts on land, and enjoying my solitude among the last few beach combers.

The Moon was quarter full when it appeared that evening, and almost directly overhead.  I could almost feel the presence of those astronauts who left from nearby Cape Canaveral on their Moon missions.  Did Collins, Aldrin, or even Armstrong walk these sands, looking up at this same Moon mere days before they walked on it for the first time?  I could well imagine them here.

Toward the end of the evening, I spotted a couple of old men in front of a lopsided tent, enjoying a few beers as the sun set.  As they talked, joked, and reminisced, I wondered if they might have the right of it, just sitting there on the beach in Florida without an apparent care in the world.

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Maybe this lifestyle would grow routine, but I saw a lot of enthusiasm on the faces of the surf boarders, skim boarders, and body boarders – old and young alike.  I wondered what it would be like to live out the lyrics of those old Beach Boys songs, if even for a little while.

I would be driving to Orlando and Disney World the next day, and I knew, in the back of my mind, that my law practice in cold Chicago was waiting for me when I got back home.  But part of me waits on that beach, walking the sand, watching the sun set and listening to the waves.  And maybe having that cold beer.

*  this article appeared as “Cocoa Beach Reflections” in the November 2014 issue of The Beachside Resident, page 17.  The Beachside Resident web page can be found @:

http://www.thebeachsideresident.com

 

Pete Murphy                                          January 2015

 

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Vegas Run

VEGAS RUN

             I recall feeling excited, as I watched my neighborhood in the south Chicago suburbs dwindle below the wing of the Southwest Air 737.  I was heading to Las Vegas for the first time as an adult, attending a legal seminar and intending to check off this item from my personal “bucket list.”  I would be in “Sin City” four days, and largely on my own, to experience and explore.

Canyons

The view from my window seat on the 3 ½ hour flight gradually changed:  from urban landscapes of houses, schools and businesses, to vast lonely farmlands, and finally to the desolation of canyons, mountains, and flatlands of southern Nevada.  The State is quite impressive, even from 34 thousand feet.  I wondered at all those souls who made this trip overland during the California Gold Rush and the Dust Bowl, and thought what a miracle my flight would have been to them.

Sign

My first impression, as I walked the jetway into McCarran International Airport, was how hot and dry Vegas was compared to Chicago in September.  I had expected the heat, of course, but was still mildly surprised at the intensity of it.  Once inside the terminal, the air conditioning was about able to keep up with the hot desert sun.  Heading to baggage claim, I was almost immediately overwhelmed by the vast numbers of chromed slot machines that seemed to fill every hallway and concourse.

It’s not true insight to remark that Vegas is a shrine to gambling, nor is it unexpected.  But the quantity and variety of available gaming, at all hours, make our local Midwest casinos seem quaint by comparison.

Casino Indoors

Luggage in hand, I grabbed a quick shuttle ride from the terminal to the Tropicana, my hotel for this trip and the location of my two-day seminar.  After an unusually long wait at check-in, I was in my suite, unpacking and changing my sensible cool weather clothes for the light-weight golf shirts and shorts nearly everyone wears on Las Vegas Boulevard, a.k.a. “The Strip.”

Sunset

During my stay, I managed to keep my suite pretty cool by blasting the air conditioning on high, and leaving it that way throughout my visit.  I also kept the large bathroom closed, figuring I didn’t need to keep it as cool as the sleeping areas.  It seemed to work pretty well, and heat really wasn’t an issue.

As I look back on it now, my strongest memory of that first day (and even those that followed), is the scent of the Tropicana and other casinos I visited on my first night in Vegas.  To me, it was a combination of citrus air freshener and the stale cigarette smoke from over 50 years of tourists and staff.  While not unpleasant, it did take some getting used to.

Overall, the casino/resorts along Vegas’ south Strip were like the rat pack movies of the early ‘60’s brought back to life.  Certainly, the introduction of cell phones and wireless devices (nearly everywhere), does much to destroy this illusion.  Yet the piped-in music, décor, and atmosphere hearken back to this earlier time.  Indeed, I feel the casinos cultivated this connection, a sentimental tie-in to the golden days of Vegas from  those bygone years.  A sort of Vegas kitsch to my mind.

Tropicana Pool

Talking to some of the local staff and guests who remember those days, I was struck by the passion they have for that Vegas.  Simpler times, when the Flamingo and Golden Nugget were two of the few casinos in operation.  It’s gotten pricier and more crowded, they say, but there is something about this Town that draws them here.

The Strip itself is a study in contrasts.  Walking from the bright desert sunshine into the cool darkness of the casinos, you will find a unique mixture of high energy passion and dull lethargy at almost any hour of the day or night.

Veer Towers

 

 

Groups of younger couples passionately gathered around a roulette table are distinct from the solitary slot machine players, lost in their world of spinning wheels, lights, and sounds.  The mad passion of a night in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, yet within a few feet, the heavy solemnity of the morning after Fat Tuesday in the Big Easy, and all under one roof.  It was, to me, a strange vibe.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would find myself considering my views alongside those of Hunter S. Thompson’s experience in “Fear and Loathing.”  As a long time Thompson fan, his weird tales were running through my mind as I walked the streets and casinos.  I can’t hope to compare my experiences to those of the Great Dr. Gonzo in any manner, but I guess I felt some of that energy he wrote about, even now, some 40 years later.  Vegas, if nothing else, is enduring.

The food at the hotels is quite spectacular, and any visitor should try at least one gourmet meal.  Aside from taking a shuttle from the Airport, I walked to most attractions along the Strip.  The pedestrian walkways make navigating downtown Vegas an easy proposition, but double check the advertising handouts you are frequently given before slipping them into your suitcase!  These are often pictures of scantily clad “escorts,” and not appropriate souvenirs for the younger members of your household.

New York Casino at Night

 

I broke even with the Vegas casinos on my trip, which I’m quite proud of.  Still, part of me regrets not putting down a last big bet on my lucky number as I was heading back to my airport shuttle.  If it hit, the winnings would have paid for the entire trip, plus a few more.

When I return next time, I’ll be more of a Vegas veteran than wide-eyed tourist.  This City has room for both.  If I might have enjoyed it more with the company of family or friends, it was a fun experience without the constant negotiations and compromises such company inevitable requires.

Las Vegas is the ancestral home of American gambling.  It continues on as our most electrifying example.  Everyone should experience Vegas at least once, if only to check it off their bucket list.

 

Pete Murphy

September, 2014

 

This article is also published by Leisure Group Travel @:

http://leisuregrouptravel.com/first-timers-las-vegas-perspective/

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