It is a band of beige sand 24 miles long, but its emotional reach cannot be quantified.
First impressions may disorient you. Space and time uncouple. This is a Florida beach, but look up and down it: No buildings crowd in. Traffic doesn't drone. You won't see parasailors, tiki huts, volleyball or cabana rentals. You may not see another human being.
On a mellow spring day, the steady Atlantic surf whispers like a velvet waterfall. The waves carry no warning thunder. They seem to say, softly, hey, we're visitors, too. Just came from the Sargasso Sea, Cape Verde and the Azores. Lisbon is sweet at night. You want to come?
It is classic romance on short notice.
Hold that thought a moment. Here are some basics:
The Canaveral National Seashore, near the Kennedy Space Center, comprises nearly 58,000 acres. Florida's largest national seashore is also the nation's fourth-largest. Get there via New Smyrna Beach and Titusville. You can fish, hike, go boating, watch wildlife, sunbathe naked with little apparent risk of interference from authorities, go horseback riding, absorb Florida history, hear nature lectures, and go hunting in season. It costs $5 per car to get in, $1 if you're on foot.
Officials have recorded 1,045 plant species and 310 bird species. The seashore is home to 14 wildlife species on federal threatened or endangered lists. Among them: sea turtles, manatees, bald eagles, wood storks, peregrine falcons, indigo snakes and scrub jays.
The wildlife is part of the romance.
Every year, the seashore witnesses the annual cycle of the sea turtles.
Loggerheads, Leatherbacks and Green Sea Turtles wallow ashore from May through August, their combined efforts resulting in thousands of nests each year. Each nest may contain about 100 eggs. They will hatch in two months - assuming ghost crabs, raccoons or storm erosion do not claim them. At night, on cool sand, surviving hatchlings clamber over one another to get out of the nest, struggling to reach the surf. If they make it, they swim to the Sargasso Sea to eat, grow, and possibly return to the shore that nurtured them and made them strong survivors.
If you are lucky, you might spy a turtle -- or its telltale track. Turtle watches take place during June and July.
If you are even luckier, you might spy a jaguarundi. These otter-like cats are not Florida natives, but park lore says at least one of the creatures roams nearby. A photo of one of the exotics is posted in a park information center.
A favorite among visitors is the six-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, a winding road with stops to gaze over woods and wetlands, where a zillion birds wade and bob and, if they tire of human intrusion, flap away. This drive is part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to the seashore.
It is difficult to visit this undeveloped shore without time-traveling. Timucuan Indians, one of Florida's indigenous tribes, stood on this beach centuries ago. Young ones giggled at the stumpy, needle-beaked sanderlings skittering in sand wet with foam. They snatched up moon snails and calico scallops while their elders wondered at the strange boats with cloud-like sails coming from the east. The Spanish, French and British newcomers stepped ashore on beaches much like this one.
Timucuan mounds take you further into the past. If your timing is right you might see an archaeological dig taking place at Castle Windy, a midden dating at least to 1300 A.D. Turtle Mound reaches to the same era, and a wooden walkway elevates visitors toward a panoramic view of the Atlantic and Mosquito Lagoon, the latter aptly named during certain months. Bring repellant. Parts of another mound, called Seminole Rest, may be as much as 4,000 years old.
More recent history includes the 19th-century settlement of Eldora. It once was a village of 200 people who grew citrus, indigo, pineapple and other agricultural products. It served as a steamboat stop before the railroad arrived. It also was the site of a government "House of Refuge" for shipwrecked mariners. The village expired in about 1975, but one house has been restored and is open to the public.
One seashore surprise might be the nude sunbathing. It takes place on a section called Playa Linda Beach. A county ordinance forbids it, and authorities could choose to enforce it, but do not.
Instead, signs are posted informing clothed visitors that they may encounter naturists.
-- Jon Wilson, Visit Florida
IF YOU GO
Getting there: The national seashore is midway on Florida's east coast between Daytona Beach and Melbourne. I-95, U.S. 1 and State Road 528 (Bee Line Expressway) are convenient routes. The northern access, New Smyrna Beach, is on Florida A1A. The southern access, Titusville, is on State Roads 406/402.
Phones: 321-267-1110 for seashore information and permits; New Smyrna information center, 386-428-3384.
Cost: $5 per day per vehicle. $1 per day for pedestrians.
Beaches: There are no designated picnic areas, phones, food, beach showers or drinking water. Chemical toilets are available. Lifeguards are on duty from May 30 to September 1 at some beaches. There is beach access for people with disabilities.