Is Ottawa’s new direct flight to Florida worth the trip?

Looking for a quick route to the sun this winter? Porter Airlines might have the answer, as it is launching new seasonal direct service between Ottawa and Melbourne, Florida, in December.

I suspect a few of you are thinking, “Where the heck is Melbourne, Florida?” And I sympathize because, until recently, I’d never heard of the place myself. (For the record, it’s on the east coast of the Sunshine State, roughly halfway between Daytona Beach and West Palm Beach.)

So what does this city of roughly 80,000 have to offer travellers?

Breeze through the airport in Melbourne

Facade of international terminal at Orlando Melbourne International Airport.

Orlando Melbourne International Airport is a manageable size.

First of all, if you hate big, hectic airports, you’ll love pint-sized Melbourne Orlando International. Since it largely handles domestic U.S. flights, customs clearance is quick. And crowds are tiny compared to the similarly named but much larger Orlando International Airport, about an hour away; the Melbourne facility handled 484,444 passengers in 2015, just a little more than 1% of the 42 million people who passed through Orlando the following year. If my experience is typical, within about 45 minutes of landing at Melbourne, you could collect your luggage, get to your hotel and be on the beach.

Hit the beach

In fact, Melbourne’s number-one attraction for most winter-weary Ottawans will likely be its 53 kilometres of sandy shoreline, where you can swim, sunbathe and surf. (Cocoa Beach, just up the road, is home to one of the biggest surf shops I’ve ever seen—but more on that in a minute.)

Melbourne Beach on a cloudy day.

The weather wasn’t stellar during my visit, but you can still get a sense of the expanse of Melbourne Beach.

Interestingly, you can also fish right from the shore, with huge 3.7-metre rods that allow you to cast a 140-gram weight the length of two football fields. Vietnam vet John Detmer came here about 10 years ago for a post-retirement second career as a fishing guide. Now, he helps tourists catch whiting, bluefish and other warm-water species through his company, J&H Surf Fishing. His personal best was a 7.3-metre nurse shark, and he swears this isn’t a fish story. “Here we don’t have to tell stories. We can show you pictures of people who have caught fish.”

The area is also a fragile nesting zone for sea turtles. If you visit from May through July, you can go on guided turtle walks with the Sea Turtle Preservation Society.

Get a room

If you’re looking for huge, posh resorts, you’ve come to the wrong place. A few small hotel towers and even smaller inns line the beach along the barrier island that separates Melbourne proper from the Atlantic Ocean.

I stayed at the Windemere Inn by the Sea, where 11 rooms are spread across three buildings adjacent to the beach. The inn offers good value; my large room, just steps from the beach, can sleep four and goes for US$225 a night, including breakfast, access to a communal kitchen (stocked with inn-baked chocolate chip cookies) and free parking.

Bed with floral cover and two rattan chairs in English Garden room at Windemere Inn by the Sea in Indialantic, Florida.

The English Garden room at Windemere Inn by the Sea has two queen-sized beds and a deep soaker tub.

Decanter of brandy at Windemere Inn by the Sea in Indialantic, Florida.

A civilized touch: In the communal living room at the Windemere Inn by the Sea, there’s a complimentary decanter of brandy for guests to share if they want a nightcap.

Shop and play

Historic Downtown Melbourne, a low-slung retail area across the Indian River from the beach strip, is home to pubs, restaurants and independent boutiques, including a generous sprinkling of yoga studios and vintage stores. It’s all pretty laid back and low key, making it an appealing choice for families.

Speaking of families, Melbourne is 125 kilometres from Walt Disney World—not exactly right around the corner, but close enough if your kids want to commune with Mickey and frolic on the beach in the same vacation. Melbourne is also 44 kilometres south of Port Canaveral, the world’s third-busiest cruise port. Almost two dozen hotels in the “Florida’s Space Coast” area offer packages that include an overnight stay and shuttle service to the port.

Port Canaveral with large cruise ship in port.

A view of Port Canaveral from the Exploration Tower.

The “Space Coast” moniker comes from the fact that this area is also home to one of the world’s most famous aerospace facilities, the Kennedy Space Center at Port Canaveral. Much to my disappointment, I didn’t have time on this quick trip to visit the centre, where you can learn about NASA’s space program, particularly the Apollo missions and the space shuttle.

Exploration Tower.

If, like me, you are pressed for time, you can get a quick introduction to the region’s entire history (including its role in space) at the nearby Exploration Tower. The seven-storey sail-shaped building features interactive displays about astronauts, ecology, shipping and more. When the  Kennedy Space Centre is launching a rocket, you can buy tickets to watch the launch from the tower’s outdoor observation deck.

Display with photo of first man on the moon.

You can learn about the history of the U.S. space program at the Exploration Tower at Port Canaveral.

On a whim, on the way back from Port Canaveral to Melbourne, we stopped at the enormous Ron John Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach, and it was a hoot—even though I barely know a surfboard from an ironing board. The massive store, which is open 24/7, is like a souvenir shop on steroids.

Facade of Ron John Surf Shop illuminated with multi-coloured floodlights lights at dusk.

The Ron John Surf Shop is a huge landmark in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Sure, there’s surf gear galore, but you’ll also find jewellery, socks, dishes, beach-themed decor, towels and—the pièce de résistance—a US$399.99 cooler with a built-in blender. How have I lived without such a gadget all my life? (No, I did not buy it.)

Sign for cooler with built-in blender.

It wouldn’t fit in my carry-on luggage.

Escape into nature

However, my favourite spot of all on the Space Coast was the area’s only state park, Sebastian Inlet, where a knowledgeable guide named Laurel took a group of us on a roughly 90-minute kayaking trip along the mangrove-fringed shoreline of the Indian River Lagoon.

Kayakers in green rental kayaks at Sebastian Inlet State Park.

The view from my kayak at Sebastian Inlet State Park.

Pelicans swooped overhead in search of fish. Herons took off from the shore with a whisper of huge wings. Ospreys kept watch from the high tops of dead tree trunks. Every so often, kayakers would urgently point their paddles at something in the water, trying to draw our attention to what might have been a shark, dolphin or manatee. (All three are present in the lagoon, but I’m notoriously terrible at spotting wildlife.)

Our lunch menu.

After our morning’s exertions, we headed to BG’s Surfside Grill, a casual beach bar where I tucked hungrily into fish tacos and excellent, mustardy potato salad. Then, with sandy feet and pleasantly aching shoulders (from the kayaking), we headed back to the airport.

Should you head to Melbourne?

So would Melbourne be a good spot for your next winter escape? If you like nature, swimming and surfing, or you have a space exploration fan in the family, I’d say go for it. If pulsing nightlife, luxury resorts and multiple days at amusement parks are more your thing, other spots in Florida would suit you better.

Interior of Porter Airlines plane with flight attendants and bar cart.

Here come the snacks and drinks!

The direct Porter flight is a definite plus; it’s one of the few airlines left where I feel more like a human being and less like a number. (The free-flowing snacks and drinks, and the nice Porter lounge at the Ottawa airport, probably have something to do with that.) The airline’s Bombardier Q400 turbo-prop planes seat about 80 passengers and have decent legroom. If you’re travelling with kids or you’re easily bored, be sure to pack books and well-charged tablets, as there is no in-flight entertainment system.

Hurricane update

When I visited in mid-October, about five weeks after Hurricane Irma roared through Melbourne, some hotels were still undergoing repairs but much of the tourism infrastructure appeared in good shape. (My accommodations at Windemere Inn by the Sea looked completely untouched by the storm.) If you’re booking a hotel, call ahead to find out the status of the renovations.

If you go

Porter Airlines will offer several flights between Ottawa and Melbourne over the Christmas holidays, starting December 16, 2017. From January 13 until March 31, 2018, the airline will offer one flight each week in each direction on Saturdays (leaving Ottawa at 10:20am and leaving Melbourne at 3:30pm). The flight takes 3.5 hours.

Disclosure: I travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Porter Airlines, Orlando Melbourne International Airport and Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism, none of which reviewed or approved this post.

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