Feb 7, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
So you’ve decided to go to spring training. You already know how to watch Bryce Harper take live BP off Stephen Strasburg, but you don’t know how to get to Viera. Or where to stay once you’re there. Or where to eat. Or what to do when you’re not at Space Coast Stadium.
Good news: I do. I can’t claim to have picked up a lot of useful knowledge in my nine seasons on the Nationals beat, but I can claim to know Viera and the surrounding area far better than any non-local should.
I can also tell you that everything you’ve ever heard about Viera is probably true. It’s a charmless, flat, planned community off I-95 that boasts tract housing, lots of government buildings, strip mall after strip mall after strip mall, tons of chain restaurants and a Walmart and a Target … right across the street from each other.
But I can also tell you that the town isn’t as bad as you think. And the surrounding area — particularly Cocoa Beach, Melbourne and Satellite Beach — has a whole lot more to offer. You just have to know how to find it.
First, though, you need to get to Viera. You’ve got several options:
— Fly to Orlando, then make the 45-minute drive across the Beach Line Expressway and down I-95.
— Fly to Melbourne, then make the 25-minute drive across US-192 and up I-95. (Note: There are only a limited number of flights to this small airport, none of them non-stop from Dulles, National or BWI.)
— Hop aboard the Auto Train in Lorton, Va., and wake up the next morning in Sanford, Fla., about an hour northwest of Viera.
— Hope on your own car, fight Beltway traffic to get onto I-95 in Springfield and then set the cruise control for the next 900 miles.
Once you’re in town, you’ll need somewhere to stay. Though it would be nice to shack up in the immediate vicinity of Space Coast Stadium, be warned there are only a handful of hotels — LaQuinta Inn, Holiday Inn, Hampton Inn — and most get booked up during spring training, often with Nationals players and employees (mostly the minor-league guys).
You’ll have several more lodging options on the beach (Cocoa, Satellite or Melbourne) or in the actual city of Melbourne, which is where I (and most of my media counterparts) stay. All are roughly a 25-to-30 minute drive from the ballpark, which isn’t bad at all by D.C. traffic standards. The beachfront hotels will be a bit pricier, especially in mid-March when spring break is in full swing.
After that long trip, surely you’re hungry. (I am, but don’t call me Shirley!) There are far more options here than I can list, but here’s a smorgasbord of possibilities…
Near the ballpark is The Avenue, the main shopping district in Viera and home to every chain restaurant you can think of. Chili’s. Longhorn Steakhouse. Mimi’s Cafe, Steak and Shake. Moe’s Southwest Grill. Five Guys. World of Beer. Oh, yeah, and some sandwich shop called Panera Bread where you are almost guaranteed to find one of your trusty beat writers lunching on a regular basis. Rumor is that a Chipotle has opened this year, though I can’t confirm that major news story.
If you continue down Wickham Road, on the other side of I-95, you’ll find plenty more chains — Uno’s, Carrabba’s, Outback, Perkins, Cracker Barrel — but I would strongly recommend a couple of non-chains tucked away along that drag. First is Amici’s, a fantastic Italian restaurant owned by a die-hard baseball fan and the favorite Viera dining spot of a certain Nats GM who may be of Italian descent. Next is Charlie and Jake’s, which has been a spring training favorite for more than a decade and features burgers, barbeque and several beers brewed right on-site. If you like sushi, Toyo is your place, just a couple doors down from Amici’s.
Many of the nicest restaurants in the area are located on US-1, along the intracostal waterway, just a bit farther down Wickham Road. River Rocks is a bit pricy, but the food is excellent and the deck along the water is outstanding. Pineda Crossing looks like a dive on the outside but is top-notch once you walk through the doors. And my favorite local institution is Bonefish Willie’s which is tucked away on tiny Pineapple Ave. but has some of the best seafood you’ll ever eat (get the grouper bruschetta) and a wonderful view on the outdoor deck.
Cocoa Beach also features its share of great seafood places, from the step-back-in-time Cocoa Beach Pier to the wonderfully named Fat Snook, not to mention several great oceanfront bars/restaurants including Coconuts, Fishlips and Sandbar.
Melbourne, meanwhile, has a cool little downtown area with a variety of quality dining (The Mansion, Matt’s Casbah) and typical pub fare (Meg O’Malley’s). Smokey Bones is a good place to get barbeque and watch the NCAA Tournament come March. Duffy’s is another sports bar with quality food and dozens of TVs.
Now that you’re good and full from all the food and drink, you’ll need to find some other forms of entertainment when you’re not at the ballpark or training complex. Reporters don’t get to enjoy very much free time at spring training (certainly not during daytime hours) but the biggest tourist stop in the area is the Kennedy Space Center. They may have retired the space shuttle program, but the KSC is worth visiting nonetheless.
For those more interested in stuff that actually takes place on earth, there’s the Brevard Zoo, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, airboat rides in the swamp, fishing in the river and ocean and, of course, miles and miles of beaches.
Just remember to leave a little bit of time on your schedule for baseball.
Hope this guide helps you enjoy your trip to Viera. If you’ve been before and have your own hotel/restaurant/entertainment recommendations, please share them with everyone!
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