- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

So Nationals pitchers and catchers report to spring training Saturday, and baseball season officially gets under way. Which means I’ll be reporting to spring training myself, setting up shop in Viera, Fla., and trying to maintain my sanity while down there.

This will be my fifth spring in Viera, and while the town is never going to beat out the District in any head-to-head comparison, you would be amazed how far the place has come since 2005. Back then, Viera essentially consisted of: 1) Space Coast Stadium, 2) a Wal-Mart, 3) a Target, 4) a Cracker Barrel and 5) lots of empty land.

But the town has grown up in the last four years to the point that it actually resembles civilization. Generic, Florida suburban civilization. But I suppose that’s better than nothing.

Now, when you gaze out beyond the outfield fence at Space Coast Stadium, instead of cow pastures, you will find condos, a high school, a golf course, government buildings, churches, an outdoor shopping mall… and of course both the Wal-Mart and the Target.

So at least there are options for anyone who heads down for the spring and wants to partake in anything other than baseball. And as a service to any of you who are planning to make the trip this year, I figured I would put together a quick guide to the area. No, this won’t be as detailed as Frommer’s or Zagat’s. But remember, we’re still talking about Viera here…

HOW TO GET THERE

Viera is located on Florida’s east coast, 2 1/2 hours north of Miami, an hour south of Daytona Beach and an hour east of Orlando. Yeah, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. The closest locales of note are Cape Canaveral/Cocoa Beach (25 minutes northeast) and Melbourne (20 minutes south).

If you’re flying, you probably will want to go to Orlando and rent a car. It’s an easy drive across Route 528 (the Beachline Expressway). There is a small airport in Melbourne, but there aren’t any direct flights there from Dulles, Reagan National or BWI.

If you prefer the true road trip, all you need to do is hop on Interstate 95 south and drive for about 14 hours till you see Space Coast Stadium off to your right.

WHERE TO STAY

If there’s still one major drawback to Viera, it’s the lack of hotels. There are only two establishments within 10 minutes of the ballpark: the La Quinta Inn and the Holiday Inn. Both are usually packed in February and March because the Nationals use them for some players (mostly minor leaguers) and personnel.

So you may have to look elsewhere for your accommodations. Your best bets are to look either at Melbourne or Cocoa Beach. Melbourne hotels will be a bit cheaper, but Cocoa Beach offers more for your money (like, you know, the beach). I’ll be setting up shop at the Cocoa Beach Residence Inn for the third straight year, and I highly recommend it. Place just opened in 2007. Nice, spacious rooms with a kitchen and separate living room. Nice pool. Nice free, hot breakfast every morning. Friendly staff. Good location.

WHAT TO EAT

PANERA: Lunchtime staple for fans and sports writers alike. It’s right down the street from the ballpark at the sprawling “Avenue” outdoor mall.

ASIAN TOO: Also at the Avenue, this is something between a fast food and sit-down restaurant offering all kinds of Chinese and Japanese favorites, including sushi.

MOE’S SOUTHWESTERN GRILL: Think Chipotle or Baja Fresh, only the dishes are all named for obscure characters in TV shows and movies. They’ve got the Art Vandalay, the Joey Bag of Donuts and (my personal favorite) the John Coctostan.

CHILI’S: Do I really need to tell you what they have?

LONGHORN STEAKHOUSE: For a chain, they have pretty good steaks. You might even run into Nationals manager Manny Acta here.

CRACKER BARREL: I joke about this Southern staple, but I will admit it’s a great place to get breakfast (and to buy all sort of useless knickknacks).

UNO PIZZERIA: Home of the Chicago deep-dish. Be warned, though: This place is always packed, so you probably will have to wait.

CARRABBA’S: Italian chain that’s a step up from Olive Garden. Also really popular and crowded. Frank Robinson used to love eating here.

TOYO: A recently opened sushi restaurant that also offers nearly every type of Chinese and Japanese dish for those who prefer their fish cooked.

CHARLIE AND JAKE’S: An old standby for anyone who’s come to Viera over the years. This is a microbrewery and sports bar/grill about 10 minutes down Wickham Road from the ballpark. Try the sweet potato fries.

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