Photo courtesy Viera.com
Viera has grown considerably since the Nationals began playing there in 2005.
Like, what are you going to do the rest of the day and evening in Viera?
You are again in luck, because I've got your definitive guide to Viera and the surrounding Space Coast, a megalopolis that includes the towns of Melbourne, Cocoa Beach, Cocoa, Satellite Beach, Indian Harbour Beach, Titusville, Merritt Island ... and some other towns I'm forgetting at the moment.
It is, however, important to know about the surrounding area, because Viera has only so much to offer. Honestly, it doesn't have much at all to offer, unless you're really into shopping centers, chain restaurants and county government buildings.
I exaggerate a bit; Viera isn't as bad as its reputation suggests. The town (actually, a still-unincorporated planned community) has grown considerably over the last seven years, and there are some places worth visiting ... if you know where you're going.
But first: How do you get to Viera? Good question. You've basically got three options: 1) Fly to Orlando, rent a car and make the easy, 40-minute drive across the "Beach Line Highway" (Route 528 East), 2) Fly to tiny Melbourne Airport (though you won't find any non-stops there from the D.C. area) and make an even easier, 25-minute drive north, or 3) Hop on I-95 in Northern Virginia, set your cruise control and exit 859 miles later at Fiske Blvd. in Viera.
Where should you stay? Hotel options in the immediate vicinity of Space Coast Stadium remain sparse. There's a LaQuinta Inn, a Holiday Inn and a Hampton Inn on Wickham Road at I-95, all about a five-minute drive to ballpark. All can get pretty crowded during the spring, though, in part because the Nationals take up some of the rooms for team personnel, especially minor-league players and staff.
There may be a lack of hotel rooms in Viera, but there isn't a lack of eating options. Name the chain restaurant, and chances are you'll find it in Viera, either at "The Avenue" shopping center down the road from the ballpark or on Wickham Road (a major thoroughfare in the area). There's Chili's, Longhorn Steakhouse, Mimi's Cafe, Steak and Shake, Cracker Barrel, Perkins, Outback, Carrabba's, Uno's, Moe's Southwest Grill, Five Guys and, of course, the famous Panera Bread where you'll almost always find some hungry sportswriters around lunchtime.
There are also several worthy non-chain restaurants if you know where to look, and I suggest you do. In the same shopping center as Carrabba's, you'll find Amici's, a great Italian joint owned by a big baseball fan (who unfortunately hails from the Bronx). Plenty of Nats folks dine here regularly, and once you taste the food, you'll understand why. I highly recommend.
In that same shopping center is Toyo, a sushi restaurant that also serves cooked Asian cuisine for those too scared to try raw fish (like yours truly). Further down Wickham Road is Charlie and Jake's, a microbrewery and sports bar specializing in barbeque that has been a regular stop for me over the years.
A little farther down on Route 1 are several higher-quality restaurants: Pineda Crossing, River Rocks and Grills (the latter two boast excellent views of the Intracoastal Waterway).
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Pizza Gallery at "The Avenue," which caters the press box during Grapefruit League season and fattens us all up on ridiculously good garlic knots.
So, as you can see, Viera does present you with some options. But don't limit yourselves to those if you make the trip down. Be sure to try both Cocoa Beach and Melbourne, each about a 20-25 minute drive from Space Coast Stadium.
I stayed in Cocoa Beach from 2006-09, and you can't go wrong spending any length of time near the ocean. There are lots of hotels along State Route A1A, though be aware the prices are higher there than in Viera or Melbourne because of the location.
Even if you don't stay in Cocoa Beach, be sure to head out there at least once during your trip. There are plenty of great restaurants, from several at the Cocoa Beach Pier to Fishlips to Sunset Bar and Grill to Coconuts on the Beach to the wonderfully named The Fat Snook.
I've stayed in Melbourne the last two springs and will be back there again this year, and I'm glad I discovered the area, because I didn't realize it has its own charms. Downtown Melbourne features some great eateries and nightlife: Meg O'Malley's Irish pub, Matt's Casbah (highly recommend), Smokey Bones (good place for BBQ and watching sporting events on TV). And of course, no trip to the area would be complete without a stop at Bonefish Willy's, the best seafood place in town. It's a little tricky to find on Pineapple Ave., but trust me, it's worth it.
As far as other activities to partake in when you're not at the ballpark, the Kennedy Space Center tops the list. Sadly, there are no more Space Shuttle launches to see in person, and a quick check of the upcoming launch schedule shows nothing on the docket during spring training. Still, the KSC tour is well worth your time.
What else is there to see? The Brevard Zoo gets good reviews from those who have visited (though I haven't ever made it there myself). I know a few sportswriters who have spent an evening or two at the Melbourne Greyhound Track, which also features a poker room. There's that giant amusement park/resort place outside Orlando (if you're into that sort of thing). Best of all, there are miles and miles of beaches to lounge on while calling your friends or relatives stuck in cold and rainy D.C.
So there you have it: A fairly comprehensive rundown of Viera and the surrounding Space Coast. I'm sure I've left out some worthy restaurants, sites or adventures, though, so feel free to let us know your favorites in the comments section below.