Photo courtesy Viera.com
Viera has been the franchise's spring home since 2003.
Truth be told, Viera gets a bad rap. It's not nearly as bad as the horror stories might suggest. It's not even such a terrible place to visit ... if you know how to find a few off-the-beaten-path locales.
You're in luck, because your humble beat writer has spent the last eight springs on the Space Coast and during that time has managed to find plenty of hot spots (not to mention plenty of cold spots to be avoided at all costs).
So, if you're planning to head down there this spring to catch Nationals camp, be sure to print out this handy-dandy guide to the sights, sounds and smells of Viera. (Also, if you missed it yesterday, be sure to read my guide to Space Coast Stadium and the nearby practice facility where the Nationals work out prior to the exhibition season.)
Viera represents just one small chunk of the Space Coast, a planned community well inland that boasts a dizzying array of chain restaurants, government buildings and the occasional brush fire. But venture just a short distance away to the towns of Cocoa Beach, Melbourne and Satellite Beach and you'll find some more original destinations.
To get to Viera, you'll either need to fly to Orlando and drive 45 minutes east along the Beach Line Expressway, fly into Melbourne (Note: There are no non-stops from Dulles, National or BWI) and drive 25 minutes north along Interstate-95, make the 900-mile trek yourself down the East Coast or hop on board Amtrak's Auto Train, which departs every afternoon from Lorton, Va., and arrives the next morning in Sanford, Fla., (with your car).
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).
Your better lodging options are going to be on the beach (Cocoa, Satellite or Melbourne) or in the actual city of Melbourne (which is where I 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.
OK, you've found a place to stay. Now, what are you going to eat? You've got no shortage of choices, even in Viera (which, come to think of it, is "Home to Choices" according to another one of the town's slogans).
Just down the street from Space Coast Stadium is The Avenue, a large shopping and entertainment complex that features some standard chain fare (Chili's, Longhorn Steakhouse, Mimi's Cafe, Steak and Shake, Moe's Southwest Grill, Five Guys and the infamous Panera Bread where you're likely to run into sportswriters around lunchtime) and a few worthy non-chains (Pizza Gallery, World of Beer).
Farther down Wickham Road, you'll also find chain restaurants Carrabba's, Outback Steakhouse, Perkins, Cracker Barrel and Uno's, but I recommend several non-chain establishments. For Italian, you've got to check out Amici's (it's in the same strip mall as Carrabba's, at the opposite end) which happens to be a popular hangout for Nationals folks (including the general manager, who knows his Italian food). For sushi and other Asian cuisine, try Toyo (a couple doors down from Amici's). And for burgers, barbeque and beer, you'll want to stop by Charlie and Jake's, which brews several unique beers on-site and has a been a spring training staple for years.
If you venture toward the Intracoastal Waterway and Route 1, you'll find several higher-quality restaurants, some with excellent views: Pineda Crossing, River Rocks and Grills. And for a truly great and relaxing dinner on the water, you must make at least one trip to Bonefish Willy's, which is tricky to find on Pineapple Ave., but is well worth the effort.
Cocoa Beach features its share of great seafood places, from the Cocoa Beach Pier to The Fat Snook (yes, that's actually the name of a restaurant), 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 (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.
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 of beaches.
Suffice it to say, there's plenty to keep you occupied while you're in town, headlined (obviously) by Nationals spring training. For those of you who have made the trip before, please share your experiences and recommendations in the comments section.
And for those who haven't made the trip before, what are you waiting for?