File photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Viera has grown considerably since the Nats came into existence six years ago. Every spring I've arrived in town and discovered some new building or road or restaurant that wasn't there the year before.
Hotel options in the immediate vicinity of the ballpark, though, remain sparse. There's a LaQuinta Inn, a Holiday Inn and a Hampton Inn on Wickham Road at Interstate 95, all about a five-minute drive to Space Coast Stadium. All can get pretty crowded during the spring, 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 and Five Guys, among others.
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 huge baseball fan (we'll ignore the part where his team of choice 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 that's also popular with Nats folks and has been a regular stop for me over the years. And a little further down on Route 1 is Pineda Crossing, another popular stop.
If you come down, though, you shouldn't confine yourself to Viera. Check out both Cocoa Beach and Melbourne, each about a 20-25 minute drive from Space Coast Stadium.
I stayed in Cocoa Beach several years, and you certainly can't go wrong spending any length of time staying 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 stayed in Melbourne last spring 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 (great 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, 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. Even if you don't tour the actual facility, be sure to check the upcoming launch schedule. As luck would have it, Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch on February 24 at 4:50 p.m. Having seen a few launches over the years in person, I've got to say it's one of the coolest things ever. There are also two rocket launches scheduled in March: an Atlas V on March 4 and a Delta IV on March 11. Be aware, of course, that these schedules change all the time at the last minute due to weather and other factors.
Since you don't get a whole lot of free time while covering spring training, I don't have much expertise on other activities. I've heard the Brevard Zoo is nice. You can't go wrong lounging on the beach (as long as the weather's nice). And, of course, Disney World and all the other tourist traps in Orlando are an hour away if you're in to that sort of thing.
For all of you who have been to Viera in the past, please share your own experiences and recommendations for hotels, restaurants and activities...