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Ah, Viera in the Springtime

The temptation is to discover your very first drive-through Starbucks in Wal-Mart's front lot in Viera's shopping complex and conclude that you have reached the cultural apex of this region. But that would be unfair. There is a genuine cultural center, the King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne, where last week's headliner was Charo -- Johnny Carson's once-wild comedic target is apparently quite the star on the flamenco guitar circuit -- and if you hurry down, this Saturday's big show features -- are you ready? -- Donna Summer. Hot stuff indeed.

All derision aside, there is life beyond the ballpark. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden wrote in the local paper that the "Brevard Zoo is very underrated" and "Andretti Thrill Park in Palm Bay is one of the best in the state." The zoo, five minutes from the stadium, offers alligator and crocodile feedings, which might provide an apt metaphor for what the Nats face in their debut season, except that the team in the very early going just keeps on winning, which is more than any of us has a right to expect. The Thrill Park, in Melbourne, includes four go-kart tracks, batting cages and a full array of electronic distractions. And there are lots of very, very large fireworks markets.

A young fan races around Viera's Space Coast Stadium during Sunday's game between the Nationals and the Houston Astros. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

The Space Coast is -- well, there are two ways to put this. If you go by what you see, we're talking trailer parks, churches that look like strip shopping centers, churches across from strip clubs and a sad landscape of lingering hurricane damage -- rooftops peeled back like sardine can tops, empty metal frames left over from ravaged shop signs.

But cast your eyes beyond all that, beyond the 24-hour beach-supply markets and convenience stores. Look beyond even sweet little Cocoa Village, a few blocks of 1920s buildings in downtown Cocoa now housing boutiques, cafes and craft shops as if a tiny bit of Key West had been dropped into central Florida. Keep driving east over the causeways toward the Atlantic to a place of arresting sunsets, tropical colors and broad, sparsely populated sands perfect for long walks.

This is Florida's southernmost oceanfront stretch where land values are still low enough to permit scruffy businesses, weatherbeaten old stucco houses and Phil's Regular Haircut ($10) to exist within a block of the ocean. The condo canyons of South Florida have not reached this far, and the nightlife is not about to attract the Euro-chic or the South Beach celebrity crowd. So the coast remains a place where, as Indialantic resident and nature educator Christine Schnitzer explained as we sat at the ballpark, you can walk (or bike or drive) for miles along the ocean through a wildlife refuge, watching herons and soon, when turtle-nesting season begins, watching huge turtles come ashore.

At this point in our conversation, Brad Wilkerson launched a rocket over the left-field fence and the place erupted -- fans of the Washington baseball team cheering for one of our own. Even our reticent mayor, sitting in the front row about four feet from Nats Manager Frank Robinson, emitted a quite audible "Yeah!"



GETTING THERE: Between spring break and spring training, cheap airfares from D.C. to Florida are rare. The closest airport to Viera is in Melbourne, but the selection of flights is slim. So unless you pay top dollar, you'll end up flying to Orlando, about a 45-minute drive from Viera. At this late date, cheap seats to warm places are invariably gone, at least for weekend travel. That said, if you're willing to leave very early in the morning, some fares in the $260-$300 range were available as of early this week on Southwest from BWI and Independence Air from Dulles. If you want to play hooky from work to see the Nats play, weekday travel to Orlando is available, for example, for $166 round trip on Independence Air.

WHERE TO STAY: There's no there there when it comes to hotel rooms in Viera. Try some of the smaller places along the ocean in Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island and Satellite Beach, or settle for the chain motels along I-95 in Cocoa and Melbourne. I ended up at Cocoa's Days Inn (5600 Hwy. 524, 321-636-6500; $79 on Hotels.com) one night and it was, well, a Days Inn on the highway. Another night, I found a room at the lovely Wisteria Inn bed-and-breakfast in Melbourne (888-787-0717, www.wisteriainn.net), where for $129, you get old Florida charm, a citrus orchard out back, homemade scones and wireless Web access.

WHERE TO EAT: In the first weeks of spring training, my colleague Barry Svrluga, The Post's witty and wise Nationals beat writer, set a land record for consecutive meals at Panera Bread (2290 Town Center Ave.); his streak ended at 15 lunches, and only because the Nats started playing day games. Surely, I figured, I could do better. Nuh-uh: I recommend the chocolate-chip muffins at Panera. But if pickings are slim in Viera, there's good food elsewhere in Brevard County, such as Roberto's Little Havana in downtown Cocoa Beach (26 N. Orlando Ave.). It's an authentic Cuban place that feels like a Miami neighborhood hangout. In Melbourne, check out Bonefish Willy's (2459 Pineapple Ave.), where the outdoor dining terrace puts you on the Indian River, the wasabi-encrusted tuna packs a welcome wallop and waiter Anthony Poponi doubles as a nature tour guide (www.localknow.com). A good listing of locally appreciated eateries, compiled by a member of the Chowhound.com network of people ever on the hunt for tasty eats, is at bellsouthpwp.net/k/a/karma813/brevrest.html.

CATCHING A GAME: The Nationals' spring home is Viera's Space Coast Stadium (5800 Stadium Pkwy.) between Cocoa and Melbourne. Ticket prices range from $5 for the outfield berm to $18 for the batter's box. For a schedule of spring training games and tickets: www.nationals.com. You can easily base a spring training odyssey out of Viera. Cracker Jack Stadium at Disney World (the spring home of the Atlanta Braves), Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee (Houston Astros) and Holman Stadium in Vero Beach (Los Angeles Dodgers) are within an hour or so of Space Coast Stadium. Within another hour's reach are Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland (Detroit Tigers) and Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven (Cleveland Indians). For schedules and travel tips: www.springtrainingonline.com.

INFO: Florida's Space Coast Office of Tourism, 321-637-5483, www.space-coast.com.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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