Nats fans’ guide to spring training: The town

The primary purpose of any trip to spring training is to, you know, watch baseball players doing baseball things on baseball fields, all while soaking up the warm South Florida sun while all your friends back north are wearing parkas and shoveling snow.

But there is more to a spring training trip than baseball. After all, you do have to eat. And baseball only takes up a portion of your day.

So today we offer Part 2 of our Nats Fans’ Guide to Spring Training, focusing on everything outside The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches complex. (If you missed yesterday’s rundown of what you can expect inside the complex, you can find it here.)

First things first: You need to get to West Palm Beach. You have several options ...

The-Ballpark-of-Palm-Beaches-curly-W-sidebar.jpgFly to Palm Beach International Airport. There actually aren’t a ton of non-stop flights from the D.C. area to PBI, just a couple American Airlines routes and one JetBlue route from Reagan National, plus a couple Southwest Airlines routes from BWI. There are zero non-stop flights from Dulles to Palm Beach. But PBI is a nice, small, user-friendly airport, so it’s still recommended. (There’s also a decent chance you’ll see Air Force One parked on the tarmac, especially on weekends.)

If you just can’t pass up that cheap fare to Fort Lauderdale, though, it’s still doable. You’ll just need to drive an hour up Interstate-95 to get to West Palm Beach. If you’re wondering about flying into Miami International Airport ... just stop right now and don’t even bother. You’re making a huge mistake.

And then, of course, the really industrious among us can always just pack up the family station wagon - do they still make station wagons? - fight traffic all the way down to Richmond and then cruise the rest of the way down I-95 until you reach West Palm Beach roughly 14-to-16 hours later. Good luck.

Now, where to stay while you’re there? There are no shortage of hotel options, but just be aware a lot of them are rather pricey. Again, we’re not in Viera anymore.

There are several hotels clustered together about 1 1/2 miles east of the ballpark, just off the 45th Street exit of I-95. There’s a Courtyard, a Residence Inn, a Red Roof Inn, a Holiday Inn Express, a SpringHill Suites, a Homewood Suites, a Days Inn and an Extended Stay America. Those all provide the easiest access to the ballpark, though dining options are a little sparse and mostly limited to fast food joints and a Cracker Barrel.

Head one exit down I-95 (Palm Beach Lakes Blvd.) and you’ll find a Ramada, a LaQuinta Inn and a Best Western. You’ll also find a whole bunch of restaurants, plus a whole bunch of outlet stores (if that’s your thing).

Head one more exit down I-95 (Okeechobee Blvd.) and east about a mile and you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of downtown West Palm Beach, with several nicer hotel options ... albeit several more expensive hotel options. You can’t beat that area, though, for food, drink and entertainment (more on that in a moment).

And if you just need to go all-out and splurge to stay on the beach, there’s always the Ritz-Carlton. Or, of course, Mar-a-Lago.

OK, you’ve made it to town. You’ve found a place to stay. Now, where are you going to eat? That’s a loaded question, because there are countless options, and I’ve only sampled a small percentage of them in my one spring spent in West Palm Beach so far. So this is by no means a comprehensive list.

The two main hubs of nighttime activity in the downtown area are CityPlace and the nearby Clematis Street.

CityPlace is a large, outdoor mall with upscale shops, a movie theater, a bowling alley and several restaurants and bars. I really liked Brother Jimmy’s BBQ and Copper Blues. I didn’t make it to The Regional or Il Bellagio, but both are recommended. You’ll also find a few chains (Ruth’s Chris, Brio Tuscan Grille, Cheesecake Factory).

Clematis Street has a row of restaurants, bars and shops. Rocco’s Tacos became a regular hangout last spring. We also enjoyed Grease Burger Bar and The Alchemist (a gastropub).

If you want to avoid the bustle of downtown, there are plenty of suburban strip malls with restaurants to choose from throughout the area. It’s in one of those strip malls (on Okeechobee Blvd., just west of Military Trail) where you’ll find Zuccarelli’s, an excellent Italian restaurant. It’s not quite Amici’s, the very popular spot in Viera. But it’s got a similar vibe to it, and it comes with the endorsement of no less an authority than the general manager of the Washington Nationals, who in addition to being an expert on scouting pitchers is also an expert on Italian food.

West Palm Beach is large enough on its own, but it’s also bordered in each direction by towns that provide their own dining excursions.

Head north just a little ways and you’ll arrive in Jupiter, spring training home of the Marlins and Cardinals and home of some very nice accommodations and restaurants. One in particular I went to a couple times last spring was Leftovers, which is a misnomer because everything they serve is freshly made. But this quaint cafĂ© is worth checking out, especially if you happen to be attending a game at nearby Roger Dean Stadium in the afternoon.

Head south from West Palm Beach and you’ll find Lake Worth, Lantana and Boynton Beach. Along the waterfront in Lantana is the historic Old Key Lime House. It’s a classic seafood-on-the-patio place, with live music and the house specialty dessert: key lime pie. Just don’t show up too late, lest they run out of pie. (This actually happened to me and some fellow D.C. media members the first time we went last spring. It was a devastating development.)

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but that’s a quick overview of the area. I’m sure I’ll be trying out plenty more new establishments this year, and I’d welcome any recommendations from those of you who have been there yourselves. Feel free to share your thumbs-up and thumbs-down in the comments section below!

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