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Sox park puts new spring into a Florida visit

The new JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., has an old manual scoreboard from Fenway Park and displays Red Sox players’ retired numbers (alongside Jackie Robinson’s 42). The new JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., has an old manual scoreboard from Fenway Park and displays Red Sox players’ retired numbers (alongside Jackie Robinson’s 42). (PHOTOS BY BRITA MENG OUTZEN/BOSTON RED SOX)
By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright
Globe Correspondents / February 26, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - For us in the Fenway Faithful camp who can forgive a September slump, baseball season can’t come too soon. So, we made the pilgrimage to Florida for a sneak preview of our beloved Boys of Summer.

This year, there is even more excitement in the warm air: the Sox have a new, $78 million spring training facility, JetBlue Park. It is open and ready for action: Red Sox workouts started yesterday, and games are scheduled from March 3 through April 2. It gets better: Lawn seats in right field cost a mere 5 bucks. You can even get a Fenway Frank. You need look no further for an excuse to head down for some sunshine and beach time. Here’s our scouting report on how to make the most of a trip to “Fenway South.’’ Game on!

Take me out to the ballgame

Shiny and new though it is, the 126-acre park has several Fenway-esque elements. The dimensions of JetBlue Park are nearly identical to Fenway Park, and built to accommodate 11,000 fans, with 10,000 fixed, cast-iron seats painted in the familiar Fenway green. (There’s standing room for 1,000 more.) Fenway South has a 37-foot-high replica of the Green Monster in left field, with a single line of barstool-rail seating on the top of the wall and a standing-room-only deck behind it like the original Fenway Park.

What’s new: They have built three rows of recessed seating inside the Green Monster. Located about halfway up, the Monster seats will offer a unique view of the action. “The seats inside the wall will be covered with taut netting because, technically, the ball is still in play, so it will bounce right off,’’ says Katie Haas, operations manager of the park. Other choice seats are located in sections 107 and 109 on the first-base line, over the visitors dugout, and sections 108 and 110, down the third-base line, over the Red Sox dugout. The cheap seats are on the lawn in right field; it’s BYOB (bring your own blanket). “This is really cool because you’re seated right above the bullpen,’’ says Haas.

Adding to the authentic Fenway feel: At the base of the left-field wall is an old manual scoreboard that was in service at Fenway Park until 2001. And, although nothing can truly capture the raucous ambience of Yawkey Way on game day (or the aroma of Italian sausages sizzling on a food cart), they have set up “Fenway South Drive’’ with turnstiles and local food vendors.

Of course, part of the allure of spring training is the chance to get closer to players, check out promising new talent, and maybe even snag an autograph. Player accessibility is highest during the first two weeks of spring training, at pregame workouts, Haas says, adding, “It’s free [to visit], and there will be lots of opportunities to get an autograph.’’ Even if you miss that window, “You really are up close and personal with the players, much more so than Fenway,’’ she says. “These guys are walking right past you onto the playing field.’’

Off the field, chances are slim that you will run into a player chowing down on a fried grouper sandwich at a local bistro. But we have heard reports of Sox sightings at Blu Sushi at Gulf Coast Town Center and at the Patio Bar at the Holiday Inn Fort Myers Airport Hotel.

Ticket prices range from $5 to $46 at www.redsox.com; 888-733-7696 (888-REDSOX6). Tickets are on sale now; the spring schedule begins with exhibition games against Northeastern University and Boston College. Tours of the park are $5; check the website for a schedule.

Take me out with the crowd

Even for serious Sox fans, there is more to life than baseball. We always rent a car (it is essential in Florida if you plan to leave your hotel) and do some exploring. If it is your first time to Fort Myers, plan to check out the late 1800s Edison and Ford Winter Estates, a 20-acre complex that includes Thomas Edison and Henry Ford’s historic homes, tropical gardens, Edison’s lab, plus a museum devoted to inventions and other artifacts.

The Southwest Gulf region is a sun-warmed landscape of rivers, bays, and barrier islands, ideal for paddling. Rent a canoe or kayak from a local outfitter like Estero River Outfitters and you can glide through tunnels of mangroves, circumnavigate tiny islets, and discover pristine pocket beaches. If this sounds like the perfect antidote to winter, plan to stay awhile and get acquainted with the Great Calusa Blueway, which is accessible nearby. Rich with wildlife and glimpses of Old Florida, this 190-mile marked trail has been named one of the top 10 places in the world to paddle by Canoe & Kayak magazine. Some of the treasures we have encountered along the Blueway include a heart-shaped lake, a lagoon where manatees play, and some great campsites on the beach at Cayo Costa State Park.

The beaches are a huge draw. Fort Myers Beach is just a Frisbee’s toss from the ballpark, and offers a lively array of waterfront restaurants, bars, and perhaps even dolphin sightings. One of the loveliest strands in the area is on Sanibel Island, 12 miles south, famous for sea shells.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack

Of course you will nosh on Fenway Franks at the ballpark, but where else can you go for a tasty bite? One of the top spots for casual dining is Crave, on McGregor Boulevard, the main drag. The restaurant serves breakfast (until 4 p.m.), lunch and dinner, cooked to order. Breakfast entrees include salmon hash, served with eggs, toast, and potatoes, for $12. The dinner menu leans toward diner favorites such as shepherd’s pie and chicken pot pie, but you can also get an entree salad like the warm goat cheese-roasted beets-lemon greens medley for $12.

And one of the must-try foodstuffs in the neighborhood is the maple-bacon doughnut at Bennett’s Fresh Roast coffee shop, located in the river district near downtown. Yes, the bacon craze has peaked, but the sweet-and-salty deliciousness of this little pastry keeps fans coming back. Sensible eaters go for the richly layered breakfast strata with cheese and veggies, and a cup of house-roasted coffee. Bennett’s also offers daily lunch specials.

Every burg in Florida seems to have one really good restaurant located in a strip mall; here, it’s Two Meatballs in the Kitchen, set alongside the Bella Vista Shops and open for lunch and dinner. We are partial to any Italian place that offers multigrain pasta, available here with pine nuts, spinach, and tomatoes, but we caved when saw the cheesy, breaded eggplant Parmesan served to another table. A prosciutto and mushroom pizza was the tie-breaker. The garlic knots were also a big favorite at our table. Most entrees, $15 and up.

I don’t care if I never get back

Where to stay in Fort Myers? The Holiday Inn Fort Myers Airport Hotel at Town Center is the official hotel of the Boston Red Sox, offering Sox-themed packages and promotions. For example, for every night booked at the hotel, guests are entered into a contest to win a chance to meet a player, complete with autographs and photos, and a gift bag of Red Sox gear (T-shirt, cap, etc.). They are also running a contest on Facebook: Submit a photo that showcases your Sox fandom and you get a chance to win a free two-night stay in a waterview room at the hotel. Typical room rates are $99-$209.

Four SunStream Hotels & Resort properties are offering 10 percent off standard rates Feb. 1-April 30. Properties include the Resort at Marina Village in Cape Coral, and in Fort Myers Beach, Diamond Head Beach Resort & Spa, Gull Wing Beach Resort, and Pointe Estero Beach Resort. Two-night minimum applies; rates from $255.

If you plan to stay for several days, consider the Floridian Grand Slam offer at the Floridian Airport Inn: Stay six nights and receive one free night, or stay one to five nights and receive a 15 percent discount. That includes complimentary breakfast for two, manager’s happy hour from 4-7 p.m, one free appetizer at the Floridian Bistro, and a complimentary room upgrade if available. Rates start at $120 per night based on double occupancy; available through April 20.

The only downside to all this: Coming home and expecting it to be springtime and baseball season in Boston. But we’ll be counting the days.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@earthlink.net.

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