Water and Wildlife in the Sunshine State
Florida conjures up images of Disney World, oranges, retirees, and the 2000 election debacle, but I will not dwell on these. The one constant in southern Florida is water. Whether in the form of oceans, the Intracoastal Waterway (that threads between the mainland and the Barrier Islands) or the Everglades, you are never more than a few miles away from the wet element. Water and motorbikes don't usually make for a happy marriage but for the motorcyclist, the region's hurricane-sculpted geography presents a wealth of beautiful coastline and islands to explore with gorgeous beaches, water sports of every kind, and wonderful wildlife.
American Road Classics in Fort Lauderdale has kindly provided one of their machines for a week but when I get there, no bike is to be seen. "Someone was supposed to return it yesterday but they called just now and said they will bring it back late," says Eric Lamb, who staffs the outlet. Fortunately the company has three locations in southern Florida and a fleet of 50 bikes so a replacement is en route. This turns out to be a Harley Davidson 2003 Heritage Classic Soft tail.
The delay gives me a chance to ask Eric about local biking routes and as we talk, a man comes in to rent a V-Rod. Eric completes the paperwork and tells the guy that he needs to wear a helmet to ride away. "It says 'Rental bike' on the back of the helmet," he says.
"You're kidding me!" the guy says, annoyed. "How am I supposed to pick up girls with that?"
"Got you," laughs Eric.
Riding around Florida is quick and easy with fast, well-paved roads, but I want to follow scenic backroads to stay as close to the sea as I can. Heading south, I pass the end of Ft. Lauderdale International Airport's runway as a jet forces its way into the air, its fantastic roar causing me to duck close to the tank. But that's pretty much the last of the traffic as I turn onto A1A, a scenic road that runs alongside the Intracoastal Waterway through the Barrier Islands.
This is my first time on a Harley and I'm beginning to enjoy the solid, satisfying clunk of the gears and the sharp bite of its brakes. A1A is deserted so I crawl along at 25 mph, peering at the endless flotilla of white pleasure boats on the water and the assortment of bait shops, motels, and resorts crammed onto the thin strips of land. It is a 25-mile ride to the heart of Miami Beach, which looks eerily familiar from Grand Theft Auto 3.
I continue into the heart of Crocket and Tubbs' Miami Vice beat in downtown Miami to see the Atlantic building, the one with a square hole between floors 14 and 16 but unfortunately, it is the night of the Latin Grammy awards and I have to pass the venue. Traffic funnels into a dense jam giving me a clutch workout that leaves me with Hulk hands. I pull up alongside a traffic cop and ask him how to get out of here, but he seems hypnotized. "Nice bike," he says and waves me on.
It surprises me how people react to someone riding a Harley Davidson. Its physical presence generates a certain deference, laced with a dash of awe. This occurs time and again, starting in the taxi before I even picked up the bike. After directing Krishna, a 50-something from Punjab, India, to the rental store, we talked about bikes. "Do they still make Royal Enfields in England? They still make them in India. I used to have one when I was younger, but I would like to try a Harley Davidson," he says.
To escape the traffic I cross the Rickenbacker Causeway to Key Biscayne. A nameplate attached to the tollbooth says the occupant is Xavier, a grey-haired, West Indian. He leans over conspiratorially when I ask him what the toll is. "It's $1,000," he says. I think I have misheard him and give him a questioning look. He looks left and right and whispers, "but for you it'll just be a dollar." I hand him a greenback and ask for a receipt. "Don't you show anyone that receipt. A dollar is your special price," he says.
Beaches are one of the things I am searching for and Key Biscayne gets a gold star. It's a small island with a large public beach called Crandon Park. Timing counts for a lot in life and sometimes you just luck out, and as I ride into the park I feel lucky. The beach is perfect, with clean golden sand edged with palm trees, the water still as a pond and it is totally deserted. Mid-week, low season and an hour from sunset seem to be a perfect combination. I walk onto the beach and as I leave the palm trees behind I can see the skyscrapers of downtown Miami a few miles across the water, and beyond that, Miami Beach on the horizon.
The beach is so large and empty that I am half tempted to bring the Harley onto it, but knowing that park police carry guns...
The road back to the mainland passes the Miami Seaquarium and is my first opportunity to see some wildlife. I park and soon swap one whale for another. For those who have never seen an orca (killer whale) up close--real close--take whatever chance you get. I run into the arena as a show is about to start and am transfixed by the size of the animal. Lolita weighs in at 10,000 lb and shows you every ounce as she gets airborne. An attendant bundles me into a seat like a drunk into a taxi, carrying my jaw that has dropped and is dragging along the ground. I am about 30 ft away from a 4.5 ton orca breaching 10 feet into the air, an experience that merits the utterance of a word Americans misuse: AWESOME!
Miami Beach is famous for shopping, partying and early 20th century art deco-styled architecture. I get up before sunrise to cruise the streets and look around before the island wakes up. At 6:15 am the wind is blasting fatigue from my eyes on the deserted pre-dawn streets. The neon trim on the art deco buildings stabs my eyes in the darkness. At 35mph, the timed signals on Washington Avenue give me an uninterrupted run of green light after green light for a few miles down to South Pointe Park, the southern tip of the island.
With the grid street system I can see the whole district easily and "quickly" down Washington, up Collins Avenue, and then down Ocean Drive where I park and walk onto the beach to watch the sunrise. Florida is so flat that you can almost detect the curvature of the Earth. There is barely a breath of wind to propel the threadbare clouds over the limpid water as the salmon and blue fingers of dawn approach, while on the beach is a curious salad of fisherman, dog-walkers, joggers, swimmers and lovers of the night witnessing the magnificent birth of a new day.
I leave downtown Miami and head west on Coral Way/SW22nd St to take in the exclusive suburb of Coral Gables. Woo-wee, there is some money here all right; a succession of beautiful Spanish-style houses set in landscaped gardens on immaculate shady boulevards whose trees arch into tunnels over the roadway, giving up warm and pleasant scents. But nice as it is it belongs to someone else.
However, within all this opulence is a real gem. Past the Coral Gables Country Club is an area where the streets are named after Spanish towns. On Granada, a magnificent fountain is the centerpiece of a real oddity in the USA, a roundabout. I circle it a couple of times to break up the monotony of right-angled turns, then follow a sign to the Venetian Pool. This public pool is stunningly beautiful, constructed in the 1920s by remodeling the coral limestone quarry that supplied rock to many local buildings. The limestone gives the water a magical turquoise hue that couples with the subtle Venetian styling, caves and bridges to be something truly wonderful.
To the Keys
Key West is 157 miles from Miami. It is the Brighton Run of southern Florida, but better known to motorcyclists as the Poker Run, which takes place in September. If England's Mods and Rockers had arisen in the States, Key West would have been where they would have got it on. Maybe an American movie maker wants to remake quadrophenia with an American twist? Why not? It's been done with Get Carter and the Italian Job.
From Coral Gables I continue heading south on winding backroads through dense green foliage -- at the recommendation of ARC -- before I have to join US1/Old Dixie Highway, an ugly but necessary road. This passes through Homestead, the gateway to the Everglades, but I push on to the Keys, a chain of coral islands extending for over 100 miles southwest from the tip of Florida. I exit this road as soon as I can, just after Florida City, onto Card Sound Road, a much less travelled route that goes to Key Largo.
Suddenly I find myself on an arrow-straight road through a wilderness of desolate wetland and thick knots of vegetation. Dead and twisted trees flash past for mile after mile.
As I speed up to 90 mph the "aerodynamics" of the bike give me a vigorous wind buffeting that shakes loose my fillings, though with one-third of a ton of metal between my legs I feel as safe as one can on a bike.
I pull up before the bridge to Key Largo at Alabama Jack's restaurant, an open-sided place that sits on the water. I stagger in, not realizing how dehydrated I have become in the sun, strip off my jacket and sit. Raquel, the waitress, brings me a large glass of water as I sprawl on a chair. The water revives me and I look around. Jack used to like throwing himself out of airplanes, judging by the numerous skydiving photos nailed to the beams. Once in the Keys I intend to eat nothing but fish. I figure that I am almost there so I have a conch fritter, made from a large shellfish (delicious with a little horseradish) and look at the dense mangroves, the only trees that live in salt water.
The 100-mile ride through the Keys is a beautiful and effortless ride with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Florida Bay on the other, through strands of trees, low level brush and occasional strips of sand so narrow they could have been applied with a highlighter pen. The road changes direction only out of necessity, cutting straight through each island, and then veering to leap to the next one.
Floridians have a real love of bridges and causeways. They are everywhere; 42 en route to Key West alone, many of which arch up so boats can pass beneath. Forget your seven percent gradients, these project you ballistically into the air. I feel like Evel Knievel approaching a ramp riding over one of these. There may not be any buses to leap, but the sudden gain in elevation provides a wonderful view over the flat Keys and shallow water.
The pick of the bridges is the famous Seven-Mile Bridge that joins the middle and lower Keys groups. Leaving Knight's Key I am surrounded by a palette of blues of the pale sky and turquoise sea. To the north the sea and water merge into a single color and the horizon disappears, which is very disorientating as the eyes naturally look for it. Riding across this bridge at night is even stranger with an absence of light to either side, above or below, and nothing for the headlight to illuminate save the lit-up concrete running before me and its staccato yellow center line disappearing under my tire. All that is missing is a David Lynch death metal soundtrack.
Most visitors to the Keys drive as fast as they can to one of the main resort towns but by doing so, miss some of its best treasures. The Seven-Mile Bridge ends at Bahia Honda Key, a beautiful desert island that is a state park. It is a real treasure with a beach that within the last 10 years has been voted one of America's top 10 beaches, with secluded, ocean-front camping at the Sandspur Campground.
After a day on the road, Bahia Honda is heavenly. The ocean is blue and enticing, and I am sweating so much that I cannot wait to get into it and cool off. quick as I can, I rush to try out the snorkel gear I bought on Key Largo. I wade into the water above the knee, strap on my mask, pull on my fins, put the snorkel in my mouth and submerge. I freeze with excitement as barely 10 feet away there is a barracuda motionless in the water looking at me, a stone's throw from shore. A blue-clawed crab trots through the seagrass and takes guard with its claw when I follow it. It is a south paw. As I move away a southern stingray shoots past. It's difficult grinning with a snorkel so with a mouthful of water, I go back to shore to pitch my tent.
Snorkeling is a 'must do' in the Keys as the water is clear and it's the only reef system in the continental USA with two locations of world renown: the John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park on Key Largo, and the Looe Key Marine Sanctuary.
Few of the Keys are big enough to have other roads than US1 but Big Pine Key does. My map shows a side-road leading to No Name Key and my curiosity is sufficiently piqued to follow it. After passing a few houses there is nothing but a dense tangle of impenetrable trees and bushes. The road is straight and flat and just keeps going and going. After eight miles I reach a dead-end and realize I am on the wrong road. But as I get the map out five Key Deer emerge from the undergrowth before me. These small animals are endangered with a population of about 300. Suddenly, a buck leaps out, sees me and bolts back into the brush, crashing away. The wrong turn has taken me into the Key Deer Sanctuary.
I found the prettiest little guest house in Key West. It's called the Angelina and it's a few short blocks from all the action on Duval Street. Janet--one of the owners--fills me in on the good bars and restaurants and asks me if I am in town for Womenfest. My ears prick up. "So," I begin, "Key West will be full of women this weekend?" "Yes, that's right," says Janet, "It's the big lesbian festival."
Key West is a party town with bars open till 4 am, live music everywhere, and, as fishing is the main activity, the fresh daily catch cheaply available everywhere. The town offers virtually every water activity including cruises on a catamaran, a schooner or WWII torpedo boat; or you can para sail, jet ski, fish, snorkel or swim [do people still do that?].
The whole place caters to tourists. The Mallory Square sunset celebration sees a variety of professional street entertainers vying for position and possession of the tourist crowd. I talk with Charlie, a one-man band from west London with 20 solo years under his belt while he waits for the act of a black escapologist to reach its climax. The escapologist is chained inside a straight jacket and suspended upside down as the crowd cheers. A black acrobat walks up to Charlie, says hello and then shoves himself towards the crowd to declare, "First time I ever see's a black man hang himself".About Florida...
Riding during the afternoon is like driving an oven in an oven, particularly at traffic lights, when the bike radiates heat onto me. I am wearing a lightweight summer jacket, but it's black and absorbs solar heat. Heading north, the sun behind me cruelly reflects off the Harley's chrome and the glass of the tachometer, blinding me. Just as well the roads are straight. All I can do is take the bike up to 80mph and open my knees wide to cool my legs and divert air up to my body.
American Road Collection
AMC has branches in West Palm Beach, Ft Lauderdale and Miami Beach and has a fleet of 50 Harley Davidsons. The fleet is young and always has new models as the company only puts 16,000 miles on them before they are returned to Harley Davidson to sell as pre-owned. For contact details see http://www.adventuresinflorida.net/budgetharleyrentals.htm
West Palm Beach to Miami Beach
Follow A1A all the way along the coast. To get around Port Everglades to the south of Ft Lauderdale, turn right onto SE17 St, then left onto US1 and left again onto Dania Blvd to return to the coast.
To the Keys
From Miami, Brickell Ave continues into South Bayshore Drive. From Coral Gables, taking either Le Jeune Road or Douglas Road south will deposit you in South Bayshore Drive. This in turn leads onto Old Cutler Road which eventually joins with US1. US1/Old Dixie Highway is the main route from Miami to the Florida Keys. Turn left just after Florida City onto Card Sound Road. This continues, via a toll bridge, to Key Largo. Turn right at the stop sign and rejoin US1.
High season in Florida is the winter when temperatures and humidity drop to comfortable levels. In summertime these can be brutal. Spending several hours on the road in the blazing sun dehydrates you and cooks your face, even with sun block.
Florida is flat, which means you can see weather systems coming and try to avoid them, with rain mainly falling in the afternoon. Overall, it is best to get up early to ride in the coolest part of the day, and leave afternoons to enjoy your destination. There are many state and national parks, though winter is the best time for camping due to the heat and humidity of the other seasons. If you must camp in the summer, alternate nights with motels or B&B's to recover from any sleepless nights.
Key West is easy to explore on two wheels, since most visitors abandon their cars due to lack of parking. There's no legal requirement to wear a helmet cruising up and down the streets, which is liberating, although not without its hazards. Key West has a thriving population of feral chickens roaming everywhere, descended from cock-fighting ancestors. When the sport was outlawed, owners just turned their birds loose rather than kill or eat them.
I pass the former home of Ernest Hemingway, where many of his best works were written. Now a museum, you can stand in the room where he wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls and A Dangerous Summer. For all his adventures, I don't think Hemingway did much with motorbikes. He was a drinker though; a connection shamelessly exploited by Sloppy Joe's, a bar he used to frequent and now a tourist trap. Instead, I go to a bar near Hemingway House called The Green Parrot which serves up the largest $4 worth of bourbon I have ever received. Hemingway lived next door to a lighthouse and if that shot was typical of the ones served to him, it's no wonder he needed such a beacon to find his way home.
Key West is the southernmost point in the continental USA, marked with a buoy-shaped installation at a right-angle in the road. Splitting hairs, I would say the adjacent naval installation was further south and if I was really going to labor the point I would say that Key West is an island and therefore not a part of the continental USA. At this point, Cuba is much closer than Miami, only 90 miles due south.
I get up early to take some photos and as I shoot, a Cuban man named Luis, approaches and asks if his wife can take a photo of him with the bike. He stands between the marker and the bike wearing a big grin. "This picture is for my mother in Cuba," he says after the pictures have been taken. "Everyone wants to leave Cuba. We dream of things like this bike." I can't fully understand his rapid Spanish but he says tiburones--sharks-- and his eyes fill with tears. "I have been here 18 years, since my father took me and escaped. America is a big country. You can make yourself something if you work hard. Look at my car," he says and points at a green SUV. "That is what is possible in this country. Thank you very much," he says embracing me. Con mucho gusto, I reply -- with pleasure. It is easy to take for granted what others do not have, a reality check that is an important part of travel for me.