Pigeon Key and the Old Seven Mile Bridge.
Just one of the stunning little beaches you can ride right up to and walk a quarter mile out into the warm sea.
Sunset near Key West.
A stretch of Card Sound Road showing two of the electronic devices that made my trip easier: a tollway pass stuck to the windshield, while the flying cable leads from the stereo to the iPod in my pocket.06The view from Marker 88.
A very bike-friendly store that will let you use their can in a pinch.
The view from Marker 88.
If I had known how often my sister was hoisting my $4,000 camera into the air or off the side of the bike to get a shot, I might have puked. Yeah, she's a dirt biker.
Every March there is a ritual on the East Coast. Bikers crack open their garages, check their fuel and lubricants and fire up their bikes for the kickoff to the season that is Daytona Bike Week. Hundreds of thousands descend on Daytona to get in their first ride of the year, party hard and ogle some customized steel, aluminum and silicone.
For those of us in attendance from the Pacific Coast and Southwest, it's a little different. For one, most of us have been riding all winter whenever it isn't raining, while the rest didn't give a crap whether it was raining or not. The riding around Daytona is typically monotonous, slow cruises through never-ending forests or heavily trafficked streets and way too much police presence. Don't get me wrong, the custom bikes, the killer bars and bands, catching up with old friends, etc., is well worth the trip, but I can do all of that in two or three days. Which is exactly what I did this year.
I'd always wanted to go to Key West. If for no other reason than to ride the length of a 100-mile-long island chain without ever leaving land. All the views you ever see of the Keys are of endless horizons on bridges that disappear into the blue nothing. It sounded spectacular. But as often as I got to Florida, between Bike Week and Biketoberfest, I'd never gotten the chance for a little 400-mile side trip down to the Keys.
You long-distance types might think, "400 miles, that's a good day's ride ...," but don't believe it. Various traffic delays and an overall sense of laid-back island living makes it at least a two-to-three-day round trip from Central Florida, more if you want to do anything besides riding. The speed limits in the Keys are usually 45-50, with stretches both higher and lower and frequently no place to pass. Don't be in a hurry! It kinda defeats the purpose of an island getaway.
And that's the beauty of the Keys. For those who like bikes, it's usually a choice between riding your bike or lounging on the beach; rarely will the two coexist. Sure there are bike rentals in several tropical spots around the globe, but typically your choices are either a beat-down rental machine or astronomical rates for more premium iron. Word on the street is that Harley is developing a "fly and ride" resort on Kauai, but that hasn't happened yet, so for now the Keys are the only place to combine beachcombing and highway cruising in the USA.
My island getaway started in Daytona with a Screamin' Eagle Ultra and some serious interstate miles to pound. Even in March, the mercury and humidity climbs pretty high in Florida, and heading straight south only cranks it up further. My first stop (aside from a couple at gas stations) was Coral Springs (80 miles northwest of Miami), where I was picking up my copilot, photographer and sister-in-law, Amanda. She had just been to the Keys last year, so she somewhat knew what to expect and where to find a good time.
The trip south through Florida is a typical Southeastern highway trip, with flat roads, chain restaurants and Wal-Marts. Coral Springs is Middle America in all of its prefab glory, with large McMansion housing projects built on reclaimed swampland and accessible only by toll road. One little piece of SoFlo trivia: Any hill you see in the southern half of the state (especially the ones surrounded by a sky-darkening assortment of birds) is a dump. As Florida sits on a very thin shelf of land, all of the landfills go up instead of in. South Florida and the Keys are actually mirror images of each other; while the peninsula sits just above the water, the Keys are surrounded by very shallow seas at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.
Homestead is the last mainland outpost before heading out to the islands. All southbound highways either end here or join up with one that ends here. South from Homestead is just US-1 and the little-known Card Sound Road. We got a tip from a friend who lived in South Florida for years: Watch for a left just after leaving Homestead and take Card Sound to the notorious Alabama Jack's.
It turned out his advice was good on a couple of levels. Reminiscent of a bike bar you might find at a rally, this tucked-away little bar and grill claims to have the best conch fritters in the Keys, and while we didn't try the deep-fried snail, the seafood there was choice. This place has been around for a lot of years, serving folks who need to get out to the middle of nowhere, and in a place as densely packed as South Florida, that's getting increasingly rare. There were a good number of bikes there on the weekday we visited and probably almost as many boats tied up at the dock, making it a good destination ride by either road or water ... which can be said of most places worth a squirt in the Keys.
A few feet beyond Jack's is the Card Sound Bridge, which arcs from the mainland to Key Largo, the nearest of the Keys. For a toll of just $1, you get to avoid all of the traffic of US-1, which is currently under construction between the mainland and Largo, and gain a sleepy two-lane road that goes past a nature preserve.
In typical East Coast fashion, it's not like this ride is a continuous stretch of maritime views and palm trees, especially in the Upper Keys. Much of the time it just looks like any other South Florida road: flat, straight and bounded on both sides by thick forest; the choicest spots have been staked out by the owners of the oceanfront property. However, on an island, there is a lot more view to go around. The farther you go down the island chain, the more view there is. In the Upper Keys, views tend to be more swampy, like the everglades, especially on this stretch.
Once joined up with US-1, the rest of Key Largo is pretty commercial, with an assortment of dive shops and strip malls and assorted other businesses on the main drag. Largo is renowned for its diving and resorts, but you'd never know it from the road. Toward the south end of the island and the town of Tavernier, the surrounding vegetation, businesses and clutter starts to open up, with more and more hints of the open sea that increasingly surrounds the road. A couple of short bridges, and it's on to Islamorada. While the road through Isla is still pretty blocked from the sea, there are some notable seaside stopping points. We stopped at a hard-to-miss spot called Marker 88 (meaning you're still 88 slow miles from the end of the road in Key West). There, in a swinging cabana by Florida Bay, we feasted on some very nice seafood next to some of the clearest water on Earth.
It should be noted for the bike traveler that being in a tourist-friendly place comes in very handy when embarking on an off-the-cuff trip. We didn't have any hotel reservations and just meandered down the highway stopping at random spots for the night. There are numerous campgrounds as well for the more budget-minded, but these may require reservations, especially in the winter.
Continuing into the Middle Keys, it starts to feel like the trip through the Keys that everyone envisions, with a succession of bridges and seaside views on one side or the other. There is an abundance of beaches and parks to stop at and splash in the water, though the near-body-temperature water will not do all that much to cool you until you get back out. The city of Marathon is almost a repeat of the Upper Keys, with a very high-density community and its own airport.
At the western tip of the island is the Key trip that everyone hears about: the Seven Mile Bridge. If you're looking for a touristy side trip, hop off of the Overseas Highway just before Seven Mile Bridge to take the Old Seven Mile Bridge out to Pigeon Key Historical District, showing Pigeon's important contributions as a jumping-off point in the construction of what was then a marvel of engineering. Pigeon was cut off from the rest of the Keys when the new bridge went in in 1982, somewhat like a Route 66 rest stop in the Mojave. You can still see it about a mile into the trip across the new bridge, but by then it's too late.
The bridge is all that is advertised, despite being just under 7 miles. Elevated 20-ish feet over the water, you see only far-off specks of land, the omnipresent power lines and the old bridge between you and the endless blue of sea and sky. The old bridge looks archaic next to the new(ish) concrete span of the new bridge, which it should, as it was built starting almost 100 years ago. The parts of the old bridge(s) that still remain are mostly used as fishing piers, though sections have been taken out to aid in navigation around the shallow waters of Florida Bay.
While on Seven Mile, a speeding ambulance passed us, and I got to thinking about how badly it would suck if there were a pileup on an isolated bridge like this one. I didn't have to wait long to find out. The next big bridge is Bahia Honda on the Key of the same name. There was some sort of large accident, enough to call in fire trucks, boats and a MedEvac helicopter. While the road westbound was closed for about half an hour, the emergency response was swift and professional. There are far worse places to be stuck. However, if you happen to get stuck here, turn left about a quarter mile before the bridge to get to Bahia Honda State Park and its 2.5-mile-long white sand beach, once thought to be the best in the nation.
Continuing on to Big Pine Key, now firmly in the Lower Keys, we were faced with a cruel irony. There are a few curves in the road on Big Pine, but they are accompanied by signs warning of Key deer crossings ... and any chance I have not to hit an endangered species I'm pretty much OK with. They're sneaky little bastards, too. I had kept a very careful eye to the roadsides and still failed to see any of the deer my passenger saw and even got a photo of.
After Big Pine, it isn't long until the sprawl of Key West starts to reach out and grab you. While it's definitely more crowded around the end of the Keys, the Lower Keys have a really nice vibe about them. The Upper Keys are like an extension of Florida, while down here, it's like an extension of the Caribbean.
Key West started out as Cayo Hueso, or the "Island of Bones" in Spanish. When it was first discovered by explorers, it was covered with bones from native ritual sacrifices. Its unsavory reputation dogged it for many years: The Spaniard who was deeded the island by the governor of Cuba swiftly sold it when the territory was ceded to the Americans. At that time it was a base for pirates and fishermen, then for a fleet of U.S. Navy vessels to stop the piracy. Not long after, it became the richest and most important city in Florida as a base for the wreckers who would help ships in distress in the hazardous local waters ... for a cut of the cargo.
Modern-day Key West residents take their pirate past seriously, adopting the name Conch Republic as a semiserious emblem of their independence from the rest of the outside world. Though much more civilized than in its wild, lawless past, it's still known as a haven for libertines and wackos. In other words, the perfect place to ride your motorcycle to. Our friend Hank, who suggested we check out Alabama Jack's, regaled us with stories of his trips out here in the '80s, especially during Fantasy Fest, which is Key West's version of Mardi Gras, only in October.
Key West does little even today to play down its bad-boy image, with plentiful strip clubs and "adult book stores." But it also has all the comforts of a resort town, with big-name hotels, miles of public beaches and cafs and bars aplenty. Duval Street is the main drag, and for a few blocks in any direction the party goes on till the wee hours. Cruise ships disgorge passengers right into the downtown party zone, so much so that the ship looks like it's sitting right in the square. Road-trippers and free-living locals are free to mingle with the cruisers in the bars and restaurants.
A stop at the Southernmost Point is a mandatory photo op, so much so that competition for space in front of it can get pretty fierce. There are a slew of hotels and businesses that all claim "southernmostness" as a draw of some kind. Market stalls with carved coconuts and other goodies are surrounded by old 19th century brick buildings towering above. It's a strange blend of styles that somehow just works and puts you in a very "island" state of mind.
Riding to Key West during Bike Week was not nearly as unique an idea as I gave myself credit for. There were at least a couple hundred bikes in town, probably guys like me who didn't want to totally forsake Bike Week but definitely had better things to do, for some of the time at least.
All too soon, the trek back from this island paradise comes, and it's a long way back up the Overseas Highway. That said, there are at least 20-30 beaches you haven't stopped at, hundreds of good seaside seafood restaurants and the view pointed the other way to take in.
So, my curiosity about the Keys sated, will it be back to just Bike Week next year? Nah.