I’ve ridden up and down the Florida peninsula quite a lot, mostly for bike shows when I've just traveled there and back. It occurred to me though, that the Sunshine State has a lot more to offer, and Breaking Away from the Roads Most Traveled on Florida's Coastal Highways, is the way to go.
So, with this in mind, it’s time to take a more leisurely approach to touring around the state. We’ll hit some less traveled roads and see what is on offer beyond those infamous mouse ears.
A Quick History
Let’s start with a real quick history lesson. Over 50 indigenous tribes were once lucky enough to have the whole state to themselves. Up until 1513 that is, when the Spaniards arrived naming it the Land of Flowers and introducing Christianity, sheep, and smallpox.
Spain fought with the Brits, who in turn battled with the French. The Spaniards gave sanctuary to runaway slaves but eventually gave away their territory to the Brits, to prevent it from falling into French hands.
When Britain dropped the ball in the American Revolution, Spain got Florida back, only to sell it to the United States.
With the US taking over the entire peninsula shortly afterward, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. Eight years and three wars later, the remaining Seminoles were forced out.
Today, a small population of Native Americans own all of Florida's seven casinos, which turnover around $2.5b a year, so I suppose what goes around comes around!
Snowbirds and Tourists
If we are going to look at clocking some decent miles in the Sunshine State, there are a few things to consider. These considerations are essential to not only maximize the riding enjoyment but also, to stay safe.
Rider enjoyment and safety are linked, and here’s why. It’s down to climate; the weather is pretty damn good for most of the year so not surprisingly, it's the retirement capital of America. With over 4 million seniors, that’s an awful lot of bifocals and slow reflexes taking to the road.
The state is also known as the 'vacation capital' and boasts over 80m visitors a year. The number of hire cars driven by lost tourists is therefore phenomenal.
Last but not least, yet again we come back to the climate. Although Floridians enjoy the sunshine for the majority of the year, the state is also the country’s thunderstorm and tornado hotbed.
As the state is almost entirely flat, flash floods and surface water on roads are a significant hazard between the traditional riding season which runs May through October. Put off yet? No? Good.
Crossing the Line
For our first Florida forage let’s head due south from Savannah to Jacksonville, heading along the old coastal road, now designated Highway 17. It will probably add a couple of hours on to your trip, but it beats the hell out of the I-95.
About 50 miles before you head over the state line and hit Jacksonville, you’ll roll through the little town of Woodbine. I said goodbye to Georgia at Captain Stan’s Smokehouse, but there’s plenty of other cool places too along the route.
There’s lots going on in Jacksonville or Jax as it’s lovingly known, and in particular, a great bike night every second Thursday. The event is held at The Landing and features plenty of free parking and live music on the Riverfront stage.
The gig draws a big Harley crowd, but all are welcome. As entertaining as it is, however, I visited for another reason and one you most definitely have to park-up to enjoy.
Being a total sucker for craft ales, the Jax Ale Trail is a great way to try the local brews and get to know the area. There are currently 14 craft breweries in the city with more popping up all the time.
You can get an ale trail passport which gives you free stuff when you have enough stamps, or you can just get a map and check out the ones you like the sound of best. Top tip: start around mid-afternoon after you’ve eaten a good lunch.
Take a break around 6 pm for a hearty dinner before carrying on for the final push. Number one top tip: Make sure your last brewery of choice is within staggering distance of your accommodation.
Way Down South
Our next stop stays on the east coast and takes us way down south to Fort Lauderdale. Highway one runs the entire length of the coast and once again is a better option.
This journey is a little over 300 miles and will take you past Daytona, Cocoa Beach, and Melbourne. At the halfway point though, you'll be a stone's throw from the Kennedy Space Centre (KSC). You’d have to be nuts to pass up on the chance to drop in at this leading tourist attraction.
Just stop for one minute and think about it, you’ll get the opportunity to meet one of the few people that have seen our planet from space!
Not only this, but the space shuttle Atlantis is on display, and you can check out the mind-boggling fete of engineering of a Saturn V rocket - and you thought Harley’s new Milwaukee-Eight engine was complex!
As I said, the KSC is at the halfway point, the end destination being the Florida Swap Shop in Ft. Lauderdale. Okay, you’re not going to ride 300+ miles to rummage around a flea market even if it is the world’s largest, but it’s just a fun place to head for when you’re out and about.
Largest Drive-In Theater in the World
It’s also got the largest drive-in theater in the world with 14 screens and a sizeable display of rare Ferraris, but after a Saturn V rocket, they're most likely going to seem like small potatoes.
Don’t worry if your old lady likes the flea market more than you. This part of Florida has got a host of regular bike nights to drop in on, as and when you feel the urge.
A short ride away is a traditional old school biker bar that's been around since the '70s. Mickey’s Tiki Bar in Pompano Beach run regular bike and cruise nights as well as hosting big events like the annual ABATE run.
A Real Dive
A quick question for you, let’s see a show of hands for all those riders out there who are dive-trained, or interested in learning. For those of you currently reaching for the sky, our next port of call may very well float your boat.
One hundred miles south and still keeping to U.S. Route 1, you’re heading towards the Florida Keys. Split off just south of Florida City and take the 905 or as the locals call it, Card Sound Road.
This road will take you through the back door to Key Largo and on to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Here you’ll find the Jules Undersea Lodge, yup that’s right, an underwater hotel.
Hotel may be a slightly grand name, but it sleeps up to four people, and as it’s 21 feet below the surface, you can only get to it by taking the plunge! Not only that but while you’re enjoying life beneath the waves, you can have a pizza delivered, but don’t worry, the box is waterproof!
You will need to be a certified diver to enjoy the world’s only underwater hotel, but you can take a basic course at the Key Largo Undersea Park that runs the lodge.
Last but most certainly not least on our brief tour of Florida, is another 300-mile jaunt north. You will have to retrace your steps along Highway 1 and keep north by switching to the 997, but only until highway 41 that bisects it perfectly east to west at SW 8th St.
This road is the original Alligator Alley and takes you right through the heart of the Everglades. If any road gives you a snapshot of how Florida used to look before the mouse invasion, this is the one.
This scenic tour through the Everglades accounts for around 90 miles of the route, but be aware of a few things. Firstly, the road is on an east-west heading. If you're heading west too late in the day, you'll be riding right into the setting sun. With land as flat as this, it can be a real problem as can the alligators who like to roam across the road at this time of day too.
You will also notice the skies are packed full of birds. Although they’re not going to be a problem to you, the gazillion airborne bugs they’re feasting on certainly will. In a nutshell, take some good sunglasses, don’t ride with your mouth open and get ready to wheelie over the gators.
The Everglades will peter out just as you're nearing the Cape Romano area, home to the famous Dome House built by Bob Lee in 1980. At one time the structure was actually on the beach, but hurricanes and erosion have eaten away at the coastline so now it’s 200ft out at sea.
There was arguably something in the local water supply back in the 80s because on one comparatively small spit of land, is the 6-pod dome house, a massive pyramid house and two houses on huge stilts. All of which have succumbed to the elements, but if you feel like a break from the road you can get a tour boat to see the domes.
Go sailing straight past, and the 41 will take you to Naples. This part of Florida, although not my favorite, is beautiful with some of the best unspoilt sugar sand beaches anywhere.
When surfing for anything cool though, the first thing that popped up was Cars on 5th. The show is an exotic car event of 500+ exhibits featuring over 125 locally-owned Ferrari's.
The event raises an incredible amount of money for local kids charities, so exotic car owners of Naples, I salute you.
A Surreal Experience
Let's continue to our final destination. If you hug the coast heading north on the 41, past Venice and Sarasota, you’ll eventually pick up the I-275. This final stretch takes you over the Sunshine Skyway, a four-lane bridge that carries you 180ft above the Gulf of Mexico and into St Petersburg.
Stay on the Interstate until you can hang east on the I-175 and you’re within a mile of our final destination, the Salvador Dali Museum. I can hear you shouting at your computer screen WTF! But roll with me while I inject a little bit of culture into our lives.
The museum is home to the most extensive collection of Dali’s work outside of Spain and who doesn’t love ‘Dali Havidson,’ the image of the melting Sportster? You got me: this particular piece is thanks to Brit artist Simon Drew and not the Surreal Spaniard with the mad mustache.
Should paintings of bendy clocks and elephants on stilts, housed in a gallery resembling a glass snake with a concrete block dropped on it, does nothing for you, consider this my fellow explorers. Yes, Dali was nuttier than squirrel poop, but he wasn’t all acid trip art, check out Christ of St John of the Cross, or his bronze rhino sculpture and tell me he’s not top shelf.
So there we are, our little circumnavigation of Florida's east, west, and south coast is complete.
Hopefully, Break Away from the Routes Most Traveled on Florida’s Coastal Highways will demonstrate that you don’t have to plan every ride around an event. There’s a million miles of highway out there and no wrong direction to choose, enjoy.