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South Florida Odyssey
PART II: Florida City to Key West; Cycling Across the Ocean
by Dale V. Lally, Jr.
The following article is an excerpt from Dale Lally's next travel guide, Bed, Breakfast & Bike Florida scheduled for publication in 2003. It is the continuation of a three-part Messenger series on a circular tour through Ft Lauderdale, Miami, Key West & Ft Myers in south Florida. Dale’s actual guide contains mile-by-mile trip directions, too detailed to print here but really helpful for navigating south Florida’s biggest city, longest bridges and loneliest swampland.
In Part I, the author described a route from the Ft Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport through the glitz of Miami and along back roads to Florida City, gateway to the Keys.
Part II takes you along the Florida Keys to the southernmost point in the continental US.
Florida City has plenty to offer touring cyclists from budget to luxury accommodations.
For the budget minded, the Everglades International Hostel, just west of the train tracks on Palm Ave, is recommended. In addition to reasonably priced accommodations including camp sites and rooms, the hostel offers free Internet access, a well equipped kitchen, a comfortable parlor, and bike and kayak rentals for trips into the nearby Everglades.
Over the past several years, it has become a very popular stop for travelers from around the world enroute to and from the Keys. It truly is an international hostel.
If you like a bit of pampering while cycling, try the Room at the Inn B&B at 15830 SW 240th St Homestead. (305.246.0492 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Connecting to the Florida Keys
From Florida City there are three ways to get to the Keys: US 1, Card Sound Road, take the bus.
US 1 between Florida City and Key Largo
The 20+ miles of US 1 between Florida City and Key Largo is, without a doubt, an accident looking for a place to happen.
In spite of a 3-foot paved shoulder, the unbelievably heavy truck & RV traffic makes this two-lane road very dangerous for cyclists.
The stretch seems to be infected with a certain amount of franticality; everyone seems to be frantic to get around the truck or RV in front.
To make matters worse many well-meaning, if ill-advised, trucks and RVs will hug the right-hand line to allow more room to passing vehicles.
RV mirrors extend out more than regular mirrors and are mounted significantly lower than truck mirrors. Get the picture?
Avoid US 1 at all costs.
Card Sound Road
Under normal circumstances, Card Sound is not a bad ride, although it adds at least seven miles to Key Largo and there is not the least bit of shoulder.
There is, however, excellent line of sight and the road is rather straight. Since sufficient numbers of cyclists regularly travel the road and have established a presence there, most of the locals are used to seeing bikes.
The vast majority of travelers remain on US 1 except when an accident diverts traffic to Card Sound Road, a regular occurrence.
At that point, cyclists must share the road with the thousands of other vehicles that pour off US 1.
With or without heavy traffic, the counter measures available to a cyclist include wearing plenty of high visibility yellow and a helmet, using a rear view mirror, and listening carefully to the traffic coming up from behind.
You must also closely monitor oncoming traffic. Since Card Sound Road is more narrow than US 1, drivers pulling out to pass represent a serious danger since they look for larger oncoming vehicles and may not pick up your bicycle on their radar screen.
As if that is not enough, another problem unique to Card Sound Road is the crocodiles.
While the brackish water next to the road discourages alligators, crocs thrive in it. Next to Card Sound Road is sort of a crocodile Disney World.
At one point, the croc proliferation became such a problem that local officials erected a chain link fence along most of the area frequented by the crocs.
There are warning signs but, unfortunately, crocs do no read very well and often ignore them.
So if, while cycling along Card Sound, particularly east of the toll bridge, you see what appears to be a big green couch thrown onto the side of the road, look again.
If it has teeth and a tail, it is probably a mean and green biting machine that has somehow gotten through the fence.
Remember that crocs (and alligators), although they look horribly clumsy on land, can run actually sprint up to 30 miles an hour for a very short distance.
And while alligators are normally afraid of humans, crocodiles are afraid of nothing and, if hungry, will eat just about anything.
Since it’s hard to know whether a croc on the side of the road is just enjoying the view or waiting for dinner, always give it a wide berth and be prepared to sprint like you have never sprinted before.
If all this talk about dinner whets your appetite, try Alabama Jack's, the only restaurant/bar on Card Sound Road between Florida City & Key Largo.
It is easy to find at the west end of the toll bridge. The place has no class, but lots of character, reasonable prices, and great views of the surrounding swamps.
Stopping at Alabama Jack's has become somewhat of a rite of passage for cyclists and motorcycle drivers traveling Card Sound.
Another Card Sound Road plus is the sweeping view from the toll bridge. If you avoid running over the wheel sensor, you cross for free. Normally the bridge crew will wave cyclists around the sensor; however, if you run over it you must pay.
Take the bus
If dodging cars and crocodiles is not your thing, take a bus.
The Dade/Monroe Express runs between Florida City and selected locations in the Keys from key Largo to Marathon and can tote two bikes on a front rack.
Cycling through the Keys
On a scale of 1 to 10, cycling from Key Largo to Key West is about a 9.5. One problem is the Key Largo to Tavernier Bike path on the northbound side of US 1.
Along that stretch, southbound riders must contend with countless driveways and drivers who do not even think to look to the right for cyclists or pedestrians before pulling out onto the road.
The normally heavy traffic means that most drivers are simply frantic for an opening, often putting cyclists and pedestrians at great risk.
Just south of Tavernier, you can shift over to the southbound side cycling. Here conditions improve dramatically.
Cyclists are easily seen along the new bike paths and paved shoulders. Currently I know of only two pinch points between Key Largo and Key West.
At mile marker 39, the south end of the Bahia Honda bridge, a very short stretch has no shoulder. Further south, about mile marker 4, the paved shoulder runs out for about three tenths of a mile in front of the Boca Chica Naval Air Station.
The combined length of both shoulderless segments is less than four tenths of a mile. Not bad for a segment of 103 miles.
Far and away, the most notable improvement on US 1 has been the replacement of the old narrow bridges with bike friendly ones. There are over 20 of them, each of which has at least a four foot paved shoulder.
If you hanker to travel the old bridges, you may in several instances where they have been reconfigured for fishing. Be prepared to dodge around anglers, fishing rods, tents and assorted motor vehicle barriers.
Accommodations along US 1
Accommodations along US 1 between Key Largo & Key West run from the simple to the sublime.
The most economical mode of travel is to camp. Three Florida State Parks have campsites: John Pennekamp in Key Largo mm 102, Long Key in Layton at mile marker 69, and Bahia Honda at mm 40.
Of the three, Bahia Honda is the most picturesque, but normally is full. A close second is John Pennekamp, a favorite destination for scuba divers. If full (again, normally the case) the by-the-book staffs will make no room for touring cyclists.
Long Key is a pleasant exception. The staff there is very bike friendly and more often than not can find a spot for touring cyclists even if the park is officially full.
There are several commercial campgrounds including the posh Fiesta Key KOA just south of Lower Matacumbe Key. Just north of Key West, around mile marker 5, you will find Boyd's Key West Campground and Leo's Campground.
On Key West itself, the one official campground, Jabour's Trailer Park, is next to the Key West Marina at 223 Elizabeth St. This is also a very handy site for catching the ferries to Marco Island or Ft Myers.
In spite of the hundreds of campsites in the Keys, during the tourist season, they are very often not enough. It is imperative to call ahead.
Far and away, the most economical Key West accommodations can be found at the KW Youth Hostel, 718 South St. Beds start at around $20 per night.
If bunking in with a lot of strangers is not your thing, the hostel offers private rooms (at a higher rate, of course) at the adjacent motel.
Hosteling offers several advantages including reasonable price, great location, and the opportunity to meet travelers from throughout the world.
Bed & Breakfasts
At mile marker 81 in Islamorada you’ll find the small, bike friendly, and no frills (rates start at $50) Islamorada Bed & Breakfast at 81175 Old Hiway US 1. The innkeeper, Dotty Saunders (email@example.com) can be reached at 305.664.9321.
Another Keys B&B is the family-run Courtney's Place at 720 Whitmarsh Lane in Key West (800.869.4639). Nothing is cheap in Key West but this is as nice as you can find for the price and location.
Doing Key West
Key West, the island, is not very big — probably not more than 20 square miles in area. However, it is a packed 20 square miles and has a reputation for being fun loving—similar in ambience to New Orleans but much more relaxed.
Due to the shortage of space and compactness of the city streets, bicycles are king. Since everyone needs and uses bikes, they are prime targets for thieves. Therefore, you must always securely lock your bike.
In the next and final installment of “A South Florida Odyssey,” I’ll describe the ferry ride across the Gulf to Florida’s southwest coast and the cycling back to Ft Lauderdale via Naples, Ft Myers, LeBelle and Clewiston.
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