One of the best times of the year to travel to the United States of America’s most southern point, the Florida Keys, is the fall/winter season. The weather is more than gracious with comfortable temperatures compared with most of the rest of the U.S.
The tourist season has wound down, and the roads are a whole lot less traveled and congested, and that makes for some wonderful times to look around and enjoy an atmosphere that is a lot less stressful. Many of the Keys run discounts on lodging this time of the year, and you can save a great deal of coin by going during the latter part of the year. For motorcyclists, the riding can get no better. If it does rain, it is warm enough during the day or evening that you won’t get too uncomfortable during your traveling.
Some of the Cycle Connections crew took off and went to the Keys to attend an event this past fall. We stayed at The Hammocks in Marathon Florida. This is a Bluegreen resort, and membership is required, but you can find deals at these locations through the resort also. We prefer to stay at these establishments in the Keys, as personal taste. The Hammocks was a full service resort, and the thought of having boats and fishing charters close by made this a choice, as well as Marathon being in the central part of the keys amongst most of the destinations we wanted to visit, one of the reasons we picked this for lodging. There are plenty of cool places to eat in Marathon, and one of our favorites for lunch was The Hurricane Grill. The Hurricane Grill is almost directly across from Home Depot, on the main drag. This place had one of the most awesome lunch special menus I have run across in a long time. I had the blackened snapper sandwich three times, and it was under 7 bucks with a drink. You can’t go wrong with that deal. Another couple of places to try were some of the Cuban restaurants. Try the Palomilli Steak at Taiaos (formerly Don Pedros). I was really impressed with the service and food. For a great Cuban sandwich made with deli meat and veggies on a Cuban bread that is ironed, try a place down by the Seven Mile Bridge called Villa Blanca.
You can go either way, toward Key West for the party atmosphere, or towards the upper Keys such as Key Largo, for a little more on the diving side and fishing charters. A great seafood place north of Marathon is called The Island. Anywhere you go down in the Keys to eat seafood, at least give a local dish called conch chowder a try.
Marathon also has one of the only motorcycle shops in the keys, Sickels, which we found could service any bike, and has a full time mechanic on hand in case you need something. They also have a full rental fleet, with reasonable prices for those of you that tend to fly or drive to go that far. You can still get in your itch and ride some of the most beautiful area in the country, with the blue water behind and beside you for those open air adventures. When you go, talk to Bruce, and tell him the Cycle Connections crew sent you down.
Down in the lower keys (below Marathon) there are a lot of different destinations to check out if you are traveling by scoot. One of our favorite places to ride to that you can get off and roam by foot a little also, was the Key Deer Preserve. With over 9200 acres of land that includes pine Rockland forests, it is noted for its little deer. My Great Dane makes these dudes look little by comparison. The preserve is a National Wildlife sanctuary, and is located on Big Pine Key. Take Watson Rd, and towards the end of the road, find the “Blue Hole” stop. Hop off and take a short walk down the trail to some clear water with gators and all other sorts of wildlife to check out. You can find out more about this location, by checking out this link: www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/. Make sure you take note though, there are numerous animals that you can’t see that are dangerous, such as snakes that have a nasty bite, so watch where you walk and stick to the trails.
At the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge, is a little key called Little Duck Key. Right at the end of the bridge, if you turn off, is one of the few beaches accessible from the highway. You can park your scoot, and the water is very shallow for a long way out. Makes for a great place to cool your heels, and take a quick dip.
There are numerous campgrounds to be found along the keys, but one of the nicest we saw was the Bahia Honda State Park. The park occupies most of the island. Home to a natural white sand beach, at one time also known as the best beach in the U.S., and with numerous trails for walking and biking, it can be a great stop for camping. There is a natural tidal lagoon near one of the trails that you pass through before getting to a coastal hammock. You can rent kayaks and snorkeling gear at the park, and there are also boat trips available for going out to the reef to snorkel. You can pack fairly light for a ride down to the keys to camp, because the weather is so nice this time of year. The rangers were very nice, and you can get a map at the entrance to the park.
NAS (Naval Air Station) Key West is located on Boca Chica Key farther on down the keys. It is home to multiple squadrons of planes, and when you pass near it, you will most likely see some cool sights such as fighter jets flying patrol over the keys. They fly low and slow, and pics are easy to get.
Father south, you reach Key West. Key West proper, the island itself, it about 4 miles long and 2 miles wide. At one time, there were large salt ponds on the key, and sometime during the 1950s, they were filled in making the key almost double in size. According to some historians, the first European to visit the key was Juan Ponce de Leon, in 1521. A small garrison of troops was established here, as well as fishing village, when Florida was colonized by the Spaniards. The original Spanish name for the key was Cayo Hueso, which meant “Bone Key.” Some interesting history places the key as being sold not once, but twice. After Florida was transferred to the U.S., it was sold for a sailing boat (a sloop to be exact) valued at around $575. Later it was said to be sold to businessman John Simonton, for around $2000 in pesos, in 1821. Then, to make matters even more interesting, General John Geddes, a former governor of South Carolina, was said to have bought the island from the sloop trader and tried in vain to get the clear title to the key before any of the other possible owners could claim it.
Key West’s history is colorful to say the least, and for that reason, when traveling to the keys, you might want to spend a few days in Key West to see all the sights. There are a lot of historical sites, and it would take a good few days to see them all. Duval Street is the main drag through the downtown area to go and party and eat. Most of the places on Duval Street have a colorful history and can appeal to almost anyone. One of the most famous places on Duval is Jimmy Buffet’s Margaretville. There is a lot of memorabilia to check out on the walls, and he has a little store on the side to purchase mementos. The night we went, there was an awesome band called the Nikki Bar Band playing. They belted out some seriously good tunes.
If you ride, you have to make The Hog’s Breath Saloon a mandatory stop. No getting around it, you gotta check this place out, which includes premier parking for the motorcycling crowd. Make sure you say “hi” to Harmony when you stop in. She was our hostess and was super cool. A bright smile seemed to always adorn her face, and by that you could just tell how great a place this was going to be. The food was excellent, the drink flowed with the fare, and the atmosphere was set just right for us scooter-trash. Check out their website at www.hogsbreath.com/key-west/. It has all kinds of information to help you know what is going on when you go.
There are more things you just have to add to that “must do” list, such as trying out some Key Lime Pie. Down by Mallory Square is a place called Kermits. Make sure to stop in and check out the great pie, and try some of the samples of bar-b-que sauces that are “Key West style.” I thought the flavor was really good, and bought a bottle to bring home with me. Speaking of Mallory Square, there is one place on the end of it you need to check out. The name of the place was El Meson de Pepe. Some of the best Cuban food (are you starting to see a pattern here?) I can think of is served at this place. Try the mojitos. The street performers and shops along Mallory Square make it a great place to go in the evening. This is one of the best places to view the sunset too.
One more restaurant to mention and we’ll move on to some other spots. If you remember that wonderful actress from the movie “Top Gun,” whose name was Kelly McGillis (the love interest of Tom Cruise’s character Maverick), she has a cool place on Caroline Street called Kelly’s. This is a more intimate-style restaurant, so the prices are a little higher than your usual stop. But trust me, the atmosphere and food make it a great place to take your lady (you guys pay attention here now, cause this is important) for a romantic evening. The wine choices were wonderful and the food divine.
Now for some more history. Ernest Hemmingway was a staple of the keys for a long time. He had a home in the Key West area that is a cool place to check out. We got another surprise when we stopped at the World Wide Sportsman on the way down, and got to see his motor yacht on display. Well anyway, one of Hemmingway’s fishing buddies was named Joe Russell. Joe’s nickname happened to be “Sloppy Joe,” whom the Sloppy Joe Bar is named after. You will find some neat history right in the bar on the walls, along with some more good music. (If ya want a little something to snack on, there is also a little Cuban café right around the corner….yeah, yeah, I know, another Cuban food joint….what can I say, I got to where I liked it…heh-heh…)
For all you “clothing optional” peeps out there, go down to the Bull and Whistle. On top of the bar is a place called the “Garden of Eden,” which is a clothing-optional bar. I didn’t go up and check it out, but a lot of the locals said it is a cool place to go to. I did go into the Bull and Whistle, and up on the second floor, there is a balcony overlooking the street you can sit out and have a drink on.
To be totally honest, there are so many places to go, I could never have gone to all of them. The Internet has some great sites and links to go to, and if you spend a little time, you can find all kinds of interesting places to check out. The crew was down at a festival, so most of our time was spent on or around Duval Street in the evening. Mallory Square has a lot of options to check out, and one of the best things about Key West, is you can get to just about anywhere fairly quickly, whether by scoot or foot. The shops and food establishments all seemed reasonably priced. There are some side areas down off Whitehead and Front Street, that have some small alleys attached, and there are some off the main drag vendors in there with some neat items for sale. When you go to the Keys, the best advice I can give you is to be really fluid with your timetables. The people down in the Keys are some of the most laid back, and friendly people I have ever met. There is a wonderful mixture of cultures, climates, and lifestyles all over the Keys, and with a minimum amount of fuss, you should be able to find just that someplace that will fit your budget and your choice of environment.
The crew plans on making this a yearly destination, and no matter where or when you go, you are sure to not be disappointed. Travel some of the back highways on the way in, such as Hwy 41 across the lower Everglades, and you will break the monotony of the long ride down. Accommodations are frequent, as well as eateries all over Florida, and the weather makes it bearable in the winter for some nice riding. On the way back, we stopped in Memphis and was treated to a great BBQ dinner by my dad, Jim Sr. Thanks, Dad!
Hopefully when we go back next year, we will have all kinds of new adventures to tell of. Till then, ride safe and enjoy a trip to the Keys. You will not be disappointed, I promise.
Story by Jim Austin
Photos by Jim Austin, Karey Austin, Mike Schweder, Lourdes Spencer, & Swede Johnson