It's surprising how much island hopping one can do without booking a cabin on a cruise ship - and in southern Florida that's exactly what I might have had to do if it hadn't been for one wily oil tycoon. Instead, comfortably settled into the low-slung seat of a new Vulcan 900, I can roam the long smooth deck of US 1 and never once lay eyes on a shuffleboard player while heading south to Key West.
Fresh from the festivities of Daytona Bike Week, our group assembled at the Key Largo Grand Resort & Beach Club. Kawasaki graciously loaned us the bikes and gave us two days to explore the Keys. While that's hardly enough time to indulge in all but a few of the attractions found along the 126 miles of the Overseas Highway, that 48-hour restriction certainly doesn't prevent me from revealing just a bit more about how much there is to see and do.
Linking the Chain
Southern Florida was widely shunned as a malarial swamp before its premier developer Henry M. Flagler came along. As John D. Rockefeller's partner in Standard Oil, he had the means to work his will and he helped open up the region to others by building the Florida East Coast Railway. Endlessly fascinated by the state and its potential, Flagler kept pushing south; and by 1906, his railway line had reached the first of Florida's Keys - Key Largo. It then took him and his heroic crew another six years to complete the monumental task of linking what are now the 40 inhabited islands between Key Largo and Key West. Random travelers may not give Flagler his due today, but they certainly owe a great measure of the experiences they can have on and off the marvel known as the Overseas Highway to him. Much of the road, an engineering masterpiece in its own right, is anchored upon the remains of that old railbed.
Sailing Over Shallow Seas
It's a hot and humid ride to Key West most of the year, but in February the trip is quite pleasant - and with the dazzling waters of Florida Bay to the right and the Atlantic's Straits of Florida to the left a refreshing dip is just moments away. Fishermen and many members of the snorkeling and diving set know these waters well. Boat charter operations and diving outfitters fill out the Yellow Pages just about anywhere you happen to be all the way to Key West. Four miles out in the Atlantic off Key Largo, the undersea world is indeed an amazing and cool place to be in the 54,000-acre preserve of John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park. This protected tract, which supports more than 500 species of fish, marks the northern end of the only living coral reef system in the continental waters of the U.S. People sticking to the shore also enjoy their winding walks on the Mangrove and Wild Tamarind Trails, and a stop at the Visitor Center's 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium features an eye-popping collection of the same colorful creatures that are darting about the reef. Other popular natural refuges in the area include the 2,000-acre Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Park and the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. And in another category altogether, certain movie buffs may not want to leave town without strolling into the Caribbean Club bar. The only real location scenes filmed in the 1948 Bogart and Bacall classic Key Largo were shot there.
Motorcycle & Gear
Moving along, the densely developed areas and, sometimes near enough to see, the uninhabited humps of thick green jungle hammock out in Florida Bay whizz by. Tiny, crowded Plantation Key no longer shows any evidence of the large estates that were once scratched from its thin soil. The breadfruit and pineapple, the lime trees are all gone. On Upper Matecumbe Key, Islamorada, with over 300 charter boats regularly tied up dockside, bills itself the Sport Fishing Capital of the World. The monument at mile marker (MM) 81.6 tells another tale: In 1935, the Labor Day hurricane killed 500 people here, most of them railway workers on a rescue train.
Four miles later, smart tourists are returning to Robbie's Marina thrilled that they made reservations to gain admittance to Lignumvitae Key. Accessible only by boat, this 280-acre state botanical site remains as close as can be to what nature intended for all of these islands before man came along. An exotic slice of subtropical Eden, it's home to over 120 native plants and many wild birds (the cormorant, heron, osprey…) take refuge here. Advance reservations are necessary because only 50 people are allowed to step ashore at a time, and anyone arriving to take the two-hour guided tour had better be wearing comfortable walking shoes and a layer of good insect repellant. Otherwise, they will certainly leave feeling much less thrilled - and smart.