As the Harley heads south, the mile markers count down to the ultimate destination, the tip of America and an illusory Margaritaville.
It's as far south as I could ride in America, and I sailed through the Keys aboard a Harley Electra-Glide Classic, from Miami Beach to Key West.
This was the midpoint in 20 rides I would take for my book, Great American Motorcycle Tours. On other runs, leaving town meant hitting a back road and getting right into a good ride. Miami is different: My two choices meant taking densely packed U.S. 1, the only road you need to reach Key West (or Maine), or Florida's Turnpike, which was slightly out of the way and cost a few bucks. But I needed a break from traffic, so I took the Turnpike.
At Florida City, the kick-off point for the Keys, I stopped for breakfast at the Farmer's Market Restaurant (300 N Krome Ave., (305) 242-0008), where the servers have degrees in Southern hospitality and the food is farm fresh.
At this point, mile markers that start with MM 0 in Key West end at MM 127. Entering the Keys, the speed limit is 55 and the road is as level as a flat-top from Floyd's Barber Shop. In the 20 miles to Key Largo, I rode cautiously due to the narrow lanes and presence of skid marks that revealed some drivers just could not wait for a passing lane.
After crossing a drawbridge near MM 104, I dropped in at the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce and Florida Keys Visitor Center. There's information on most Keys attractions, overnight accommodations and diving excursions. Competition makes prices for water excursions reasonable _ roughly $26 for snorkeling trips and about $40 for scuba excursions (equipment extra).
If you're going to dive, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (entrance fee is $4; MM 102.5; call (305) 451-1202; the Web site is http://www.pennekamppark.com) is a few miles south and one of the best dive sites in America. This is the nation's only underwater park; it starts about 1 foot offshore and stretches 3 miles into the Florida Straits.
Since I wear glasses, the park concession providing prescription diving masks (as well as canoes, kayaks, fins, snorkels and fishing excursions) was a blessing. Most Key Largo dive stations rely on this underwater preserve to introduce divers to 55 varieties of coral, 500 species of fish, shipwrecks dating to the 1600s, and the oft-pictured (and submerged) Christ of the Deep statue.
Depending on your schedule, you may want to stay over in Key Largo. If so, I recommend the Largo Lodge (MM 101.7; (305) 451-0424 or (800) 468-4378; about $105 a night). Locked in the 1940s, these house-size, air-conditioned cottages feature rattan furniture, kitchenettes, large living rooms, bedrooms and a screened porch, all beside a relaxing bayside setting.
I rolled along to discover quixotic Keys icons such as the bodacious lobster statue at MM 86.7 and the humongous mermaid at MM 82. The mermaid marks the restaurant/bar Lorelei (305) 664-4656), which, I learned, is a favorite gathering spot for Miami 'cycle riders; every night there's a sunset celebration and every weekend a band playing '60s beach music on the sand.
From here, the road began offering more scenic vistas _ longer glimpses of waters that shifted between emerald-green and azure blue. Occasionally, the commercial growth that threatens the Keys diminished and at times I was only a few feet from the shoreline.
At dusk, I rolled past MM 61 and into Hawk's Cay (305) 743-0145 or (800) 432-2242; http://www.hawkscay.com), a large resort far more upscale than is Largo Lodge, but rewarding with its Dutch East Africa setting and fully equipped condo units.
The following morning, I found the Dolphin Research Center (305) 289-1121 a few miles south. President Carter, Jimmy Buffett and Arnold Schwarzenegger have swum with the dolphins here, although at $110 it is an experience I did not want to share. Instead, $12.50 gave me a half-hour tour past sea lions and dolphins. If you do book a swim, do it well in advance and allow about two hours for training and roughly 15 minutes in the water being pushed, pulled and spun by friendly dolphins.
The dense traffic of Marathon was barely tolerable, but once past it I was able to experience the pleasures of the Seven-Mile Bridge. This impressive span gave me the chance to soak up vistas from the Florida Straits to the remnants of Henry M. Flagler's original railroad bridge. Absorb these views because once you reach land again, the scenery suffers until you reach MM 4 in Key West.
I dropped it into first gear, crossed the final bridge and then realized I had just ridden as far south as I could go in the United States.
No man is an island
Few islands can match the historical figures associated with Key West. In the 1930s, it was Ernest Hemingway, followed in the 1940s by Harry Truman, and in the 1970s, balladeer Jimmy Buffett.
Each contributed something to Key West and, in turn, helped erode what had been before. Their infatuation with this remote and character-filled retreat opened the floodgates to tourists in search of Margaritaville, a fictional Utopia that exists only in a beery fog.
Although massive resorts are trying to tame Key West, I discovered there are still plenty of characters here. Vagabonds, drifters and dropouts; writers, artists and independent thinkers are still here freeing their spirits and feeding their creativity off of the streets and seas of Key West.
The island's too small for good riding, so I parked my bike and boarded the Conch Train Tour at Mallory Square (305) 294-5161 to get a 90-minute historic and geographic overview of the island. The Old Town Trolley (6631 Maloney Ave., (305) 296-6688) is the competition and also takes a 90-minute tour, but it can navigate narrower spaces and allows passengers to reboard at a dozen stops along the way.
Afterward I learned the primary pleasure in Key West was not found on land but in escaping the crowds by heading out on a snorkeling, diving or fishing charter. These are half-day or full-day events and most charters provide all the equipment you need. The boats don't have to go out too far because great diving sites surround the island.
I devoted a day to land-based excursions, and felt obliged to hit the Hemingway House (907 Whitehead St., (305) 294-1575, $7.50). In 1931 the author moved in and when he wasn't fishing and getting drunk he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have Not and A Farewell To Arms here.
Yet I would advise against a visit: When I was there, the guides crammed groups together, ignored our questions and rushed through their spiels before groups could reassemble in the next room.
Far more impressive was the Harry S. Truman Little White House (111 Front St., (305) 294-9911, $7.50). His home on the former Naval Base became his winter getaway, and the guided walk visits nearly every room in this plain home. If you are as quick as I am, you can sneak a seat at his desk or at the table where he played poker with his buddies.
The late treasure hunter Mel Fisher was a Key West legend, and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (200 Greene St., (305) 294-2633, http://www.melfisher.org; $6.50) showcases some of goods he brought home from work. After years of searching, Fisher discovered the wrecks of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and Santa Margarita, which carried a fortune in gold and emeralds. Fisher fought and beat the state of Florida for rights to the treasure. Some of it is displayed here, including a 6-pound gold bar and a 77-carat, uncut emerald.
Although drinking and diving are the favored pastimes here, a Key West sunset is also a requisite activity. Just to be safe, I caught one from land and from sea.
Aboard the massive Fury Catamaran (305) 294-8899, I settled back as we sailed out a mile or two for the sunset, with free champagne, beer, wine and soda along the way. Despite the progressively irritating ballads of Buffett on the loudspeakers, the steady sail was the perfect vantage point to wrap up the day.
The next evening, I watched the fireball at Mallory Square, where the real show has become the street performers, vendors and local characters: Fire jugglers, gymnasts, magicians, performing dogs, trained cats, men carrying iguanas, and pot-bellied women in bikinis with pot-bellied pigs in their bicycle baskets are all here, looking for a shot at stardom or at least a few of your tour bucks.
The circus lasts until the sun sets and then everyone leaves the docks to embark on the "Duval Crawl," an evening of bar-hopping and dining on Key West's main avenue.
Most-popular are Sloppy Joe's (201 Duval St., (305) 294-5717), the Green Parrot (corner of Southard and Whitehead, (305) 294-6133), and Capt. Tony's Saloon (428 Greene St., (305) 294-1838), where a young Jimmy Buffett got his first big break.
As Key West cooled off one evening, I roamed the center of the town, passing sidewalk cafes, hidden courtyards and martini bars. As I smelled the perfume of tropical flowers mingling with the salt air, I took a look around and I could swear that I saw . . . Margaritaville.
Florida native Gary McKechnie, who first visited Key West with his parents at age 10, is the author of "Great American Motorcycle Tours," John Muir Publishing, $17.95.
IF YOU GO
You can rent motorcycles for long drives such as this at shops including Iron Horse Rentals in Orlando, (407) 426-7091, http://www.hogride.com, and the American Road Collection, (888) 736-8433, http://www.budgetharley.com) in South Florida.
Of course, you can drive a car or an RV, too. Whatever way you travel, here is some information to make your trip planning easier:
Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, (305) 539-3063 or (800) 283-2707; http://www.miamiandbeaches.com.
Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, 1920 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach; (305) 672-1270.
Florida Keys and Key West information, (800) 352-5397; http://www.fla-keys.com.
Key West Welcome Center, which can help with lodging or excursion the water; 3840 N Roosevelt Blvd.; (800) 284-4482.
Key West Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce, 402 Wall St.; (305) 294-2587 or (800) 527-8539.