A Springtime Road (and Cycling) Trip
In mid-March, as winter lost its rather weak grip on the Mid-Atlantic region, I packed up the car and headed south to Florida for a 2½-week trip. (See the route in Florida here.)
New Car, Maiden Voyage
A few weeks before the trip, I bought a brand new, light green, 2017 Subaru Forester. The odometer read 7.2 miles when I picked up the car to drive it home. It still had temporary license plates and less than 300 miles on its tires when I headed south.
The Forester felt like a spaceship compared to our 1997 Honda Accord. The car tracked miles per gallon in real time and got remarkably good gas mileage. Its cruise control reduced my speed as I approached a slower vehicle and increased it as I passed. The Forester serenaded me with satellite radio and mischievously kept turning on my iPhone music app when I wasn’t looking. It cleaned its rear window for me, even when I didn’t ask it to. It warned me of speeding maniacs and scolded me if I strayed toward the edge of my lane. It chimed and beeped and flashed at me; it prodded and nudged and indulged me. Quite often it confused me.
This year’s Bike Florida tour differed from previous ones. Rather than cycling to two or three overnight locations during the week-long tour, we stayed in only one, St. John’s County Fairgrounds near St. Augustine, and did rides of varying distances and directions from there. This minimized packing and unpacking every day or so, but at the expense of cycling variety. Sections of routes from day to day often covered familiar territory.
I had visited many of the featured highlights—Palatka, St. Augustine, and the nearby Atlantic coast—on Bike Florida a few years ago. But for me, these tours have become less about sightseeing and more about reconnecting with cycling friends I’ve met over the years and making new ones. Thus, I tip my helmet to Tad and Lea from New York, Ed from South Carolina, and Tom and Bob from Michigan for a pleasurable week. Logging lots of miles was not our goal, so each day most of us chose to ride the shortest of the route options. A couple of times we stitched together our own route from the maps and cue sheets. We dawdled and poked along and had a fine time.
A country church near Armstrong. The tree-shaded roads near here were some of the prettiest we biked.
Lea, Tad, Bob, and Tom relaxing outside the church.
The South Beach Grill in Crescent Beach sits right beside the beach. It has a patio on the first floor and an enclosed room with sweeping views upstairs.
Crescent Beach south of St. Augustine, where we briefly touched the Atlantic shore.
Bob and I visited the Lightner Museum, an eclectic collection of fine and decorative 19th-century art in St. Augustine. It occupies what was once the Alcazar Hotel, built in 1888 by Henry Flagler, who led the development of Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Coquina, exposed on the beaches south of St. Augustine, is a type of limestone mostly made of shells. It was used to build many structures in northeastern Florida, including Castillo de San Marcos, the old Spanish fort in St. Augustine.
The Withlacoochee State Trail
After Bike Florida, I picked up Sue at the Orlando airport and then headed to Inverness in west-central Florida to rendezvous with Tad and Lea and bike the Withlacoochee Trail. This 46-mile rail trail is considered one of Florida’s finest. It is largely shaded and runs through lovely countryside from Citrus Springs through Inverness and Floral City to Trilby. That you’ve probably never heard of any those places is a good indication of just how far off the tourist-beaten track the Withlacoochee is.
The small city of Inverness is a good central location for exploring the trail, and the Central Motel in Inverness stands right beside the trail. Don’t be fooled by the bland name of this modestly priced and well maintained motel. Lots of people know about it. We reserved rooms many months in advance and were glad we did. When we arrived, we were told they had been fully booked since January.
We biked to the north end of the trail one day and about halfway to the south end the next day, which means we still have more to explore on a future trip. We especially enjoyed the lakeside riding in Inverness and the woodsy miles south of town.
You never know what you’ll see along a trail. Note the baby elephant between Momma’s front feet!
The Withlacoochee is one of the longest paved rail trails in Florida. For much of its length, it passes under a canopy of trees.
The Ferris Groves store, just off the trail at Floral City, is a good place to get strawberry and orange milkshakes and fresh produce.
A lakeside boardwalk just off the trail at Inverness.
This caboose stands beside the trail at Inverness.
Indulgent eating is key to any cycling adventure. The Cinnamon Sticks Restaurant, adjacent to the Central Motel, served a good breakfast, including bacon the way it should be (chewy) and excellent cinnamon buns and twisted cinnamon sticks. The Front Porch Restaurant and Pie Shop near Dunnellon is a locally popular place. Its strawberry pie—no rhubarb, thank you, just juicy in-season strawberries—is superb. In tiny Floral City, at the Ferris Groves store, we refreshed ourselves with milkshakes flavored with fresh strawberries and also indulged in silky bourbon fudge.
More Florida: State Parks, Rocky Shores, Alligators, and More
After the Withlacoochee, as Sue and I meandered around Florida, we revisited favorite spots and explored some new to us. We indulged in Florida Sunshine Cake at the Camelia Court Café in the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville. We strolled around the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, a lovely oasis just outside of Gainesville. We stocked up on locally made treats at Whetstone Chocolates of St. Augustine. We gawked at the hundreds of crocodilians and roosting tropical birds at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. We stayed two nights in a charming rock-walled room in a 1930s motel now called the Palm Coast Villas. We strolled around Princess Place Preserve, a former estate on a river near Palm Coast. A motel desk clerk told us about it; we never would have discovered it on our own.
A treat not to be missed: Florida Sunshine Cake at the Camelia Court Café in the Harn Museum of Art, on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.
One of the nation’s oldest zoos, and one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm displays examples of all 24 species of crocodilians.
You will never see more American alligators in one place than at the “Farm.”
Almost equally astonishing at the Alligator Farm are the birds. In spring, hundreds of tropical birds, like this roseate spoonbill, roost in the trees above the alligator enclosures—places no egg-eating raccoon would dare to tread.
The Palm Coast Villas, south of St. Augustine, is truly unique. Built in the 1930s, the rooms are made of coquina rock mined from a quarry across the road. No two rooms are exactly alike.
The hunting lodge at Princess Place Preserve, completed in 1888, is also made of coquina. If you look closely, you can pick out entire shells embedded in the wall.
Princess Place contains an in-ground, spring-fed swimming pool, the first ever built in Florida.
“The Bus” back at the Palm Coast Villas.
We also visited a slew of Florida State Parks: Rainbow Springs, O’Leno, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Fort Clinch, and the former estate and rocky coquina shore at Washington Oaks Gardens. State parks are some of our favorite Florida destinations.
Rainbow Springs State Park contains Florida’s third-largest spring and preserves the gardens and other remains from a 1930s tourist attraction. We always rent canoes here for a leisurely paddle down the river.
The Civilian Conservation Corps build many of the structures in O’Leno State Park in the 1930s, including this suspension bridge over the Santee River. Just downstream, the river disappears underground and then reemerges more than three miles away.
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park preserves the site of a former winter estate and its formal gardens, as well as a stretch of rugged beach covered by coquina.
The homestead of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek,” is also a Florida state park. It shows what life was like in rural Florida in the 1930s.
The sleeping porch at Rawlings’ house, where she probably spent many a hot and humid Florida night.
Coastal Cycling: Amelia Island and Jekyll Island
On our way home, Sue and I returned to Amelia Island at the northeastern tip of Florida to do more bicycling. We stayed at the conveniently located Hampton Inn in downtown Fernandina Beach. We biked down the long canopy road at Fort Clinch State Park and along the Atlantic shore to the southern end of the island.
The next day, we stopped at Jekyll Island in southern Georgia for more cycling. We biked a flat, mostly off-road route, much of it under a canopy of trees draped with Spanish moss, from the historic Jekyll Island Club Resort to the northern end of the island and back.
Fernandina Beach is the northernmost city on the Florida’s Atlantic coast and the commercial and historic heart of Amelia Island.
The 1885 Fairbanks House, now a bed and breakfast, is one of the most impressive residences in the Fernandina Beach historic district.
The cannons at Fort Clinch overlook Cumberland Sound, which separates Florida from Georgia. Bicycling the lovely canopy road leading to the fort is worth the state park admission fee.
Jekyll Island, once the site of a resort for the ultra-wealthy, is now largely a Georgia state park. A fine system of bicycle paths extends all over the island.
The Jekyll Island Club is the heart of the historic district, which preserves the grounds and buildings of the once-exclusive resort.
The duBignon Cottage exemplifies what life was like for those rich enough to visit Jekyll Island in years past.
In short, we had a typically outstanding Florida spring vacation.
David Romanowski, 2017