Postcards from Florida

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.

Bike Florida

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In short, we had a typically outstanding Florida spring vacation.

David Romanowski, 2017

Bike Florida Rolls On

Old Tours, New Tours, and Possible Future Tours

2016-04-14 15.31.56 csmIn late March or early April each year, hundreds of winter-weary bicyclists from across the country, and even from other countries, migrate to the Sunshine State for the first big cycling event of the year. The annual spring tour known as Bike Florida has become for me a much anticipated end-of-winter getaway, a reunion with friends I’ve made on other tours, and a chance to explore another region of the state at pedaling speed. Bike Florida’s “Springs Fever Tour” in 2004 was my very first bicycle tour. Since then, I’ve taken part in three of the last four annual spring tours.

The recently announced 2017 spring tour marks a change in format for the annual tour. It made me curious about how Bike Florida tours have evolved over the years and what else might be in store for the future.

To learn more, I spoke with Ron Cunningham, executive director of Bike Florida since 2013, and a board member before that. Cunningham talked to me about Bike Florida’s history, some current challenges, and possible future directions.

Bike Florida Over the Years

DSCN0390 (2) (Medium)Bike Florida was born in 1994 as both a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting bicycle safety and a fundraising cycling event. Its first tour started at St. Augustine on the Atlantic Coast and ended halfway across the long northern length of the state at Tallahassee in the Panhandle. It had a specific mission: to reach the state capital and deliver a proclamation on the importance of bicycling in Florida to U.S. Senator Bob Graham, who as governor of Florida had helped found the Sunshine State Games, Florida’s Olympic-style sports program.

Bike Florida continued as an annual weeklong tour that passed through a different region of the state each year. Initially, Cunningham told me, the tour took place in summer in an effort to attract families. But organizers soon reconsidered and moved it to early spring, when the weather is much better for cycling.

For about the first ten years, Bike Florida remained a point-to-point tour, beginning in one place and ending in another. Cyclists were on the move from one town or city to the next almost every day. For example, the second tour began in Fernandina Beach at the northeastern tip of the state, crossed the Florida peninsula to Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast, and ended midway between at Gainesville. Several other tours touched both coasts. As a group, these early tours pretty much covered most of northern Florida, from the Atlantic Coast as far south as Titusville to nearly as far west as Pensacola. Many started or ended in Gainesville, a convenient central location.

DSCN0385 (2) (Medium)A key logistical issue of a point-to-point tour is getting all those hundreds of cyclists with their bicycles and gear back to where they started. To eliminate that, in 2004 Bike Florida switched to a loop route that began and ended in the same place. The seven-day tours eventually settled into a pattern: two nights at the starting location, two nights at a second host site, two nights at a third host site, and a return to the start on the last day.

Planning and executing any large tour that involves different locations each year still presents big and often unexpected logistical challenges. For instance, Cunningham pointed to the tour this past spring, which was supposed to loop from Arcadia in southwest Florida to Sarasota and Venice on the Gulf Coast and back. But late in the planning, Venice pulled out as a host site, and Cunningham and his tour planners had to scramble to reroute the tour and find a new site in Englewood. This created all sorts of issues, including a rather long final day’s ride of 70 miles and the need to provide a halfway shuttle for people who couldn’t or didn’t want to bike that distance. Most riders never got to see Venice’s charming downtown. On the plus side, the Englewood Sports Complex turned out to be an outstanding host site.

Bike Florida in 2017

Next year’s spring tour marks another change in format. The tour will be one day shorter and will be based in a single place, St. Johns County Fairgrounds near the rural community of Armstrong, southwest of St. Augustine. This “wagon wheel” format of a single, central host site will allow for daily loop rides radiating out in all directions and eliminate the need to transport riders’ gear from site to site. Whether longtime Bike Florida fans will like this change remains to be seen. “It’s something of an experiment,” Cunningham says. “Ultimately, the aim is to simplify logistics and provide a good riding experience.”

The “Gullah Geechee Tour” will highlight the local communities of Armstrong, Elkton, and Spuds and their cultural heritage. “Armstrong is at the southern end of what the National Park Service calls the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which extends along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida,” Cunningham told me. According to its website, the corridor was designated to recognize, interpret, and help preserve the distinctive culture and history of the African Americans known as Gullah Geechee, who settled along the Southeast coast.

DSCN0382 (2) (Medium)The Palatka-to-St. Augustine State Trail runs right through this area and is a key part of a developing regional network of trails. “The people of Armstrong have always been very hospitable to us on previous tours that passed through here,” Cunningham says. “They’re very interested in reaping greater economic benefits from bicycle touring.” The weeklong presence of Bike Florida will help promote that goal.

The tour will provide evening entertainment and cultural activities relating to the local communities. Cunningham says, “We want this to be a learning experience and cultural experience as well as a bicycle tour.”

The cycling routes are still being planned but will provide great variety, Cunningham promises. “We’ll offer a different riding experience each day.” Options will include coastal rides ranging from Crescent Beach north to St. Augustine and south to Palm Coast, and rural rides north along the St. John’s River, southwest to the Old Florida fishing town of Welaka, and southwest to the small city of Palatka, a host site for Bike Florida in the past.

The Expanding Tour Menu

In 2008 Bike Florida began offering six- to seven-day “luxury tours” in several locations around the state. The first was the “St. Johns River to Sea Loop,” which takes riders down the coast from St. Augustine to New Smyrna Beach and beyond, and then back north via an inland route through Deland and Palatka. Bike Florida later added the “Horse Country and Springs Tour,” which loops through rural countryside near Gainesville, and the “Forgotten Coast Tour,” a linear tour along the Panhandle coast and then north to Wakulla Springs State Park and Tallahassee.

DSCN0381 (2) (Medium)The annual spring tour can accommodate up to 1,000 riders, who camp out or sleep indoors at schools or other facilities and can sign up for catered breakfasts and dinners. The smaller luxury tours are limited to 20 cyclists, who stay in comfortable lodgings and eat out in restaurants. Daily mileages on the luxury tours are usually less than on the spring tour. “Lots of people have been coming back to Bike Florida for years,” Cunningham says, “but now they’re getting older and don’t want to sleep in tents and gymnasiums.” These tours provide a relaxed pace and a more carefree, intimate, and educational experience, perhaps more akin to a Road Scholar tour. Cunningham says Bike Florida plans to add more luxury tours one at a time until they have about half a dozen, and then offer a varying selection each year.

The reach of Bike Florida tours has begun to extend farther south in the state. The 2008 tour, which began near Clearwater, was the first to take place on the central Gulf Coast. The 2013 tour launched from Lakeland, south of Orlando. The 2016 tour looped through southwestern Florida.

I asked Cunningham whether there were areas Bike Florida hasn’t yet visited but might in the future. “We haven’t visited South Florida because of the urban congestion and lack of rural roads.” Sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Everglades, the “Gold Coast” doesn’t have much in the way of safe and carefree country riding.

But that could change. “The Florida legislature is committed to investing in Florida’s trail network, and in expanding and linking existing trails,” Cunningham says. One major part of that initiative is the Coast-to-Coast Connector Trail. It will link the popular Pinellas Trail, which starts in St. Petersburg on the Gulf, with Titusville, on the Intercoastal Waterway, and perhaps eventually the Atlantic Coast. Much of the 250-mile trail system has already been completed, and other parts are in the works. This and other projects will eventually make possible multiday tours on off-road greenways.

DSCN0377 (2) (Medium)Bike Florida is also looking into the feasibility of a Florida Keys tour from Miami to Key West. Return would be by hovercraft to Fort Myers and then rural roads or trails back across South Florida to Miami. The Adventure Cycling Association currently runs a small self-supported tour along that general route. Bubbafest, a fully supported annual tour for up to 200 riders, goes from Key Largo to Key West and back. A Bike Florida tour, perhaps involving 50 or 60 riders who would camp in state parks, would be a welcome new option. But that is still a few years off.

As for the nearer future, I won’t give anything away except to say that the 2018 spring tour could involve a pair of host sites in an area of the state the tour has not visited in recent years.

The Challenge of Changing Demographics

On a Bike Florida tour, as on many others across the country, when the helmets come off at the end of the day, you can’t help noticing all the gray hair. “Baby boomers are the ones with the time and disposable income to take weeklong bicycle tours,” Cunningham says. And much as we hate to admit it, we boomers are getting older. The aging of its principle demographic group is a growing issue for Bike Florida and other bicycle touring organizations.

“Young riders in general can’t afford the time or money to do weeklong tours,” Cunningham says. “So Bike Florida is looking into other ways to attract them.” Those may include long-weekend tours based at a single site, perhaps like the North Carolina Coastal Tour, which a different town hosts each year. Women-only tours are another possibility. Meanwhile, Bike Florida’s growing menu of luxury tours will provide new options for those who want to try something different from a large group tour.

Back to Those Old Routes . . .

Another initiative Cunningham says is currently underway is going through the archives of all the old Bike Florida tour routes, converting the routes to GPS data, and making them available on the web. So someday, you’ll be able to retrace that original Bike Florida tour route from St. Augustine to Gainesville to Tallahassee.

Having retired from a four-decade career as a journalist, Ron Cunningham now finds himself “busier than I’ve ever been” since taking the lead at Bike Florida. On the day I’m writing this, he’s off scouting routes for the “Gullah Geechee Tour.” Lucky guy. All the new tours Bike Florida is dreaming up should keep him well occupied for a long time to come—and give Bike Florida enthusiasts a lot to look forward to.

Bike Florida:

David Romanowski, 2016

Many thanks to Ron Cunningham and Linda Crider, founder of Bike Florida, for reviewing this post.

Different Strokes: 20 Bicycle Tours | # 2

Fully Supported Tours

I took part in 10 fully supported tours over the past 13 years. They varied greatly in duration, numbers of riders, and the nature of the routes, but they also shared many similarities.

Tent rentals at Bike Florida.

Tent rentals at Bike Florida.

On each tour, we stayed in campgrounds, parks, schools, colleges, fairgrounds, or convention or recreation centers. On most tours you can camp out, sleep on the floor in a building, pay a tent rental service to handle your camping needs, or book lodging on your own. You usually have the option to sign up for catered breakfasts and dinners for an extra fee. On many days, you often have the option of different routes of varying length.

Cycle Maryland, which I went on 2006, was discontinued a year or two later. That year it was based at Princess Anne on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and was similar in nature to the Cycle North Carolina Coastal Ride described below.

Bike Florida

One of the rewards of biking in Florida: beaches.

One of the rewards of biking in Florida: beaches.

Takes Place: late March or early April
Duration: 7 days
Riders: Hundreds
Where: Different regions throughout Florida
Routes: Loop routes among 3 or 4 host sites
My Tours: 2004, 2013, 2014, 2016

Bike Florida was my very first bicycle tour, and the only one I’ve gone on more than once. I enjoy exploring Florida, and this tour makes for a nice end of winter getaway. Bike Florida has taken me through the springs-rich region of northern Florida between Gainesville and the Gulf of Mexico, the citrus-growing region of central Florida south of Orlando, the Atlantic Coast region of northeastern Florida, and the Gulf Coast region around Sarasota.

At Gasparilla island State Park on Boca Grande on the Gulf Coast.

At Gasparilla Island State Park on the Gulf Coast.

On Bike Florida tours, you can look forward a lot of flat riding, although some regions have more hills than you might expect. Another thing you might not expect is the wide temperature range. It can get surprisingly cold at night—down to the low 40s—in northern or central Florida in early spring.

I plan to publish a blog post soon on Bike Florida, its past routes, its plans for the future, and next year’s spring tour.

Bon Ton Roulet

A typical view in the Finger Lakes region.

A typical view in the Finger Lakes region.

Takes Place: July
Duration: 7 days
Riders: Hundreds
Where: Finger Lakes region, New York
Route: Loop route among 6 host sites
My Tour: 2012

Besides cycling in Florida, I’m partial to exploring my home state. The popular Bon Ton Roulet tour introduced me to the Finger Lakes region of central New York. Each year the route and overnight locations vary. But you can always be sure of lovely rural and lakeside scenery, farms, wineries, handsome historic towns, lots of rolling hills, and the occasional steep climb.

Exploring the beautiful gorge in Watkins Glen State Park.

Exploring the gorge in Watkins Glen State Park.

My tour led me through beautiful areas and towns I’d missed seeing during all those dozens of times I’d driven straight across the state. Among the places where we stayed were Cortland, the starting and ending point; Auburn, at the head of Owasco Lake; Geneva, on one end of Seneca Lake; Watkins Glens, on the other end; and a state park just outside Ithaca.

I decided to try the tent rental service, which included a roomy tent, thick air mattress, chair, and other perks. I enjoyed letting someone else do the work of setting up and breaking down camp. One particularly memorable experience: the fierce, blinding downpour during the tour’s final couple of miles—one of the worst storms I’ve ever been caught in while on a bike, and an experience my friends and I still talk about.

BubbaFest – Florida Keys

Lots of bridge crossings and beautiful waters in the Keys.

The Bahia Honda Bridge in the Lower Keys.

Takes Place: November
Duration: 6 days
Riders: Up to 200
Where: Florida Keys
Route: Key Largo to Key West and back
My Tour: 2009

Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers, those cheerful folks who provide tent rental services on many bicycle tours, run BubbaFest. As the name implies, Bubba aims for a rollicking good time. The result is partly fun and partly tacky. It has its fans; many people do BubbaFest year after year.

I had mixed feelings about my tour. I came alone and at times felt like I was crashing some stranger’s party. I rented both tent and bike, so it was a pretty carefree trip. But I wasn’t in a carefree mood at the time and never got into the festive groove.

The old Seven Mile Bridge from the top of the new one.

The old highway bridge from the top of the current Seven Mile Bridge.

However, for me the biking’s the thing, and I really enjoyed cycling in the Keys. About half of the riding is on bike paths, and most of the rest is on reasonably wide shoulders. The views of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico (sometimes from the same spot) can’t be beat. You go over many bridges, including the iconic Seven Mile Bridge, which takes you about as far out to sea as you can get on a bicycle. You’re usually going with the wind on the way down the Keys and against it coming back. It was an easy two-day ride from Key Largo to Key West, where we had a day off to explore that end-of-road town. A bicycle is the best way to get around Key West, and one of the best ways to see the Keys.

C&O Canal / Great Allegheny Passage

Entering Pennsylvania on the GAP Trail.

Entering Pennsylvania on the GAP trail.

Takes Place: Early summer or fall
Duration: 8 days
Riders: Up to 70
Where: Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh, PA
Route: C&O Canal towpath and Great Allegheny Passage rail trail
My Tour: 2008

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath begins in the nation’s capitol and connects with the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) rail trail at Cumberland in western Maryland to provide a continuous off-road route from Washington to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a distance of some 335 miles.

Many cycle touring organizations run tours along this route. I took mine through the Adventure Cycling Association. At the time, the GAP trail hadn’t quite been completed, so the tour ended in the town of Boston, a little short of Pittsburgh. We were bused back to Washington from there. It’s easy to plan and execute a trip on your own as well, given the availability of campsites, towns, and lodging along the way.

A view from the GAP Trail in southern Pennsylvania.

A view from the GAP trail in southern Pennsylvania.

This isn’t a route for those who want to ride hard and fast, but for those interested in biking past, across, or through transportation relics of bygone days and getting away from it all—you’re really out in the boondocks for much of the way. You encounter lots of wonderful tunnels, bridges, aqueducts, canal locks, and countless other historic structures. The canal towpath is rough in places, but the crushed gravel GAP trail is smoother. By the end of the trip, you’ve traversed the better part of two states and crossed the Appalachian Mountains without hardly realizing it.

Cycle the Erie Canal

The Erie Barge Canal locks at Lockport.

The Erie Barge Canal lock at Lockport.

Takes Place: July
Duration: 9 days
Riders: Hundreds
Where: Buffalo to Albany, NY
Route: Erie Canal trail, some on-road routes
My Tour: 2011

Another great canal trip is the annual Erie Canal tour offered by Parks & Trails New York. They have been doing this tour over the same route for nearly two decades, so it’s very well organized and run. For me, it was quite a thrill to bike 400 miles all the way across New York State from the Niagara River to the Hudson River.

The finish line along the Hudson River in Albany.

The finish line along the Hudson River in Albany.

You can park in Albany and (for an extra fee) take a shuttle bus to Buffalo, where the tour starts. The tour route generally follows the still-working Erie Barge Canal and sections of the historic Erie Canal that are no longer used. The riding is mostly off road, and the sections on roads are safe and easy. You go through lots of historic canal towns and small cities. There are many historical sites and museums to visit along the way. Like the Bon Ton Roulet, this tour introduced me to many places in my home state I’d only heard about or seen in passing from a car window. Like the C&O Canal/GAP tour, this tour attracts a more family-oriented, history-appreciative crowd than your typical bicycle tour. Riders range from surprisingly young to surprisingly old. Some have taken the tour many times.

Among all the fully supported tours I’ve taken, I think the Erie Canal tour was my favorite. It was the first tour on which I made friends—and other friends through them—whom I now reconnect with when I go on other tours.

Cycle North Carolina Coastal Ride

Camping along the river in Washington, NC.

Camping along the river in Washington, NC.

Takes Place: April
Duration: 3 days
Riders: Hundreds
Where: A town in coastal North Carolina
Route: Loop routes from the host site
My Tour: 2015

Each year this early spring weekend tour is hosted by a different town that lies in the low country bordering Pamlico Sound, the body of water separating mainland North Carolina and the offshore Outer Banks. My tour was based in Washington (NC rather than DC), a nice little riverside town I enjoyed exploring. Other recent tours have been based in Oriental and Edenton. The daily loop rides (you have a choice of routes from under 30 miles to 100) are rural and flat.

Except for the first night’s dinner, you are on your own for meals. This keeps the tour cost low and encourages riders to patronize the local restaurants and eateries. I’ve come not to expect memorable catered meals on bicycle tours, so a particularly tasty one always comes as a welcome surprise. The fried fish and shrimp dinner served to us on the first night was one of the best meals I’ve ever had on a bicycle tour.

David Romanowski, 2016