story and photography by Ed Garland
[Florida Motorcycle Touring: Indian River Lagoon Scenic Highway was originally published in the November 2009 issue of Rider magazine]
Mild winters may make Florida motorcycle touring ideal, but the Sunshine State isn’t exactly rife with mountains, vistas and hairpin twisties. To find the rare gems on this glorified sandbar you have to know where to look. In this case, gaze east to the Indian River Lagoon Scenic Highway, a 150-mile asphalt loop complete with ancient shipwreck graveyards, stretches of empty beach, quirky bars, three national wildlife refuges and the birthplace of American space exploration thrown in for good measure.
This coastal excursion allows one the flexibility to ride the entire loop in a few hours or spend several days exploring beachside towns and attractions. Kick off your ride at the Lagoon House in Palm Bay on U.S. 1, for example, where you’ll learn that the Indian River Lagoon is the most biologically diverse estuary in North America—teeming with more than 4,300 species of plants and animals at last count. Heading south on U.S. 1, don’t be surprised to see dolphins frolicking in the lagoon’s shallow waters or a squadron of brown pelicans in chevron formation. Trying to concentrate on the road can be challenging as you pass pleasure boats, scraggly spoil islands, 1950s-era motels and dilapidated fish shacks. The town of Grant offers an idyllic photo opportunity, namely the quaint Grant Historical House, a circa-1916 home fully furnished and open to the public. The house shares a scenic waterfront view with the old Grant railroad station, a fishing pier and picnic pavilion.
Just south of Grant you’ll cross the St. Sebastian River and enter Indian River County. Take the first left after crossing the bridge and you’ll discover one of the most alluring tropical two-laners of the route. We’re talking old-time Florida postcard vistas here. To your right are high-dollar homes wedged among gorgeous tangles of lush vegetation; to your left, a commanding view of the lagoon and the barrier islands you’ll soon explore. Luxury homes suddenly give way to charming marinas and waterfront restaurants. Captain Hiram’s is probably the most well-known social spot (exuding a “Florida Keys” ambiance) but most riders gravitate to Earl’s Hideaway, a low-key watering hole bedecked in what might best be described as a biker/tiki bar motif. On weekends, the outdoor bar pulses with live music (usually classic rock), leather-clad revelers, and, of course, swaying palm trees.
Continue south and turn east onto the Wabasso Causeway. You have now entered the rarified atmosphere of the disgustingly wealthy, a series of gated enclaves so private that you’ll only see the gabled mansion rooftops peeking through the coastal canopy. Depending on the type of bike you ride, you can either head north up U.S. A1A or opt for the more exotic “Jungle Trail,” a shady dirt road that winds its way between the eastern shore of the lagoon and the haughty backsides of private mega-mansions, golf courses and polo grounds. Jungle Trail will lead to an observation tower that offers the only land-based opportunity to view Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, America’s first wildlife refuge. President Teddy Roosevelt declared this two-acre island a national wildlife refuge in 1903 after learning of Paul Kroegel, a local who used a shotgun to protect the island’s residents from plume hunters and sportsmen.
As you roll north, the tenuous nature of the barrier island reveals itself: at certain times, both the lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean are simultaneously visible. Indian River County is also dubbed the Treasure Coast. Find out why at the McLarty Treasure Museum, which features artifacts salvaged from the wreck of the 1715 Spanish Fleet. Take a stroll behind the museum and you might catch a glimpse of salvage boats bobbing in the ocean or hopefuls scouring the beaches with metal detectors. Although Spanish sailors, English pirates and others retrieved much of the loot in the years immediately following the wreck, it’s estimated that half of the booty still rests on the ocean floor.
A couple of miles north there’s Sebastian Inlet State Park, a popular destination for anglers, sunbathers, surfers and campers. The inlet links the lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean. Be warned: the inlet’s currents are powerful and dangerous during incoming and outgoing tides.
Continuing north, you’ll pass through the beach towns of Melbourne Beach, Indialantic, Indian Harbor Beach and Satellite Beach. Be alert for distracted motorists gawking at bikini-clad tourists instead of watching out for you. This strip of A1A is flanked by shopping plazas on your left and oceanfront condominiums to the east (and a smattering of excellent public beaches). The best beaches for watching surfers are located across from Patrick Air Force Base. Then, it’s off to Cocoa Beach, a hive of tourism with its T-shirt shops, fast-food joints and motels with cheesy names like Luna Sea. Cocoa Beach is probably best known as the residence of Larry Hagman’s astronaut character in the I Dream of Jeannie TV series (there’s even an I Dream of Jeannie Lane commemorating the show) and the home of Ron Jon Surf Shop, a colorful surfer’s Mecca in the heart of town.
The final stop before we head back south is Kennedy Space Center, a technological wonder situated in the middle of a national wildlife refuge. Having visited KSC several times I’m a bit jaded, but the Visitor Complex is nonetheless a popular attraction, offering close-up views of rockets, flight simulators and bus tours. Plan your trip in advance to see a rocket launch and you’ll likely feel a certain awe and national pride. And you’ll have some great stories to share with friends.