Enjoying a motorcycle ride through Florida is an exercise in skillful navigation. The highways around Orlando and Tampa, and from West Palm Beach to Miami are crowded and crazy with traffic, so the challenge for a rider is to find the more interesting routes in central Florida and along the coasts where tourists do not go. Believe it or not, there are many, and riding them makes for an excellent tour in the Sunshine State.
Riding south from St. Augustine, A1A is still Florida of yesteryear. Low traffic levels, small one-off restaurants, beach houses, condos and ’60s-vintage motels line the inland side of the coastal highway, and on the ocean side there’s a view of the Atlantic as far as you want to ride. A nearly cloudless blue sky along with mid-70s temperatures completed the perfect riding scenario.
Heading inland, State Route 19 is an uninterrupted stretch of rural highway that runs through the Ocala National Forest, and features miles of perfectly paved two-lane blacktop with sedate speed limits below a mile-a-minute. Farther south, sea-level marshland with old-growth cypress trees covered with Spanish moss shade the road, and bridges span lakes large and small. The curves are long sweepers, the ride peaceful and relaxing, with a horizon that keeps receding all day long. It’s one of the things you have to appreciate about touring in Florida’s rural center—just take in the natural surroundings, soak up plenty of Vitamin D and enjoy the ride. The long bridge over Little Lake Harris is especially picturesque.
Route 19 becomes State Route 33 at Groveland, and the ride continues as excellent two-lane rural highway with a 55-mph speed limit. What you lose in efficiency by avoiding the Interstate or Florida’s Turnpike you gain with rolling hills and long views of open farmland, often with horses, cattle and sheep in pastures, and traffic generally nowhere to be found. Having traveled through rural Florida enough to know that local law enforcement often uses the abrupt changes in speed limits at town borders as speed traps, I puttered through the towns of Fort Meade, Bowling Green, Wauchula and Zolfo Springs, where I detoured to go south on County Road 663. I was rewarded with more relaxed traveling through open country with old farm houses, picturesque dilapidated wood buildings barely standing and small bridges that overlook brooks and streams, adding a mid-20th century feel to the ride.
The town of Arcadia is the DeSoto county seat, with a population of about 7,600. An old Florida town, “downtown” Oak Street features buildings of both classic and Spanish-style architecture, with small palm trees lining the streets. Residents sit outside the shops and restaurants on sidewalk tables and benches, enjoying conversation with their neighbors. State Route 31 out of Arcadia continues due south between the Fred C. Babcock/ Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area and the Babcock Ranch Preserve, both very large tracts of state-owned land put aside for their respective purposes. That meant more undeveloped rolling hills and pastoral farmland for the last 100 miles to Lehigh Acres, where I visited some family.
After that, I took the opportunity for an afternoon ride along the Gulf Coast’s Pine Island, and up to the community of Bokeelia on the island’s northern end for lunch with my brother and his wife. Riding the bridges over waterways while viewing the marinas and boats of all stripes makes for a nice ride, even if the tourist traffic can be a bit unnerving. Stops to take pictures of the bike in front of the colorful shops on Pine Island Road made for some worthwhile additions to the scrapbook.
The next morning, it was time to start the ride north. Intending to avoid the Interstates as much as possible, I retraced my route to Arcadia, then capitulated, taking the Interstate to get past Sarasota and Tampa. As Interstate 75 swings northeast, I exited west on State Route 50 to Brooksville. Passing the Peace Tree Trading Post, which features Native American arts and crafts, it was a slam-dunk for photographs of the Chief Vintage. The bike takes its styling cues from the classic Indians of the mid-20th century, with solid red paint and a tan distressed leather seat and saddlebags. It really turns heads, often with an added smile and a thumb’s up. Most of those appreciating the bike probably didn’t know they were looking at a brand new motorcycle.
Route 50 intersects U.S. Route 98, a route with which I am well acquainted. The highway runs along Florida’s western coast into the Panhandle and all the way to Pensacola, in some places running at sea level and a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico. North of Brooksville, the highway is adjacent to dozens of state parks, preserves, forest, rivers, marshland and conservation areas, with a history that dovetails with that of the motorcycle’s historic marque. Native American names mark many of the area’s parks and rivers, like the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, Homosassa, Withlacoochee and Waccasassa Bay, and of course Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. This entire area was populated by the Seminole Indians until the Second Seminole War in 1835, when President Andrew Jackson disobeyed the Supreme Court, who sided with the Native Americans’ right to occupy their homelands and signed an order to forcibly move the Seminoles to Oklahoma. Some left, but a group led by Osceola refused, and the war began. Eventually, the tribe migrated to and settled in the Everglades.
Just north of the town of Inglis, seven miles of State Route 40 is also known as Follow That Dream Parkway, named after a 1962 Elvis Presley movie filmed in the area. The road winds through near sea-level marshland with cypress trees, live oaks, maples and cabbage palms, with wildlife that runs the gamut from bald eagles to black bears to manatees. I stopped the bike at the road’s end where the Withlacoochee River meets the Gulf of Mexico. The sun was making its way toward the horizon behind the small islands scattered just off the coast, and local fishermen had staked out their territories. It was an idyllic and peaceful scene, contrasted somewhat by the incongruity of the Crystal River Nuclear Plant belching steam several miles north, easily seen from this spot. A few locals asked about the bike, I asked about the powerplant, and conversation ensued. After photographs, I rode back out and returned to the route north.
By now it was late afternoon, and towns were becoming few and far between. State Route 24, seemingly named for its length, is a 24-mile, straight-as-an-arrow ride to the coastal island community of Cedar Key. I would be taking a chance going there to find a room; if there were no vacancies, I would have to return to U.S. Route 98 and likely not find lodging until after dark. As luck would have it, the Cedar Cove Beach and Yacht Club had vacancies, a reasonable “walk-in” rate, and it was right on the water. A restaurant called The Island Room was within walking distance. Sold.
Sitting at the restaurant bar for dinner, I watched the sun quench itself in the Gulf of Mexico, and later took an evening walk along the waterfront. The town was closed down by 8 p.m., and I was back at the room early. Tuesday nights are quiet in Cedar Key, Florida.
The next morning, I stopped for a few photos before leaving the island. Just north of town, County Road 347 is a well-maintained forest road with small farms and pine trees lining either side, running northeast along the coast and adjacent to the Suwannee River near its terminus with the Gulf of Mexico. The road ends at Chiefland, a laid-back rural town where locally owned businesses and markets line the road, and the pace is much slower. I took my cue from that, stopping for photos at the Dakotah Winery, where an antique 1934 Ford flathead truck parked next to an old windmill made a perfect backdrop for photos of the retro-looking Indian motorcycle. A few miles farther on, County Road 349 runs due north to Branford, and generally parallels the winding Suwannee River. I detoured out to the river at several locations to view and photograph the famous waterway and subject of Florida’s state song, Steven Foster’s Old Folks At Home (also known as Suwannee River). After one more stop at the river north of Live Oak, it was time for Interstate travel. On I-75, I locked the Indian’s cruise control on 75 mph, a smooth 2,800 rpm, and crossed the state line into Georgia about 30 minutes later. I was back home in Atlanta by 7 p.m.
While it doesn’t have the exciting twisties and radical rides of a tour through the mountains, if you’re looking for some tranquil, two-wheeled relaxation, Florida may be just the thing. Riding the beautiful long sweepers through the wide-open savannas of Florida farm country, the bridges over blue lakes, shallow waterways and marshlands, through tropical and pine forest and along the undeveloped coast of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico make touring the Sunshine State a uniquely different experience.
(This article An Indian in Florida was published in the December 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)