Motorcyclists see the ride down the Overseas Highway differently than most.
The stunning blue vista that greets them as theyre crossing Indian Key Fill from Upper Matecumbe Key knows no bounds. No car roof hinders the sight of the cerulean sky overhead; the ocean horizon goes unframed by glass windows.
Riding a motorcycle is about the sensory experience of the trip, and few roads in the Southeast offer such a feast of delights to visitors who arrive on two wheels.
Not just the view but the cry of seabirds that may pace motorcycles across Long Key Bridge, the smell of grilled seafood and steaks beckoning from roadside restaurants, the heat of the sun on the back of the neck and the cool of an Atlantic breeze from the Florida Straits.
The scenery and the great riding weather, said Tim MacShane, a frequent motorcycle visitor from Homestead. Its just an experience.
U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West has been cited often as one of the best motorcycle rides in America.
Mangrove-fringed and water-bound, the Overseas Highway... reveals a land of hammocks and reefs, miniature deer, and, at last, the fanciful, idiosyncratic town of Key West, describes National Geographics Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways.
Americas best-known riders the Teutel clan of American Chopper have been through, more than once (Paul Sr. told a CNBC interviewer he courted his girlfriend with a ride to Key West).
Riders in colder climates may get a little stir-crazy over winter, complaining of PMS - Parked Motorcycle Syndrome - when snow and ice make riding just too dangerous or unpleasant. Ontario residents Rick and Andrea Murray come down for five weeks every year, said Rick. We do Daytona Bike Week, then come down just to ride the Keys. We put more miles on our bike here than we do the rest of the year.
The Murrays split their time, mostly in March, between a South Miami-Dade apartment and a Grassy Key campsite.
Every place you go, you make friends. The people are so friendly, and theres always great entertainment wherever you stop, said Andrea. And the weather. Its below zero where we come from.
Its not just northern riders. Every good-weather weekend, motorcyclists from Broward and Miami-Dade saddle up and head south. Just wanting a ride to someplace worth riding, they may never wet a fishing line or breathe through a snorkel.
This is the end of one tank of gas, declared Broward resident Carol Reynolds, after pulling into Alabama Jacks on Card Sound. I was born and raised in the country of South Florida, and theres no place better.
Jeff Greener of Fort Lauderdale agreed, Its a good days ride. Have lunch by the beach and watch the sun go down on the ride back home. Its a good time.
The Keys are not without special peril to motorcyclists, who are more vulnerable to injury than car passengers. A rear-end crash into stopped traffic threatens a scenery-bedazzled rider with more than a bad day and dented fender.
Motorcyclists in the Keys must watch for motorhomes doing 20 mph, the speed trap at Bahia Honda, [and] low-flying pelicans, cautions a posting at a biker-travel Web site.
Most riders agree a motorcycle trip through the Keys begins with the longer of the two routes. Weaving across the small creeks of Card Sound Road and seeing the settlement that surrounds Alabama Jacks (one of many Keys businesses offering some motorcycle only parking spots) is worth the $1 bridge toll by itself. Do not try to put a price on the view from the top of the span.
County Road 905 may be the closest thing to a country road in the Keys, rolling through the undeveloped hammocks of North Key Largo.
Open-water views are not abundant in Key Largo, but the Caribbean Club understands bikers and offers a spot to stretch (for all the rowdy reputation, many bikers completely abstain from drinking while riding, a pursuit that demands physical skill and constant alertness). After a brief glimpse of the open water crossing Snake Creek, the true thrill of riding the Keys starts at Indian Key Fill, where the open water laps at the shore just yards away on either side. In a car you can see it; on a bike, you feel the salt spray on the wind.
Coming down on west side of Channel Five Bridge may be the only sky-high road view that tops Card Sound.
Riders follow the road toward the sunset, across the Long Key Bridge and toward the even more remarkable Seven Mile. But before crossing, riders would do well to ask locals how to find Sombrero Beach (a park both free and fine), and take a slow ride to Boot Key. Bikers enjoy Big Pine Key with its unpretentious, rural ambience and welcoming roadside bistros. And theres a chance to see a Key deer, or better still, find the No Name Pub.
Key West, the turnaround spot, was largely settled by wreckers surely, the bad-boy bikers of their day.
Riders enjoy Key West for the same reasons most people do, from the history of Old Town to oddball antics of the Sunset Festival and the eclectic assortment of entertainment and eateries. But mostly, because its a good excuse for a long ride.
Originally published in the Spring 2006 edition of Keys Living.