Story by Doug Westley
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published the Feb. 2020 edition of the MSTA Florida Chapter newsletter, The Florida Gator Tale. The story has been edited to match the MSTA website’s style.
So, you haven’t ridden to Key West yet? What are you waiting for?
One of the advantages of living in Florida is that you’ve got a premier motorcycle adventure destination at your southern doorstep. About 164 miles from Miami and only 90 miles from Havana, Cuba, Key West welcomes motorcyclists with open arms. Over 40 bridges link Key West to mainland Florida and riding them is one of the highlights of a ride to the southernmost point in the continental United States. From the west central part of the Sunshine State, it is about an 8-hour ride.
Your journey really begins in Florida City, the last town on the Florida peninsula, en route to the land of Margaritas and green flashes at sunset. In Florida City you actually have two route choices taking you to Key Largo, the most northern of the Florida Keys. You can follow the tourist lemmings, wandering down single file on U.S. Route 1, or you can take Card Sound Road to the left. You have to pay a buck to cross one toll bridge, but there’s MUCH less traffic, the scenery through the little fishing villages is cool and you immediately feel like you’re out of the mainland insanity. Oh, and this is the home of Florida crocodiles (the real ones that can actually run more than 20 miles an hour on dry land), so watch for them in the brackish waters next to the road.
Good timing will put you on Card Sound Road sometime around lunch, so you can stop at Alabama Jacks Restaurant and Bar. Don’t worry, you can’t miss it. Order the conch fritters (that’s pronounced “conk”, by the way) and blackened mahi! After lunch, with your belly stuffed, you’ll continue onto Key Largo and eventually rejoin Route 1. You’ll suffer with the Key Largo and Islamorada traffic for a few miles, then eventually make your way to Marathon and the Middle Keys. Here the traffic thins out, the sea air cools your ride, and you can relax all the way to Key West. Don’t forget to stop at the little parking area just on the north side of Seven-Mile Bridge, on the right side of the road, to get the obligatory bridge picture!
Okay, you’ve made it to Key West. Hmm, where do you stay? Good planning means reservations were made at any number of hotels, B&Bs or campgrounds on Key West or in the lower Keys. This is particularly important if you plan on going during any one of the festivals that occur all year long. Expect higher (much higher!) hotel prices if you go during any of the large events. If you are into the night life, the place to be in Key West is Duval Street, so pick a B&B or hotel within walking distance. Confused? Just search “Duval Crawl“ on the web and you’ll soon understand.
There’s much more to Key West than just hanging out at Captain Tony’s or Sloppy Joe’s (although it was good enough for Ernest Hemingway). There are museums, tours, fishing charters, scuba diving, snorkeling trips, sunset cruises, and the list goes on. Or, you can just go lay on the beach. If you get bored in Key West, it is your own fault!
I highly recommend taking either the Fast Cat or the seaplane charter out to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park. It is an amazing place and a fascinating piece of American history. The seaplane ride is particularly fun!
A couple of warnings are in order here. First off, Key West is a “lifestyle friendly” town. You will probably see evidence of it both during the day and evening hours. Everyone keeps to themselves and it is not intrusive, but it is there. Second, be aware that Key West is also a cruise ship destination, so Duval Street can get crowded when a ship is in port. Actually, when you take situation number two and intersect it with situation number one on Duval Street, it gets pretty comical.
This brings us to another point. One of the great experiences of Key West is the people watching. You will see literally everything on Duval Street, particularly if there is a festival underway, and it coincides with a cruise ship visit. Be non-judgmental, find a good people-watching spot (one of the many outdoor cafes work well), sit back with a Land Shark in your hand and watch the sights. It really is the best show in town. For the really adventurous souls, go during Fantasy Fest, in late October. By city decree, body paint qualifies as clothing during Fantasy Fest, as long as there is a (very minimal) personal covering as well. You will truly see the good, the bad, and the ugly! If you decide to go to Fantasy Fest, make sure you get your reservations at least 6 months in advance. Otherwise there is not a room to be had on the island.
Here’s the final secret: Getting out of Key West. Remember that U.S. Route 1 is a two-lane road, all the way back north as well. Everyone comes down to party on a Friday afternoon/evening and leaves on a Sunday afternoon. Never try to leave Key West the afternoon following a major festival, or any Sunday afternoon. Plan your retreat in advance.
That’s about it. If you’ve never been to Key West, you don’t know what you’re missing. If you’re not sure about going, give us a call. Becky and I ride down to the Southernmost Point at least a couple of times a year, just to escape the mainland madness for some relaxation. We may not know everything about the island, but we guarantee you we’ve got some friends there that do, and that can arrange just about anything for visitors. Oh, and if you don’t know about the rooftop bar and the sunset green flash, you truly haven’t spent enough time in Key West!