Having grown up in the Florida Keys, I've been asked many times over the past six months "How are the Keys doing after Hurricane Irma? What's it like there now?" So I recently recruited some fellow Backroads Trip Leaders and we set out for a three-day adventure to bike 165 miles from Miami to Key West to see for ourselves what local recovery has accomplished, exploring the heart of the Florida Keys along the way. (Check out my previous blog post about Hurricane Irma here!) What did we discover? In short, this place is as beautiful as ever, full of amazing sights, scenery, wildlife and people who have channeled their love of this corner of America into restoring it to its charming and historic self. We were blown away! So I'm here to share with you some insight into what a bike ride through the Florida Keys is like, and why you should definitely come experience this place for yourself! Here is our story.
Our ride took us through downtown Miami and past the historic entrance of what was once Parrot Jungle, where I remember holding and feeding birds there as a child. Today you can actually find wild flocks of parrots in the trees of greater Miami.
'We pressed on along the beautiful Old Cutler Road and Biscayne bike trails, perfect cycling routes where we made sure to stop for some great Cuban food at Mario's Family Restaurant in Homestead, the town where Hurricane Andrew made landfall. It's no secret that the Cuban food here is some of the best in the world! After lunch we made the long trip down the '18 mile stretch' that connects the Keys to the mainland, a historic and scenic route that was originally developed for the Florida Overseas Railroad.
Having biked 65 miles in our first day, we settled into our hotel in Key Largo, one of the northernmost islands of the Florida Keys. It's referred to by many as the "Diving Capital of the World" due to the beautiful offshore reef that attracts scuba divers and fishing enthusiasts from around the world. To finish off our day, we enjoyed dinner al fresco under Seminole-style thatched chickees while accompanied by live music, conversations with some quintessential Keys characters and a truly dazzling sunset across the water. Paradise! It was a good first day's ride, and we all felt lucky to be here in the Keys.
Pedaling over beautiful aquamarine waters across the 42 bridges that connect the Keys, we arrived on Islamorada, the "Village of Islands," and visited with some of our local friends who are featured on our official Backroads Trip through the Keys. We visited Florida Keys Brewing's new tasting room and garden and then stopped at Robbie's Marina to enjoy lunch and a canoe paddle with Paul and his dog, Bubbles. We even fed the beastly tarpon that hang out under their dock
Next up was the Dolphin Research Center, a non-profit research and education facility devoted to "a peaceful coexistence, cooperation and communication between marine mammals, humans and the environment we share." We changed out of our riding clothes and donated 10 man hours to paint the steps and railing of their newly-raised visitor center. New construction was a theme we saw many places in the Keys - I saw more new construction in our 3 days of biking than in the 15 preceding years of visiting the area. The spirit of rebuilding was impressive and inspiring!
Finally, we ended our 50-mile day by biking on to Keys Fisheries, where we caught the sunset over their marina. Our day ended with some of their famous lobster reubens, conch salad, and the best key lime pie in the Keys. It was another great day on the bike and water!
On our final morning, we headed out early to cross the historic pedestrian and bicycle bridge that parallels the newer vehicle bridge, known as the 7 Mile Bridge, at the end of Marathon. This old bridge was the greatest achievement of the Overseas Railroad and has withstood every hurricane since its completion in 1912. You may recognize it from being 'blown up' in 1994 during a chase scene in the movie True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Arriving in the lower Keys, we saw the greatest hurricane destruction but a good amount of new construction as well. The bike trails were clear and a delight to cruise along in the sunshine, soaking in the continued friendly vibe of the Keys . We biked through the National Key Deer Refuge and spotted one of the miniature bucks with six points before hitting Baby's Coffee, a Backroads Guest favorite for their excellent brews.
Refueled on smoothies and caffeine, we made the last push along the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail to Key West. We cruised past US1 Mile Marker 0, parked our bike, shared some hugs and celebrated the conclusion of our journey with a sunset cruise out on the water with Floridays, another highlight of our Florida Keys Trip. Back onshore in Key West we took a stroll, just like the sailors of old, through the festive atmosphere on Duval Street to Santiago's Bodega where we had a top-notch dinner. Several of us Trip Leaders feel it's one of the best meals offered on any Backroads trip, which is saying a lot!
And just like that, our journey was over. What a special region to visit! While the effects of Hurricane Irma still linger, we all felt that it only enhanced the experience of visiting the Keys. All the beauty and charm is as apparent as ever, while the welcoming embrace of the locals and their inspiring efforts to rebuild made for a truly special experience.
A special thanks to Backroads for making this all possible, to all of our great partners in the Keys, to our sponsors far and wide, and to our riders. We can't wait to do it again in December on our Backroads Florida Keys Biking Tour!