It terrifies me to say this but Florida might be the future of America. Americans of all social classes are moving to Florida, mostly from northern climates. Millions of immigrants have come from dozens of countries. Rich people transfer down here from places like New York, sometimes for no other reason than that they will not have to pay state income tax. The weather is better than Wisconsin.
I like to bicycle in Florida to be “a fly on the wall.” The weather in Florida in January is indeed delightful. I have in past years been bicycle touring in several parts of Florida. I have biked the Atlantic coast highway A1A from Fernandina Beach near the Georgia line to Jacksonville Beach to Daytona Beach several times, as well as Cocoa Beach to Palm Beach. I have bicycled Orlando to Tampa, and in the Panhandle Panama City to Pensacola. Bicycling the Palm Beach/Fort Lauderdale/Miami strip in South Florida includes the delightful coastal ride from Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale on A1A. The ride from Key Largo to Key West is one of the best bicycle tours in America, especially with the wind at your back. I have written loving descriptions of South Florida as being a multicultural freak show; something like the bar scene from Star Wars.
This new trip was into an area I have barely ever visited: Southwest Florida, NOT South Florida. I wanted to see the area south from Tampa along the Gulf Coast past Sarasota to Fort Myers and Naples; separated from the Miami area by the Everglades. I assumed it would be more monocultural but who knows? I would start the bike ride in Tampa.
Sure, I could drive or take the airplane but why fly when you can take Amtrak? From where I live in the Raleigh/Durham area there are just a few destinations that make sense by Amtrak, northern and central Florida being one of those places. The one daily train (no. 91) coming from the north arrives Raleigh at about 9:00 PM, skips Durham but stops in the suburb of Cary fifteen minutes later, then heads south, arriving Jacksonville 6:30 AM, Orlando 10:00 AM, and Tampa just after noon, before the same train continues south to Miami.
Amtrak can be a lame, sometimes third-world experience, especially where you never know when the train is going to roll or not. Still there are benefits! Unlike air travel, arriving to the station in advance of the train is not required. There are no security checks. One needs just show up before the train does. At the Cary NC station you can leave your car (for an apparently unlimited amount of time) for free in a parking spot about thirty steps from where you get on and off the train. One can carry an unpacked folding bicycle onboard in your arms. Although I did not use the service, this particular train now also has a baggage car that takes full size conventional bicycles.
The best generalization about Amtrak pricing is that the cost to Florida sitting up usually costs less than the airplane even if you only book only a couple days in advance. The ticket is totally refundable if you change your mind. On the other hand, the sleeping car, while delightful, costs more than the airplane, especially for a single traveller who cannot share the space.
I am getting spoiled in my old age so for this trip I split the difference. I rode the train sitting up on the trip south but booked a sleeper for the return five days later. My wife Tootie and I again have two cars (!) so I left our apartment in Chapel Hill NC a little after 8:00 PM to drive my late mother’s 2005 Prius the half hour to Cary NC with my folding Bike Friday stuck in the back. I could leave the Prius parked in Cary.
Amtrak seats on long-distance trains are more akin to older first class airline seats. They are wide and have leg rests and recline much more than a normal airline seat. All is not good, however. There are all sorts of sleeping distractions. The train stops many times during the night including Columbia SC at 1:30 AM and Savannah GA at 4:30 AM. There are three essentials for a traveller in this situation: one has to bring (1) your own pillow, (2) strap-on eyeshades, and (3) some type of sleeping pill. On the way to the station I stopped at Target and bought a regular sized pillow for $4.00 plus tax.
With all my essentials the southbound trip went well. These trains can sometimes be crowded but this time it was only about half full. I had an empty seat next to me for most of the trip. I actually slept the whole night until we pulled into Jacksonville FL on-time at 6:30 AM. I got off the train for a second, just to look around.
The train rolled into Tampa about 1:00 PM; “only” about forty-five minutes late. Despite this near punctuality riding Amtrak to Tampa has most third-world feel of any Amtrak destination I have visited. Let’s start with the routing. This map shows the approximate Amtrak route south of Jacksonville, not my bike ride.
Jacksonville to Tampa by Amtrak is the opposite of high speed rail. The train moves Jacksonville / Orlando / Lakeland / Tampa, taking half an hour just to back the final mile into the Tampa station. Onward from Tampa towards Miami the train rolls the forty miles BACK to Lakeland, then on to South Florida. There are two Amtrak trains per day that perform this insane ritual.
The third-world experience continued as I got off the train in Tampa Union Station, located in a still-not-gentrified part of downtown surrounded by freeway overpasses. The station itself is OK but it sits surrounded by debris and falling down century-old railroad infrastructure.
The inside of the station (built in 1912) was quite nice, although paint was peeling in spots.
The sad part is that it is all put together with baling wire. The station was restored twenty years ago by PRIVATE Tampa benefactors, donating their money for the good of the community, trying to save this historic building. Inside the station is fine but the whole Amtrak operation here comes off as amateurish. I place the blame totally on the U.S. Congress who refuses to fund Amtrak except on a piecemeal basis. Demand for rail transportation certainly exists. As I got off the train with my bicycle I passed a long line of hundreds of people waiting to board that same train for the outgoing southbound to Miami. Write your congressperson.
It was only 1:00 PM. I had been communicating with my friend Bob Clark who has lived in Tampa for ten years or so. Bob was my brother Alex’s college roommate and has been his very good friend for over thirty years. I consider him my good friend as well. The three of us communicate several times a day by email, solving the world’s problems one New York Times article at a time. He agreed to meet me for lunch. I snapped the bicycle together, put my bag on the back rack, and bicycled the mile or two from the station to his designated restaurant; the Armature Works, a restored century old brick power plant transformed into a mixed use facility and food court. It was great to see Bob.
Downtown Tampa is booming. People are definitely moving here. There are pedestrian and bicycle paths along the river and apartments going up everywhere.
I could not take too long hanging with Bob as I wanted to get some bicycle mileage while there was still daylight. My destination for this first night would be downtown St. Petersburg across the bay.
I cycled south from downtown Tampa into a neighborhood called Hyde Park. There are neighborhoods all over America of 1920’s arts-and-crafts bungalows but I have never seen one so well preserved. Back in about 1988 Tootie went to Tampa to visit a friend who had just married into some elite family of Tampa, and the friend and her new husband had moved into one of these houses as a young married couple. We understand they have since moved onward and upward.
Further on along I pedaled through south Tampa neighborhoods before biking along Gandy Boulevard which transitioned to the Gandy Bridge. This was the route of my bike ride for the first day and a half of cycling
I could see downtown St Petersburg far away in the distance.
The Gandy Bridge was not unsafe for a bicyclist because it always had a wide shoulder but was still rather unpleasant. The traffic noise at rush hour was intense. (If anyone is to cycle across Old Tampa Bay I would recommend the route I had bicycled on my one previous trip to Tampa, the more northern and less direct Courtney Campbell Causeway which is a peaceful and delightful bicycle ride on a totally separate bicycle/pedestrian causeway.)
Cycling on the Gandy Bridge eventually became more pleasant, transitioning to a highway on filled land with a separate bicycle path.
As I entered the peninsula that comprises St. Petersburg I knew I had entered the REAL Florida when I passed the first set of condos with a pretentious tacky name (spelling!).
Right after those condos was an old-school Florida animal abuse facility, the Dog Track.
It was about ten miles further to downtown St. Petersburg. I was able to meander through residential streets almost the entire way.
Somewhere along the way I found a Starbucks and sat with my usual almond milk latte, looking on my phone for somewhere to stay that night. I took a chance with the Ponce de Leon Hotel downtown. Older downtown hotels in most American cities can be borderline sleazy except when they are expensive. The Ponce de Leon was only $ 89.00 plus tax in this high season but the online reviews were good. Typical of 1920’s hotels the room was small. It was clean and nice with nothing sketchy about it.
From the hotel I walked around downtown looking for a place to get one beer. I enjoy an occasional incognito appearance in bars on these bike trips. As a white male of a certain age I have a certain amount of unearned privilege; no one has ever given me grief sitting at a bar with a beer. I picked the Pelican Pub at random. There were about four people at the bar.; I took a seat at end of the row and ordered an IPA. The young man next to me started talking; I had not initiated the conversation. He told me, almost immediately, that his life had been ruined at age eighteen after he had broken someone’s jaw in multiple places with his fists and now he had a felony criminal record. He clearly was high or drunk or both. We made small talk, but several times he nudged my arm when making a point. He started talking about how violence sometimes is a good thing. I was creeped out and felt threatened. I quickly finished the beer and walked out, back to the hotel room to wait for it to be time for dinner. I had not felt like threatened like that at least since Middle School fifty years ago, except maybe once in Texas in 1979. I went back to the hotel room and hung for an hour or so until dinnertime.
There is a tourist strip of restaurants along the St. Petersburg waterfront, just a few blocks from my hotel. The Parkshore Grill bar was more expensive than I liked but certainly less threatening than the Pelican Pub.
I got a type of Vietnamese fish whose name I do not remember, with a side of mashed potatoes.
Walking back to the hotel; from the sidewalk I could listen to this band with a lanky female drummer.
At 9:30 PM this art gallery was open. The night air was comfortable.
The next morning I bicycled south from downtown towards the point of land at the tip of the St. Petersburg peninsula. Urban planning note to Alex: downtown St. Petersburg has more parking garages than actual buildings.
Further on I would see an attractive older house in these less affluent areas south of downtown.
Five miles south of downtown the locally owned Southside Coffee Brew Bar had a nice decaf almond mile latte. One of the reasons Americans are overweight is that portions at restaurants are insanely large. For once here was a normal sized croissant, this time with ham and cheese.
Back on the bicycle along the waterfront I could see the I-275 bridge off in the distance.
The bridge is on an Interstate highway that prohibits bicycles. At then end of the peninsula I pulled into a fishing supply store parking lot and called Uber. My Bike Friday folds up easily. The driver in the Ford Escape was a fetching person to talk to, a young African-American woman from New York City who likes backpack camping. She had recently been to the Badlands of South Dakota. My ride with her was about ten miles.
After Natera let me off at the first exit at the end of the I-275 bridge I cycled south through Bradenton, then Sarasota. This was the rest of my ride that day.
Much of the time I could bicycle on residential streets.
There are lots of trailer parks down here; a lower cost way to retire.
Despite what you would think, the Florida highway department is really trying to accommodate bicycles, especially compared to states I know intimately, like North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. The bridge to downtown Bradenton had a huge pedestrian/bike lane.
The older part of Bradenton was revitalizing itself by calling itself an arts district.
Moving south towards Sarasota there were areas where the residential streets did not connect. I found myself pushed onto a major highway lined with car dealerships. Somebody put a bike rack here in a bank parking lot. It was messy, I had to ride on that narrow sidewalk or else “take the lane” on a busy thoroughfare.
Luckily this ended fairly quickly and that piece of highway near the Sarasota airport was the worst stretch of this entire trip. After a mile or two I ended up back on residential streets where I saw this older condo that I find attractive.
Just north of downtown Sarasota there was something called Sarasota Jungle Gardens with cute modernist buildings. Apparently this religious minority takes vacation too. I had seen a group of them on Amtrak.
Downtown Sarasota, like Tampa and St. Petersburg seems to be having a downtown residential boom.
On the opposite side of the street was a Greek restaurant also bathed in white. The lunch special was small pastas in tomato sauce with a first course of Greek salad. I now understand what one cookbook had recently told me, that Greek salad is really just an excuse to eat a big piece of feta!
It had been a great day and it was only 2:00 PM! The weather was lovely and the wind was at my back. It was not time to stop. On Google maps I had discovered the Legacy Trail, a rail-trail that starts in the inland suburbs of Sarasota and continues down the coast for thirteen miles, ending near the downtown of the smaller city of Venice.
Biking to where the trail starts was a little challenging. There was a lot of traffic on roads that surround things like Walmarts. The Legacy Trail was a delight; flat as a pancake, perfectly paved as I was pushed by the wind.
I rolled into Venice about 5:00 PM. It would get dark soon. Downtown Venice is mostly 1920’s construction, built on a pedestrian scale and filled with restaurants, gift shops, and real estate offices. I stopped in a place for a beer. It was definitely not threatening. Almost everyone looked elderly. At 5:15 PM many were eating dinner at the bar. Fox News played on the silent television.
I enjoyed my beer sitting next to an older guy. We did not talk; we just gently watched the political figures walk around on the TV screen. The Trump impeachment trial was underway. Ultimately my plain spoken bar neighbor just commented “doesn’t that drive you crazy; they just don’t get it!” He was referring to the politicians in Washington. I braced for an anti-Democrat pro-Trump rant but it really wasn’t that kind of rant. His was against Congress in general, maybe concentrating more on Democrats. He said they were not doing their job, not concentrating on solving the country’s problems. He thought the impeachment of Trump was ridiculous. His anger was real but he really did not know details, not names, not really anything. It was just a general anger against the process. He spent a lot of time complaining how much politicians are paid. He wanted to throw them all out.
I looked on my phone for somewhere to stay. There was an older motel just around the corner. It charged less than a hundred dollars but the reviews on TripAdvisor were quite good. It was run by South Asians. A guy was out sweeping the parking lot. Everything was clean.
Later I walked over to a Turkish restaurant with the kind of art one would not expect on the walls of a Turkish restaurant. I got a bean salad with a side of a Turkish ground lamb dish whose name I do not remember.
Walking back to the motel in the dark I passed a small place labelled as a piano bar. The door was open and music spilled into the street. I merely stuck my head inside and several people instantly motioned for me to come inside; three people at a front table immediately offered me a chair at their table. An older man was playing an Elton John song on the piano, everyone was singing along.
I was impressed how fun this mostly elderly crowd was. An older woman at my table said she had moved to Venice FL from Massachusetts, leaving behind her grown children and their children. She raved about the life in Venice FL; she said there were five different performers coming to alternate nights at this piano bar. She said she was very much into a Venice theater scene. On this Tuesday night I watched this eccentrically gay acting elderly man originally from Minnesota expertly play and sing a host of musical standards, often putting on special hats and glasses to dress up each song. There was no cover charge.
The next morning I pressed down the coast. This would be my general routing this day.
At first I was able to weave through the residential neighborhoods of Venice, some featuring modernist houses. I also saw this armadillo sitting on a residential street, a sight very exotic for someone from North Carolina. It was likely dead but I did not poke it to be sure.
Eventually there was nowhere to go other than the highway alongside cars going sixty-five miles per hour. Florida is sometimes making an effort to accommodate bicycles. Alongside many highways are extra-wide sidewalks to accommodate both bicycles and pedestrians. Out here south of Venice FL it was not a gentle intimate bicycle ride but at least it is essentially safe. I usually chose to ride on the wide sidewalk.
The industry of Florida since the 1920’s has been selling real estate to people from the north who want the perceived good life. The sell continues.
A little further on I passed an amateur car show, an event where people bring their antique cars to a predesignated parking lot to show them off to each other. They must be mostly retirees because this show was 9:00 AM on a Wednesday morning. The cars were impressive. I loved biking around looking at the cars but even better was the opportunity to incognito photograph old guys’ faces in a bright morning light.
It had been a fascinating day and I had not had breakfast yet; not even coffee! I bicycled a little further down the highway and I was able to divert into the tiny town of Englewood FL and a quirky locally owned coffee house downtown. There was a group who I assume to be retirees sitting out front. Even after I had spent forty-five minutes mulling over my coffee and quiche the group was still there when I left; shooting the breeze.
On the way bicycling out of town, I passed by this picnic shelter and stood for a few minutes listening to a group of about eight older people quietly and competently playing guitars, what I take as a calm version old-time music; the serene feeling of just strumming. It was 11:30 AM on a Wednesday.
I was still about thirty miles to the city of Punta Gorda where I had planned to spend the night. To get off the major highway I was able to bike through what I now recognize as somewhat failed real estate developments; large sections of scrubland that years ago had been marked up into something like half acre lots. Many times houses appear only every quarter mile or so although lots appear on Google maps. People seem to have just settled out here. I biked first in an area called East Englewood and later in a development called Port Charlotte. I saw a lot of Trump flags.
The general plan of most of Florida is in some ways horrific for long distance bicycling, with miles of disconnected cul-de-sac developments. Still, the Florida highway department is trying. The bridge into Punta Gorda has separate bicycle and pedestrian lanes.
I had a late lunch at F.M. Don’s in downtown Punta Gorda. I sat alone at the bar and could not help but listen to these women talking. I think the woman in blue was in real estate. The woman on the right had a British accent. She made a passionate case for Brexit; England could not be great again unless it left the EU.
I stayed in a nice but expensive hotel that night around the corner, a Marriott. They had a creepy system where the TV was preset with your name and is playing when you walk in the door; a nebulous video of enjoying the world of travel.
Portions were huge that night at a relatively affordable nearby restaurant called Italia. It was too much food but the eggplant parmesan was satisfying.
I was finishing eating when a couple sat down beside me. They were not there to eat, just drink. Very cordial, they live half their life here in Punta Gorda and half in the north of England. He is English and she is originally from New York City.
Breakfasts now present hotels with a political conundrum; some guests may think that the hotel is choosing sides by whatever news channel it plays. This determinedly trendy Marriott solved the problem by only having sports on the four breakfast televisions; something Americans can still agree on: golf.
This would be my route for the day.
It is twenty-five miles from central Punta Gorda to downtown Fort Myers. I was able to cycle on back roads and bicycle paths for part of the way but there was a twelve mile stretch where I rode on four-lane US41. It has only a narrow shoulder. It was not as dicey as it looks because the highway closely parallels I-75 and there is little traffic. This man was trying to hitch a ride.
Entering the Fort Myers area were was more than one development of double-wides surrounding a golf course.
Downtown Fort Myers was pleasant. I biked along the waterfront.
I found a small coffee house and took a long break. They had an impressive selection of homemade healthfoodish snacks. I got an almond milk latte with an avocado toast. I had to get up and move my bicycle because a family of English tourists was trying to sit out front.
This was going to be a long day. I had already cycled about twenty-five miles. I had booked an Airbnb that evening in Bonita Springs; I would need to cycle seventeen miles southwest to Fort Myers Beach, then another seventeen miles along the gulf.
There is a small older part of Fort Myers that was calm and picturesque.
The highway to Fort Myers Beach was loud but there was a wide sidewalk/bike path virtually the entire way. In many places I would ride alongside a hedge or wall, the barrier that separated miles gated communities from this major road.
I passed by gate after gate of these gated communities.
Trump had recently had a rally here. I saw lots of flags and signs and hats indicating how passionate our president’s supporters are, including this restaurant.
At 1:00 PM on a weekday cars were backed up past the bridge to the barrier island that is Fort Myers Beach, the least attractive place I had seen in all of Southwest Florida. I stopped for a bowl of chili at this outdoor restaurant. The bartender confirmed that during this high season there is a permanent traffic jam for cars trying to drive on the two lane road through Fort Myers Beach.
South of Fort Myers Beach there is a bridge south to the next barrier island that comprises Lovers Key State Park. The other side of the park there were high rise buildings in the distance.
The highway passed through the natural area of the state park and there was a sign pointing to something called Dog Beach. I parked the bicycle to check it out. I had to wade through shallow water. There were thirty or forty people hanging around with their dogs.
Back on the bicycle I crossed another bridge to the area called Bonita Springs.
Hotel prices online had been expensive. In a suburban area next to a major highway across the bridge from the beach was an area where I had found a reasonably priced Airbnb in a condo building. I did not have to talk to anyone. It was a nice clean room with its own separate keyed entrance.
There were several strip malls immediately near this condo and I could access several places to eat as long as I braved running across a busy highway. Very close was the C Level Bistro, a restaurant with high end aspirations. My logic: I got a good deal on the accommodations so why not splurge on the food? I learned online even before I got to the restaurant that even though the entrees at the C Level cost thirty and forty something dollars, the much lower cost appetizers had portions that were large enough so that two appetizers were plenty.
This recommendation proved to be true; actually all I got was one appetizer and the $ 8.00 soup of the day. Both were delicious. The appetizer was their version of poke (po-kay); rice, crunchy vegetables and raw tuna. They had all the details right including very fresh tuna.
I sat at the bar. The whole restaurant was darkened with blue overtones. Behind the bar instead of sports was a huge high quality TV screen playing concert videos; an artist I had heard of but never seen before; Celine Dion and what I assume to be her Las Vegas act.
Next to me at the bar were a very cordial older couple. If they are not actually wealthy they made a good impression of someone gentile enough to summer in Newport and spend winters in Naples FL. They personally knew the restauranteur and I enjoyed listening to them talk.
I would be bicycling down to Naples FL the next day, my final destination cycling. Naples is pretty much the end of the road on the Gulf Coast of Florida and I had a reservation to pick up a rental car in Naples, to drive back to Amtrak in Tampa. My I-presume-wealthy neighbor at the bar told me some details where I should bicycle the next day. He said there was a large neighborhood in the south of Naples where “the houses cost twenty million dollars.” I assumed that was an overstatement but I later learned it is very close to true.
I had vaguely heard that Naples was some sort of Palm Beach on the Gulf Coast; a place where people like to flaunt, or else just bathe in, really big money. I now had learned that the southernmost part of Naples was the location of old money and the twenty million dollar houses. First I would have to bicycle through twenty miles of newer ritzy developments between my Airbnb condo and downtown Naples.
Friends from my hometown of Virginia Beach would recognize this. I grew up in a neighborhood of the same name.
Beyond those newer developments are several miles of 1960’s neighborhoods. Beyond that was the tony downtown Naples.
South of downtown were the Naples neighborhoods of Aqualane Shores and Port Royal, the area the guy at the restaurant had told me about.
I really was not all that impressed. Houses on small lots; close together. Looking at Zillow, there were a couple houses asking north of twenty million; most were three to ten million. Are these houses used more than a few months or weeks per year?
Almost all houses back up to canals.
How about this for a tear-downer? This shot from Zillow in NOT doctored.
I biked back to central Naples. I needed to pick up the rental car; drive it 170 miles to Tampa, turn the rental car in, and bicycle the 3-4 miles from the rental car office to Tampa Union Station by 5:30 PM.
The car trip went smoothly. I ate a vegetarian Burger King Impossible Meat Whopper while driving on I-75. (Verdict: pretty good but this one was overcooked.)
I made it to Tampa Union Station in plenty of time and the train was already an hour late. There were lots of people getting on with me.
I went back to North Carolina in a sleeping car. A Roomette is a special space. You can close the door, shut out the world and stare out the window. I listened to podcasts while I looked at the back door of America, in the dark. I had brought my own food: a Subway sandwich and a bottle of sauvignon blanc. About ten-thirty I asked the porter to pull down the bed. I like the upper bunk better because it has less noise from the tracks. I arrived back in Cary NC at about 9:00 AM. My car was still there and I loaded my bicycle in the back.
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