My friend Lyman and I wanted to go bicycle in Florida, somewhere warm. How about Orlando? I had no specific plan what to do or see there but Orlando is arguably the number one tourist destination in the WORLD. The Orlando airport has nonstops to almost everywhere, including Europe, Brazil, and Dubai. Theme parks! Disney World! Golf! Of course, I was not interested in any of those things. But still. There must be something to see there while bicycling.
I knew from past trips and Google Maps that the area southwest of Orlando around Disney World is a non-starter for cycling; freeways dead-ending into parking lots abutting theme park gates. On the other hand I also knew that other parts of the Orlando area have rail-trails that looked inviting, as well as picturesque older neighborhoods. What could possible go wrong?
I fly airlines all the time, but reluctantly. I hate turbulence. Also, flying with my Bike Friday on an airline requires significant disassembly of the bicycle to make it fit into the suitcase. Amtrak has become more bicycle friendly, both for full size bicycles and even more for folding bicycles.
I find trains totally relaxing. Amtrak is only worth taking in the few instances where the trains go when you want them to go, at decent hours. Cary NC is ten miles southwest of Raleigh NC. If on schedule, you board just before ten at night in Cary and arrive Jacksonville FL seven in the morning, Orlando about ten-thirty. Of course, many times there are delays; “issues.”
Amtrak coach is very low cost; the sleepers are expensive. Nevertheless, I booked a round trip first class sleeper car from Cary NC to Orlando FL. I am still COVID nervous. In normal times I often travel the much cheaper Amtrak coach but who wants to sit and attempt to sleep with a mask on for thirteen hours? The Amtrak roomettes seat and sleep one or two people. You can shut the door, pull the curtain over the glass on the door, and take off your mask in your own little pod, watching the world go by out the window.
The Cary NC train station is great with free parking right next to where you get on the train. You only need to arrive at the station about five minutes prior to train arrival. I had a nice dinner at home in Chapel Hill NC with Tootie, then drove myself and the Bike Friday in our ancient Honda the half hour to the station.
Amtrak southbound arrived Cary exactly on time and I was soon maskless in my private compartment. I asked the porter to put down the bed. I like the top bunk because it has less train noise.
I slept quite well. The next morning I relocated downstairs and stared out the window. We had just crossed into flat Florida landscape. The folded bicycle occupied the opposing seat, the bunk above my head.
Every Amtrak train seems to have a different bicycle policy. I found out the policy on this train has gotten easier. On my northbound return a few days later I paid the twenty dollars to put the unfolded and fully assembled bicycle in the baggage car.
Arriving in the Orlando area I got off the train half an hour early at the Winter Park FL station, fifteen miles before the downtown Orlando station. I was ready to start cycling. It was a beautiful day, and warm! I stepped off the train and dumped the folded bicycle on the ground.
Where was my co-conspirator Lyman? He had taken a 6:00 AM nonstop on Southwest Airlines from Austin TX to Orlando, $138.00 round trip for a two hour and a half hour flight and no charge for a suitcase containing a bicycle. Lyman had been on the ground in Orlando about half an hour when I stepped off the train. He was going to pick up a rental car and drive the half an hour to Winter Park. I put my bicycle together and cycled around upscale Winter Park. I was all ginned up to do massive exercise and bicycle somewhere but by the time Lyman arrived and put his bicycle together it was eleven thirty. My enthusiasm for exercise had waned. Why not do lunch? Winter Park has nice outdoor restaurants.
The government of Florida has been acting like COVID doesn’t exist but I insisted that every public meal on this trip be outdoors and I was always masked when indoors in public places. Even though it was only a Tuesday, at Armando’s in Winter Park people seemed to be settling in. Here were Ladies Who Lunch. Italian food! We got an outdoor table. There were men with loafers and no socks, a look that Tootie heard JFK first popularized.
When lunch was over we were ready to start cycling! We left the rental car parked on the street in Winter Park. This first afternoon we took a big thirty mile loop through the northern part of the Orlando area, most of it on the Cross Seminole rail-trail. The trail started not far from Winter Park. It had impressive overpasses and tunnels to get around major highway intersections.
We cycled to the end of the trail then meandered back towards Winter Park on regular residential streets, through miles and miles of neighborhoods. These looked like areas where people seemed to have moved in the last thirty years, seeking their version of Florida “paradise.” Both the state of Florida and Orlando can be bicycling paradise and bicycling hell. The rail trails are numerous and nicely paved and maintained, but they are disconnected from each other. They only go where they go. A huge swath of the Orlando metro area is comprised of giant highways with complex interchanges, surrounded by neighborhoods with unconnected dead end streets. We would find out the next day that depressingly the best rides around Orlando were to haul our bicycles in the tiny rental Ford Fiesta to a trailhead and then bicycle and up-and-back on a rail-trail.
We had booked for two nights an Airbnb in a less-than-upscale part of Winter Park; a very clean and modern two bedroom/two bath house for about the cost of one hotel room. We sat on the front porch at twilight sipping beers.
I had seen a healthy looking restaurant in downtown Winter Park during the day.
We went back to this low cost and unassuming Turkish restaurant that night and had a really nice dinner on the sidewalk; several mezze appetizers like baba ganoush and hummus, then lamb kebobs. Glasses of red wine.
The next morning we cycled back to downtown Winter Park and the informal Barnie’s Coffee and Tea. I had an oat milk latte (one pack sugar) plus an avocado toast. Lyman got something more substantial. We listened to two very well put out guys talk at the next table and wondered what they were discussing. Lyman eventually figured out they were discussing how to sell financial stuff. One was doing most of the talking. Hardly anyone dresses like this back in Chapel Hill.
We cycled off towards downtown Orlando and older neighborhoods. Orlando is supposed to have more than one hundred lakes in the city limits.
We cycled from these older neighborhoods into the tall buildings of downtown Orlando. Especially in downtown the cycling was only just OK. To be safe we realized that in metro Orlando we needed to cycle on bike paths. It seemed like we were wimping out but we cycled back to our rental house. We loaded the two folding bikes in the tiny rental car and drove twelve miles to a trailhead northwest of the city.
The Seminole Wekiva trail is a delightful paved path on a former rail line that runs fourteen miles north and west through the northern Orlando suburbs. We would do an up-and-back.
The state has constructed impressive tunnels or overpasses over or under where the trail crossed major highways.
I was a nice bike ride, warm weather, fascinating scenery, including these huge birds next to a supermarket parking lot.
We ate that night outdoors at a brew pub. The temperature was in the upper fifties; borderline cold. We had had enough of Orlando. That night we planned for a drive the next morning to Tampa and then bicycle Tampa to St Petersburg.
Breakfast the next day at the local and delightful Foxtail Coffee Company. Since it was about sixty degrees outside the Florida people wore heavy coats.
Orlando to Tampa was about a hundred mile drive, totally on the freeway. We exited near the Tampa airport and looked for a place to park the car for two days. We wanted to access the bike trail across Campbell Causeway. This maps shows the bike ride we did this day, Tampa to St. Petersburg, about forty miles.
Lyman thought this LabCorp facility wouldn’t care if we left our rental car there. I guess we would find out.
We took the bikes out of the car and cycled off. Campbell Causeway is eleven miles long across Old Tampa Bay. This is one of my favorite short stretches of bike path in America.
Typical of the State of Florida, this lovely and very safe bike path abruptly ends at the opposite side of the bay, and we were dumped into unpleasant cycling; the street grid of Clearwater FL and surrounding communities. The bike riding was sometimes safe, sometimes not. We eventually found an east-west bike path.
It is about seven miles east-west across the peninsula before we crossed the north-south Pinellas Trail, a delightful paved former rail line that takes a bicyclist the entire twenty-two miles further to downtown St. Petersburg. There are bridges across both bodies of water and where the trail crosses major highways.
Downtown St. Petersburg faces the bay on its west side. As we cycled in from the east we saw older commercial neighborhoods of St. Petersburg that are slowly revitalizing. There are several breweries occupying large industrial spaces including Cage Brewing. We stopped and got beers and sat in the yard.
We got two rooms that night at the Ponce de Leon Hotel, a 1920’s structure that is still mostly intact; small rooms and reasonably low prices but also clean and safe.
Downtown St. Petersburg has some nice older structures
Around the newer waterfront condos there seem to be more parking garages than buildings. I saw this pattern repeat both in downtown Tampa and downtown Orlando. Do Florida building codes require one parking space per bedroom?
That morning we cycled around the St Petersburg neighborhood called Old Northeast
We stopped for a coffee at a local coffee shop
We chose to take the ferry across Tampa Bay, back to Tampa near where our car was parked. I was fascinated that the boat was named “Provincetown III.” I discovered that the boat and the entire crew were from Massachusetts. The boat sails Boston MA – Provincetown MA part of the year and sails here in Tampa Bay in the winter. We carried out bikes on board. The boat ride was a little over an hour. We docked in downtown Tampa.
Our friend Bob lives in Tampa and we arranged to meet him for ice cream. We then biked along the Tampa waterfront.
Amtrak changed my schedule due to a snowstorm up north so I decided to go home one day early, leaving on otherwise the same train as I had planned but starting instead in Tampa. Lyman would fly home from Orlando the next day. I biked up to the Tampa station. The train would be leaving at about six that evening.
Once again it was delightful to have an enclosed private space. I had bought a bottle of wine at a Publix supermarket. I opened it up and poured myself a glass.
It was nice looking out the window as we passed through central Florida at twilight. An hour or two later downtown Orlando seemed to be all parking garages.
Later on, sleeping on the top bunk it was a little unsteady as the train creaked and swayed all night long. I drifted in and out of sleep as we passed through Jacksonville FL, Savannah GA, and Columbia SC. I kept thinking of the line from the Dire Straits song Tunnel of Love
and I’ve been riding on a ghost train / where the cars they scream and slam
I got off the train in Cary NC at eight in the morning. I walked down to the baggage car and retrieved by bicycle. Our 2004 Honda Accord was still there a few hundred feet from the train.
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