Archive for the ‘Florida trips’ Category

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.

 

$148.00 round trip nonstop (including luggage) from Raleigh/Durham to Fort Lauderdale on a decent airline (Southwest) was too good a deal to pass up.   It had been cold and rainy in North Carolina.   I could have two full days of bike riding down there with only one night in a hotel, because the departure flight was early in the morning and the returning flight was not until the evening.   I find South Florida fascinating but I prefer it in very small doses!

Also, I love trains.  I wanted to go to South Florida to check out Brightline.   No one but me seems excited about Brightline, which is in the process of changing its name to Virgin Trains.   While I am a big supporter of Amtrak, riding Amtrak is depressing.   Maybe because conservatives have been trying to kill Amtrak for forty-five years, workers and management seem exhausted.   With constant budget fights long range Amtrak financial planning is almost impossible.  When riding Amtrak the whole system seems befuddled.

Brightline is trying something else; an intercity passenger rail line done completely as a private business.    Their plan is to make this train financially viable the way railroads did in the nineteenth century, with side deals in real estate.    Because of this I question whether Brightline’s model will be duplicated elsewhere.  Brightline is a spinoff of Jacksonville based Florida East Coast Railway.  FEC owns and operates high quality tracks from Miami north to Jacksonville.  A hundred years ago the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach were essentially built around these tracks, and FEC apparently still owns a lot of prime real estate.    Because those three downtowns are currently in a building boom, Brightline is using its inner city location as selling point.   Live in downtown Fort Lauderdale without a car!   The plan is to operate trains all the way north to Orlando, which would require building a small section of new track.  The first portion, on existing track, has been operating ten trains a day Miami / Fort Lauderdale / West Palm Beach for about one year.   The FEC/Brightline tracks are parallel but better located than the tracks used for the existing Tri-Rail commuter trains that I have taken in the past.

I hatched a plan to fly into the Fort Lauderdale airport and upon arrival bicycle south twenty-five miles to Miami.   I would then take the Brightline that same afternoon from Miami north past Fort Lauderdale all the way to West Palm Beach.   I would spend the night around West Palm, then bicycle the next day the fifty miles south to Fort Lauderdale, and then fly home that same evening, without the opportunity to take a shower.   Press the plus sign to zero in on more detail.

 

The plane from Raleigh/Durham was scheduled takeoff at 6:50 AM.    I left mine and Tootie’s Chapel Hill apartment about 5:00 AM with the Bike Friday in a suitcase for the half hour drive to the airport.

 

I boarded the plane about 6:30 AM.

The plane arrived on time but it sat on the ground for a while, waiting for a gate to open up.   The luggage also took longer than necessary to show up.   I then walked with the suitcase down to the Delta terminal where there is a luggage storage business.   I spread my stuff around and put the bicycle together before checking the empty suitcase.   It was about 11:00 AM when I was able to bicycle away from the airport.  The weather was perfect, it felt great to be alive and outdoors.

 

I bicycled through the north Broward County towns of Dana and Hollywood, riding on residential streets as much as possible.  I passed by these interesting buildings.

 

 

 

 

I bicycled east across a causeway to the skinny north/south barrier island that comprises not only Miami Beach but a bunch of other “towns” with names like Sunny Isles Beach, Bar Harbour, and Surfside.

I followed Route A1A / Collins Avenue along the beach.  Sunny Isles Beach appeared mostly void of human life, even in the high season of early March.   There were very few stores or restaurants.  Does anyone live in these places?

 

 

 

I followed the Bicycle Route signs and decided to cross back across the bay towards downtown Miami.   The “bike route” includes the shoulder along I-195; a two mile Interstate highway across Biscayne Bay.    It was not really dangerous, but loud and very uncool.   I-195 dumps a bicyclist into the former slum that is now designated as “Miami Design District” just north of downtown Miami.    The pitch seems to be working and I give the powers that be credit for chutzpah, if nothing else.   There really are now all sorts of expensive looking designer storefronts.

A little further south must have been designated as a hipster district.  It all seems contrived but by Miami standards this building actually seems old.

 

I was still a mile or two from the Brightline rail station on the west side of downtown Miami, but I managed to see a Brightline train heading north as it passed through this grade crossing at an angle.

 

Brightline currently only stops at three places, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.   All three stations are brand new and use the same style of architecture, emphasizing these V shaped patterns.   I assume the railroad has a commercial stake in these tall buildings rising above the Miami station.

 

My journey to West Palm Beach would take an hour and fifteen minutes.  I could wheel the bicycle with me right onto the train.  I had bought a normal ticket for $ 25.00, but they offered me an upgrade to their business class for only $5.00 additional, and this included an alcoholic beverage and a snack.  Unlike Amtrak, you get an assigned seat.  The staff was helpful.  What’s not to like?

 

 

The first part of the journey ran through the same inner city neighborhoods that I had just bicycled through.   I am reminded of the difficulties high-speed rail faces in America.   The tracks had constant grade crossings (street crossings with gates).   The tracks are not fenced off at all.   I could see people standing along the tracks waiting for the train to go by so they could then run across them.   Walking on the tracks has already caused several people to be killed by Brightline.

These Miami neighborhoods were a mix of rich and poor.

 

Once out of the central city the train moved faster.   A fellow passenger determined from an I-Phone app that we went as fast as 80 miles an hour.

 

I had no complaints when the train pulled into West Palm Beach.  Brightline is a well run operation and a pleasant experience.   I have not taken a train in America so clean and futuristic looking.   I still had a three mile bike ride to my Airbnb but had to hurry as it was getting dark.

 

The only drawback to this trip was that lodging in West Palm Beach was expensive.  I did find an Airbnb for $ 88.00 with tax.   It had good recommendations on the website but clearly was not in the toniest neighborhood.

As I biked away from downtown some kind of event letting out.   I liked these people’s Palm Beach sense of style.

After cycling for a while through poorer areas I pulled up in front of the house that matched the address from Airbnb.  I saw only a front porch stacked with junk.

 

I called the guy and he said that I need to walk to the building around back.   There were dead Ford pickups parked in one corner.

 

 

Inside the back gate was a small terrace.

The owner had left a key on the table by the lamp.   Once inside it was quite nice, like a renovated tool shed with the interior ambiance of a 1950’s mobile home. (Dave and Gail: it was like the inside of your trailer!)  Everything was very tidy.  Really.  He had left the air conditioner going.   I turned it off and opened the window.    The breezes were pleasant and I did not hear a sound outside all night long.

With only a bicycle I was somewhat remote from restaurants.   I have a new lighting system and was comfortable biking a short distance in the dark.    About a mile or two away over residential streets were a few restaurants, including the Rhythm Cafe.  Built out of an old drugstore almost thirty years ago it seems to be a place where the upper crust of Palm Beach can go slumming.    With $ 25.00 entrees it certainly was not cheap.   My very helpful and friendly bartender (an ex-lawyer now working mostly on LGBQT issues) told me that people have to get reservations there weeks in advance during prime March dates.  I luckily got a seat at the bar.   In contrast to Miami where things look multicultural to the extreme, here it looked like a Midwest well to do country club or retirement home.   The guy to the left in the picture below asked for a glass of milk halfway through his meal.

 

 

The dinner was delicious, butternut squash soup followed by some Florida fish covered with roasted onions, accompanied by New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

The next morning as I started off early this was the view across the street from my Airbnb.

 

I bicycled south along the western shore of the bay, across the water from Palm Beach proper.  Even on this side of the bay the scene was ritzy, including having this Ferrari parked outside someone’s house.

At Lake Worth, just a few miles south of where I had stayed the previous night,  I turned east and crossed a causeway over to the barrier island that is Palm Beach.    This thin island stretches all the way south more than forty miles to Fort Lauderdale Beach, passing through Boca Raton along the way.

I keep coming down to South Florida because this is such a super bike ride.  Highway A1A has mostly slow moving traffic and a shoulder.   If you do this ride, I recommend planning carefully so that you take the Brightline against the the wind and only bicycle with the wind at your back!

Occasionally the highway goes along the oceanfront.

This ride is a guilty pleasure, looking at rich people’s gross excesses all along the way.

In one “town” there were these signs posted about every 100 yards.  Someone was freaking out that someone might raise someone’s taxes.    There clearly is not money enough in this town.

 

I pointed the bicycle back across the bay towards the mainland for a late breakfast but the drawbridge was open.  I stood around and watched the boats go by.

 

At 9:45 AM I had quiche and grits at the East Ocean Cafe in Boynton Beach.

 

The rest of the ride south to Fort Lauderdale was a mix of residential streets and high rises along A1A.

A year ago I had had a memorable alternative take on salade Nicoise at a restaurant in downtown Fort Lauderdale called Foxy Brown.   I excitedly got there this day about 2:30 PM but the server said that they had taken that item off the menu just last week!   Still, a poke bowl with raw salmon, avocado, pickled onions, garbanzos over faro was quite good.

 

There is a lot of building going on in downtown Fort Lauderdale.   After lunch I biked over a few blocks to a coffee house.   I could read and stare at the frenzied construction across the street.

The Fort Lauderdale airport is actually quite easy to reach by bicycle.   You can bike there from downtown in about half an hour.   At the airport I retrieved my suitcase, disassembled the bicycle, and made my flight with no problems.

South Florida, Jan 22-25, 2018

Posted: February 2, 2018 in Florida trips

Despite the fact that I try to travel as much as possible, I actually hate to fly.   Turbulence weirds me out.   Nevertheless $ 127.00 round trip Raleigh/Durham to Fort Lauderdale was too good a deal to pass up.   And it was nonstop, only about two hours on Southwest Airlines.  My friend Lyman had a similar deal from Austin TX to Fort Lauderdale, also on Southwest.  Both of us could take our folding bicycles in a suitcase for no extra charge.

I had a seat on the airplane near the front.  Southwest is a great airline.

 

It was only eight-thirty in the morning when I got off the plane into the warm humid embrace of South Florida air.

I was prepared right away, in the airport, to photograph the multiculturalism that is the Miami / Fort Lauderdale / West Palm Beach area.   However these people really just look like America.

 

Fort Lauderdale is the rare airport that has luggage storage where Lyman and I could leave our empty bicycle suitcases for four days.  I picked a spot in the terminal and put the bicycle together.

 

I bicycled off from the airport to look around.

 

I took about a three hour bike ride, to kill time while I waited for Lyman’s flight to arrive.

 

 

Just south of the Fort Lauderdale airport were a series of neighborhoods exclusively of double and single wide trailers.   They were actually quite nice.   The most predominant license plate on cars parked there,  other than Florida, was Quebec.

A few of the “houses” were a little more colorful.

After leaving the neighborhoods of mobile homes, I bicycled straight west for over an hour, hoping to get as far as the Everglades but I had to turn around because of time.  I bicycled back towards the airport on a bike path that followed a freeway and a drainage canal.

Tootie and I lived in Miami for one year in 1983.  We never saw a wild iguana, not even once.    Now they are everywhere in the petri dish that is South Florida.  They have, as I understand, taken off in just the past ten years.    Along this canal they were more common than squirrels in North Carolina;  I saw an iguana every minute or so.    Most were about three feet long, if you include the long tail.

 

 

Yes, I have bicycled Los Angeles and I swear that South Florida has more freeways per square mile than even Southern California.   One normally takes these walking/bicycling “trails” for peace and quiet, but not in this instance.

 

Part of the “trail” actually went right along the freeway.

I did finally get back to the Fort Lauderdale airport.   Lyman had arrived and we were now ready to go.

The two of us had a pleasant bike ride the five miles into downtown Fort Lauderdale.    I had made a reservation with an Airbnb near downtown Fort Lauderdale in a 1920’s house;  a room with two single beds in a couple’s home.   There was a dead Volkswagen van in the back yard.  They offered us the van for free if we would just take it away!

This is a really nice neighborhood; the only real problem is these tiny houses are worth close to a million dollars and are surrounded by giant condo buildings.    We walked to the restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard for sushi that evening.

 

 

 

Our trip the next day would be to bicycle from the Airbnb on SE 1st Street, Fort Lauderdale to  South Miami Beach taking the inland route through Little Haiti.

 

 

 

We had only gone about three miles when, in a nondescript industrial neighborhood there was a small sign noting “auto museum.”    We would not have seen this except that we were on a bicycle, it was not on a main road.     Of course, we had to stop.    There was a unique doorbell, “please pull cord and wait.”

A woman about our age answered the door.  She was quite nice and said admission was ten dollars, cash please.   We stayed there over an hour and were the only visitors.   We had stumbled onto what has to be one of the largest collections of Packards in the world.  Packard was a luxury car maker from about 1905 until they went out of business in 1958.  There were also collections of anything Packard: miniature Packard cars, Packard child’s pedal cars, Packard hood ornaments, Packard engine parts, it went on and on.

 

Me and a 1938.

Lyman and a 1958, one of the last ones made.

Art Deco hood ornament.

 

Back on the bicycles, we cycled through miles and miles of middle and lower class neighborhoods.

 

I like the look of modernist tract housing.   But what does it look like fifty or even sixty years later?   I speculate these houses with the new wave front porch were built about 1960.  When they were new these houses looked exactly alike.  Not now.

 

 

 

 

 

This neighborhood has the uniquely American situation where even though a city has high housing prices there are some areas where apparently no one wants to live.    It probably has a lot to do with race.  This is a pretty house that needs a lot of love.

 

We stopped for lunch at a colorful Nicaraguan/Cuban place where we split a barely edible Cuban sandwich.

 

Little Haiti is not really much to look at, and we bicycled on through the “Miami Design District” and then downtown Miami.   Downtown Miami is NOT easy or gentle bicycle riding.   It is mostly huge wide roads with fast traffic, intersected by freeways.

On the other hand, the Venetian Causeway, one of several bridges across Biscayne Bay from downtown Miami to Miami Beach, IS gentle and inviting to a bicyclist.    Lyman stopped and helped a guy with a flat tire.  This view is looking back over the area just north of downtown Miami.

 

The causeway connects several residential islands and the roadway has a toll, which keeps car traffic to a minimum.

I really like the section of Miami Beach called South Beach.  It is a street grid, and one of the few places in South Florida that one can blissfully noodle around on a bicycle.   What confirms it is a safe bicycling space?  It is where you see women bicycling around without helmets.

 

The Art Deco architecture is lovely.

Lyman and I stopped at an Irish bar for a beer and pondered where we would stay that evening.   On Hotels.com we found a room with two double beds for just over a hundred dollars including tax.   The “hotel” was a little unusual, however.

 

The room was fine, just like any motel room.   You entered from an outdoor walkway.

 

Although thankfully it was quiet in the sleeping area of our room, right outside our bathroom window was the courtyard of the hotel.  It had Spanish language music blaring and partiers staying up until about five in the morning.   When we went down for the free outdoor breakfast the next morning, the music was still playing

 

 

The next day our plan was to bicycle back over Biscayne Bay,  then over to Calle Ocho/Little Havana, and then to the Hialeah Market Tri-Rail station.

 

 

From there we would take the Tri-Rail commuter train up to West Palm Beach.

Lyman commented that this older Cuban-American neighborhood near Calle Ocho really does look like current parts of Havana!

 

Back in 1983 when we lived in Miami,  Tootie and I used to get stoned before going out to eat at the big and flashy Cuban restaurant Versailles; we got off staring at the mirrors.

 

Versailles is still there.  Lyman chose Versailles as a place we could connect and have a late breakfast / early lunch with his old friend Jaime, who lives in Miami.

After a nice meal we had about another forty-five minutes bicycle ride up to the Tri-Rail station in Hialeah.  You can wheel the bicycle onto the train, and the ticket for the almost two hour ride to West Palm Beach only costs $ 6.90.   While the train itself is fine, the stations and other infrastructure looks beat up and done on the cheap, and the train goes nowhere near downtown Miami.

https://farm8.static.flickr.com/7327/16424029012_62430d6e8e_b.jpg

 

We got off the train in downtown West Palm Beach in early afternoon.    We now had a day and a half to bicycle the sixty miles down to the Fort Lauderdale airport, where we had flights leaving the following evening.   Along the beach on A1A the bicycle ride from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale is really one of my favorite bicycle rides in America.    You should plan it like we did here.  Check out the weather, then take the commuter train against the wind and bicycle with the wind at your back!

 

 

 

 

We noodled around Palm Beach on bicycles for a while, before turning south on highway A1A along the beach.   Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh live in Palm Beach.    There seems to be an appreciation for showy wealth.

 

 

The beach road passes between Mar-a-Lago and the ocean.   From the beach side you can see that Mar-a-Lago is really a huge house that was converted to a club.  Gross.

 

 

Once south of Palm Beach communities vary in their displays of wealth, and change from town to town.    The bicycle ride was really pleasant.

About five in the afternoon we crossed a small bridge from the barrier island to the mainland, and looked for a place to get a drink and find a place to spend the night.   This tropical looking restaurant in Boynton Beach overlooked the inland waterway.  We had a good time talking to this guy in the blue shirt.   He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.   His late parents had bought a small condo years ago here in Boynton Beach and he and his adult siblings inherited it.    He was now trying to sell it because they do not use it enough.

Surprisingly there are not many hotels in this area.   It is all condos.   And the hotels we found on Hotels.com were really expensive, like  $250.00+    From Google Maps we learned of the Tiki Hut Motel, only about a mile from this bar.   Google reviews were positive.   The place did not appear to take reservations over the internet.   I called them on the phone, and while a woman said they had one available non-smoking room with two double beds, they did not take reservations over the telephone either!

Lyman and I quickly finished our drink and got back on the bicycles in the dying evening light.   The Tiki Hut is on the old highway just south of Boynton Beach.   A South Asian looking guy (we presume the owner, we presume that woman’s husband) was blatantly rude to Lyman as he registered and paid.   The price was good, $ 90.00 plus tax.

It is a weird motel.   The room was clean and quite nice.  The windows were openable.    The beds were pleasantly firm.  There was unusual art on the walls.

They had unique figurines around a courtyard.

Later on we walked down the highway (US1) about half a mile to an Italian restaurant.    The food was fine, but not memorable.

We ate at the bar, our server said it was fine if we took her picture.

On the walk home we stopped at a Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins for an ice cream.   South Florida is populated by people who came there from somewhere else.  People have to find community where they can.  Here at Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins at 9:00 PM these people were doing crossword puzzles.

The Tiki Hut Motel glowed in the dark.

 

The next day, Thursday, was a great day.   We had about forty miles left to the airport for our early evening return flights home.  We bicycled along the coast with a strong tailwind.

 

 

The best meal of this trip was a late lunch on Thursday in downtown Fort Lauderdale.  Just by looking at this place I conjectured from the people standing outside that there was serious eating going on.

Sitting outdoors on the patio, we both got their version of salade nicoise, which was delicious, even though the fresh tuna was totally and unapologetically raw and cold.   Deviled eggs.  Arugula. Deep fat fried green beans.

After lunch we biked the five miles to the airport and caught our flights, stopping on the way to look at the Brightline train station.

 

Postcript from a train nut:

After lunch we biked over to the Fort Lauderdale Brightline station.  Yes, we had taken the Tri-Rail commuter train the previous day.   Brightline is a new service, more or less parallel to the Tri-Rail but on different tracks.   These Florida East Coast Railway tracks go directly to the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.   It is the first significant privately run passenger rail service in the United States in fifty years.   They appeared to have made a major investment.   We bicycled by the station in Fort Lauderdale.   The service had just starting running two weeks ago, but for now only from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach, a train every hour.   The ultimate idea is to run from Miami to Orlando in three hours.   We had not taken this train because we did not know it was operating.   Amtrak always looks beat up and cheap.   This definitely does not look this way.  The station and the train are lovely.

The Gulf Coast beaches of northwest Florida and Alabama are the prettiest beaches in America.    The sand is blindingly white, the water crystal clear.  Amazing.

 

The human built environment here is more variable.   While some areas are quite nice, a lot of the development is astonishingly ugly.

This is a completely different part of Florida that what many people know.    Pensacola is seven hundred miles from Miami.   Also, these northwestern beaches are primarily used in the summer, so in early December this was low season.

I was here following a family reunion of sorts, a memorial service for our beloved Aunt Barbara, held at a beautiful Episcopal church in the old part of Panama City.   Barbara and her husband had retired to Panama City Beach and lived here almost thirty years.

The day after the service my plan was to bicycle the ninety miles to Pensacola in two days, then drive back in a rental car.

I parked my car in a Walmart lot and took the bicycle out.   As I left the parking lot I could see the beachfront high rises in the distance.  I bicycled the several blocks toward the beach.

I turned right onto the highway closely following the coastline.

This area is not all high rises; those come in clumps.   Other areas had miles of older beach houses.    I bicycled past this place where Alex and I had eaten breakfast the previous day.

The breakfast had been fine if you could ignore the bumper stickers above the grill.

At one point I had an opportunity to see the beach as the road turned slightly inland.

The next ten or fifteen miles comprised a series of “towns” constructed in the last twenty years or so.   I put that word in quotes because while these places try to mimic a town, they are really real estate developments masquerading as towns.   An actual town has a government and is populated by people who actually live there.   Very few people live in these “towns” full time and they are are ruled by homeowner associations and real estate companies.   My brother Alex has written extensively on this subject.

Still, these “towns” can be appear quite nice.   Instead of high rises, most have dense “neighborhoods” of mixed use buildings.   The first “town” we passed through was Rosemary Beach.  By my calculation, it looks to copy St. Augustine, Florida.    While these places look old they are actually new.

Each “town” along the way had its own architectural personality.   This one was Seacrest Beach.

Sandy Shores was gated to keep the riff-raff out. (What are they so frightened of?)

Alys Beach, where every building is white.

The last “town” of this stretch is the most famous.    Seaside was about the first planned community in America that tried to build a new “town” masquerading as an old town.   It was designed by the Cuban-American architect Andres Duany who was instrumental in the New Urbanism movement.  While my views have become more jaded over the years, if someone had asked me in about 1990 who my guru was, I would have said Andres Duany.    Duany at that time was more than an architect.   He wrote and put out videos showing the failure of postwar American urban planning and how ugly the shopping centers and cul-de-sacs of suburban America were.   He said we needed to go back to copying the small towns of 1920’s America, where streets were in a grid and houses had front porches that came relatively close to the sidewalk, and kids could walk to a corner store.  Mixed use.  In 1985 these ideas were new and controversial.

Seaside was much smaller than I expected.     Since parts of it are almost thirty years old, it is pleasantly overgrown with live oaks and some buildings look almost genuinely  “old.”     Most houses have front screen porches and grass yards are prohibited.    Lots of picket fences.

I grew up in Virginia Beach.   Parts of Seaside looks like an idealized version of what the north end of Virginia Beach would have looked like circa 1955.

And Seaside has a “downtown.”    Yes this all is contrived.   And elitist.  And no person of color was within miles of here, except maybe working in the back.     But the “downtown” was quite nice.   There is a line of trailers converted to food trucks.   They were uniformly all old Airstreams, I am sure there is some regulation requiring that!

Beyond Seaside route 30A winds through a state park and state forest land.

Unfortunately there was a bridge out, and I had to detour onto on the main highway US98.

I needed lunch.   In the middle of a pine forest along this wide highway was a strip mall that included something called Music & Coffee.

It was staffed by one woman.  There were signs promoting singer-songwriter nights at this venue.   She makes an excellent chicken salad croissant.

Back on the road towards Destin I was able to ride on this sidewalk much of the way.

Destin was a tiny fishing village surrounded by white sand dunes until about 1985.    Development went immediately to high rises without bothering the usual steps along the way.

Some areas did look nicer than I expected.

I stayed this night at the Sea Oat Motel, a motel that the woman behind the desk claimed was an original, built before the 1980’s boom, back when she said one had to drive seventeen miles to Fort Walton Beach to go to the grocery store.  Ground floor Gulf front room, ninety dollars plus tax.

For dinner I chose to bike in the dark out to the highway, in a sea of huge strip malls. (Yes Betsy, I have bike lights.)

 

One ethnic group that has done quite well all along the Gulf Coast are the Vietnamese.   I guess the hot and swampy climate reminds them of where they came from.     Two of my favorite food writers R.W. Apple and Anthony Bourdain both have said that Vietnamese food is their favorite cuisine in the world.   And both writers crow about pho.    The Baguette Bistro in Destin advertises themselves as French/Vietnamese.   The waiter recommended the pho.   This was the first time pho really blew me away.    Intensly flavorful broth, very fresh condiments, lots of beef.   I am learning that pho is like a hamburger in that how one uses the condiments is a large part of the experience.

There were Vietnamese families eating there as well.

 

The next morning I biked seventeen miles west to Fort Walton Beach, a faded beach town with an old school downtown lining US98.

In this strip of mostly empty storefronts was the quite nice locally owned Maas Coffee.   I stopped for breakfast; latte and a roll.   The pastry was surprisingly good.

I biked about fifteen more miles down highway 98.  It was none too glamorous.  I got off the main highway onto parallel roads when possible.

I was looking forward to the Navarre Beach Causeway, which would take me out the the Gulf Islands National Seashore.    Google Maps showed the barrier island as entirely green colored, meaning all of it should be parkland and I assumed very little traffic.   I would be able to follow that highway all the way to Pensacola Beach.

When I got to the top of the Navarre Beach Causeway bridge, this barrier island looked much more developed than the map had indicated!

Thankfully these high rises only extended for a couple of miles, and after that I enjoyed about sixteen miles of an almost traffic free road through undeveloped dunes of white sand.

As I got near Pensacola Beach there was a bike path along the beach highway.    It led up to these displaced looking high rises, the first buildings along the beach in many miles.

The national seashore ended abruptly at those tall buildings.   I cycled a few miles through residential areas of Panama City Beach filled with normal size houses.   I was hungry for lunch, but I did not want to stop at just anywhere.   Meals on these bike trips should be an experience.  I was running out of options and I settled for Flounder’s, a large crowded indoor/outdoor restaurant on the docks facing the water.    I sat at one of the several bars.

It was two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Lunch was fine.   I felt sort of guilty for taking this picture as I was walking out.

Downtown Pensacola was less than ten miles further, much of it across bridges.    I found a decent renovated motel downtown.   I walked around later in the evening.   There were nice Christmas decorations.   Pensacola is older than New Orleans but parts have a New Orleans look.

The next morning I biked around the older parts of Pensacola.

This modernist house mixed nicely into the same neighborhood as the 1920’s bungalows.

While Pensacola does have some lovely older neighborhoods, it reminds me of those other Navy towns Norfolk/Virginia Beach and Jacksonville, with miles and miles of almost poor 1950-60’s neighborhoods thrown across the sandy landscape.

When I arrived for my car, Enterprise refused to rent to me because I already had one Enterprise car on my account.   I was forced to bicycle across Pensacola again so I could rent from Budget at the Pensacola airport.    Still, I had an easy drive back on I-10 to my other rental car at the Walmart in Panama City Beach.

The weather was nice and Amtrak fares are low and refundable, so I took the opportunity to go down to Florida once more.   Tootie drove me and the folding bicycle to the Cary NC Amtrak station.

It was FOOD that seemed to be the center of all the major experiences on this trip.    Tootie and I rarely eat in restaurants when we are at home in Chapel Hill.   Even though we are surrounded by good places to eat the food just seems better if we cook it ourselves.  But I really like to eat out when I go on the road.   It started with dinner at the bar of Crosstown Pub, across the street from the Cary Amtrak station.   Rare tuna with quinoa and roasted vegetables is a pleasant surprise for bar food.

Coming in from the north the train was an hour and a half late, so I had to sit around the station until almost eleven at night.   I slept uncomfortably on the train. (the only savior: a full size pillow bought for $ 5.88 from Walmart; you can throw it away after the trip!) The next morning I got off the train at about 11:00 AM at the north Orlando suburb of Winter Park.

I put the bicycle together at the cutesy Winter Park station, new, built to look old.

 

My general plan was to bicycle in three days to my friend Bob’s house in Tampa, then tour Tampa and St. Pete for one day before catching the late afternoon Amtrak train home on the fourth day from Tampa.

Older parts of Orlando are actually quite attractive.  I got lunch at BurgerFi; hamburger and broccoli were good.  I read my Kindle.

 

Winter Park is northeast of downtown Orlando.  I pretty much skipped downtown Orlando and looped around the city, going through miles of African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, often unpleasantly biking on the sidewalk next to a major road.    Eventually I was able to pick up West Orange Trail, an excellent bike path that extends twenty-two miles through this part of Orlando and its suburbs.  Sometimes the trail follows regular highways.

 

Other times it meanders off on its own.

Several hours after leaving Winter Park the trail ran through the town of Winter GARDEN.   I drank a latte at this local coffee house downtown.   The people seemed almost too well dressed, friendly, and polite.   I wish I knew what these people had in common.

 

I had booked an Airbnb in the town of Clermont, a little over thirty miles from my origin.   Clermont is an older town on a bluff overlooking a lake.

Seventy-five dollars plus fees for a room in someone’s house is a questionable deal, but the deal is better when the owner is out of town and gives you a code to get in.  I had the place to myself.   He must be a pilot; everything on the walls and the furniture is about airplanes.

 

I get the feeling the Clermont area is populated with a mix of locals, visitors, and retirees from somewhere else.   The downtown is off the main highway and struggling to keep relevant.   Walking downtown to dinner that night,  this shop was offering what it called Art.

 

Dinner was at the 801 City Grille, one of two restaurants in the downtown.

Eggplant Parmesan is troubling and frustrating to me because it was so good here in Clermont.    When I prepare it at home I am meticulous because that is what I read the Sicilians or Campanians would have been.    I only cook it July – November when I can get both local eggplants and local tomatoes.   I almost always use local mozzarella from Chapel Hill Creamery.    I dredge the eggplant slices in local eggs and with breadcrumbs I made from Weaver Street Market bread, and then fry the slices in extra virgin olive oil, before assembling the casserole and baking it.   Yes, it is delicious.  It is also a pain in the ass.  It takes hours to prepare and makes a huge mess in the kitchen of our Greenbridge condo.

But in Clermont at the 801 Grille the dish arrived at the bar about six minutes after I ordered it.   It was fearfully delicious.    I know how these restaurants produce this.  They have a pot of tomato sauce already on the stove.    They take two factory pre-breaded frozen hockey pucks of eggplant and throw them in the deep fat fryer.   After cooking about two minutes they cover the plate with cooked pasta, then the fried eggplant slices, then cheese, then tomato sauce, then more cheese.  Lots of tomato sauce.   Plated and ready to go.

Eggplant itself does not have much taste.  The dish is really about the quality of the tomato sauce and its interaction with the cheese and the breading.   The 801 Grille was firing on all cylinders this night.  I could not get enough of it.

Of course the bartender was helpful.

 

There were only a few other people in the restaurant.  They all seemed old, like me, but maybe more conservative.

 

 

Meanwhile, the TV blared Golf Channel with some older man patronizingly showing a younger blond woman how to swing a golf club.

I walked back in the dark to “my” house.

Biking out the next morning,  south of the older town of Clermont newer subdivisions continue to spread across the landscape, surrounding the lakes.   It seems the end of the line for the Orlando diaspora.   This subdivision, I think, is the one where my late friend Steve Johnson bought a house but then needed to sell it even though it had plunged in value following the 2008 recession.

 

The subdivisions pretty much stopped after this and for a long morning I rode through what seemed wilderness.  The second half was on the excellent Van Fleet Trail, paved and straight as an arrow.

 

Near the agricultural town of Polk City this Buick sat rusting along the trail.

By about one-thirty it was hot, the sun was bright and I had ridden a long way.   I was on the outskirts of the city of Lakeland and getting telephone calls about work.   On a dreadful and busy two lane road passing through junkyards I ducked into a dusty parking lot to take a phone call, hiding in the shade of a big truck.   The place looked exactly EXACTLY like the junkyard where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson disposed of a dead body in Pulp Fiction.

 

In this depressing working class side of Lakeland I ducked into BubbaQue’s, lodged in a strip mall next to a gun store.   They wear their political opinions here openly, posting this next to the takeout menu.

 

All over the country in barbecue places, especially at lunch during the week, most of the patrons seem to be men.

 

Lunch was delicious, the $5.00 special; “small” pork sandwich with two sides, slaw and baked beans.

I will commit heresy and compare Florida barbecue to that of North Carolina.  North Carolina barbecue is so famous that even people in Virginia hold it as their standard.  I also had barbecue the next day at Johnson Barbecue in Plant City, Florida.     Just like at BubbaQue’s, Johnson Barbecue (since 1954!) had lots of choices.   North Carolina barbecue is great but I think it is stuck in its excellence. There are a couple places near my home that are branching out,  but most places in North Carolina would consider it heresy to focus on anything other than chopped pork with vinegar sauce.   Even the side dishes culturally are frozen in stone.   At Johnson Barbecue in Plant City even with its old-school blue collar atmosphere it seemed more inventive.   I got a beef brisket sandwich with pickles and slaw.

The crowd eating at Johnson Barbecue was similar

But back in Lakeland after lunch I still had to get downtown.   Coming from the east the city did transform itself; it was no longer just junkyards and gun stores.   I biked up to the Terrace Hotel where I had made a reservation (thankfully) a few days in advance, since this hotel was full that night.    Built in 1924 the tallest building in Lakeland it looks out over, what else, a lake.

 

Drinks and dinner that evening were a hit and then a miss.   The Lakeland Brewing Company sits caddy-corner across the lake from the hotel.   As the sun set over the lake, I talked to some of the other patrons in a fetching atmosphere.  The beer was delicious.   There were free pretzels.

 

The food menu at the brewery was pretty limited so I made the huge mistake of walking downtown for a proper restaurant.   There were only a few places to choose from.  The most popular place was so crowded that it seemed hopeless even to wait for a seat at the bar.   I went across the street to Posto 9, billed as a “Brazilian Gastropub.”   Being very tired and hungry I made a bad tactical decision.   At thirty-two dollars plus a twelve dollar glass of wine (not including tax and tip); it may have been both the worst, and the most expensive entree I have ever eaten;  a dried out piece of fish with some slop and some supposedly crisp potato chips.

 

I obviously was still hungry but certainly I was not going to spend any more money at that place.   I went back to the hotel room and made in-room decaf coffee accompanied by the items on hand in the front bag of my bicycle;  a Powerbar and the best deal of the night, a fifty-nine cent bag of peanuts.

 

The next morning on the way out of town I biked over to Florida Southern College, famous for collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in the 1940’s – 50’s.

 

 

The older parts of Lakeland are attractive.

It was about thirty-five miles to Helen & Bob’s house in Tampa.    I stopped for lunch at the aforementioned Johnson Barbecue in Plant City.      After slogging through miles of poor neighborhoods in east Tampa, I rode through older neighborhoods of Tampa, many being renovated.

 

Bob and Helen live in a nice house in a similar neighborhood that is within a long walk to downtown Tampa.

Bob treated me to the best meal of this trip.  In his car he drove both of us across the I-275 bridge to St. Petersburg.   In a dingy neighborhood near a freeway overpass was Eco-Village,  a large lot planted as an urban garden.   Bob knew several of the organizers.   This evening was Eco-Village’s first attempt at a field-to-fork dinner under the stars, combined with a tour of the garden.  This was a very impressive urban garden.   The level of agricultural expertise blew me away;  to grow so much in such a small space, using all-organic methods.  They essentially had to make their own soil, since in St. Petersburg the base is almost all sand.

The dinner was delicious and convivial.  I met all sorts of interesting people.

We drove back to his house in Tampa that evening.  I got up very early the next day.  Bob made delicious coffee and I left their house and biked off towards the causeway that crosses Tampa Bay to Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

Before arriving at the causeway I passed through a few areas of Tampa that seemed almost New Orleanesque.

The ten mile long Courtney Campbell Causeway in itself is one of the best bike rides in Florida.  There is a full-width separate lane for pedestrians and bicycles all the way across.

 

Being America, on arrival in Clearwater on the other side of the bay, this beautiful bike path dumps the bicyclist onto a busy high-speed six lane highway.    I sought refuge at a Starbucks.    Sitting outside for a good forty-five minutes, for the entire time I watched a multigenerational group speaking Italian stand in the parking lot.   They seemed relaxed.  They must have appropriated Italian coffee shop etiquette.

I biked through miles of suburban neighborhoods in Clearwater.

I will admit I am a sucker for 1940-50’s trailers; I have never been anywhere like Florida that seems to convert them so much to permanent housing.

I crossed over another bridge to the barrier island, hitting the gulf beach at the community of Belleair Shore.   For seventeen miles from there to St. Pete Beach I biked along the  gulf highway passing by motels, condominiums, and bars.   I wanted to take pictures but very little was memorable.  The best I can say is that there were many small motels that looked both prosperous, old school,  and family run.

After some fish tacos in St. Pete Beach, I turned inland for the ten miles to downtown St. Petersburg.  The last portion into downtown St. Petersburg was on the bike path Pinellas Trail.

Some older parts of St. Petersburg, like Tampa,  would qualify (by my rules!) as being a  quite nice place.     I had ridden over fifty miles that day; I rested with a latte on the sidewalk on Central Avenue North.   The street might be trying a tad too hard to be hip.

I ordered up an Uber to take me and the bicycle back across the bay to the Tampa Amtrak station.   I passed through parts of St. Petersburg I wished that I had seen by bicycle.   The train, scheduled for 5:30 PM was late, of course.

 

 

 

Most people I know would love to ride Amtrak but there are only a few destinations from the Raleigh/Durham area where Amtrak service makes sense.   One is Jacksonville, Florida, if you had some reason to go there.    The train leaves Cary NC (ten miles west of Raleigh) at 9:25 PM and if you can sleep on the train you wake up at 6:30 A.M. in Jacksonville.  Amtrak accepts the folding bicycle with no fuss.  I made plans to go down to Jacksonville to meet my friend Lyman,  who would be coming in by airplane from Austin, Texas with his folding bicycle.   We were going to ride along the beach for three days.

To make it more interesting I decided to bicycle the twenty-five miles from our home in Chapel Hill to the Cary Amtrak station.   I did not want to bicycle in the dark so I left home at 4:00 PM.   I could kill time by having dinner in Cary.   I keep my bicycles in the level P1 parking of our building Greenbridge.   I strapped my small trunk bag on the back.

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We live on the seventh floor.

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I rode the bike through the streets of Chapel Hill, down the big hill from the university.

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I biked over to near Southpoint Mall and then south on the American Tobacco Trail.

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Near downtown Cary I stopped at a Starbucks to read The New Yorker on my Kindle.

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I still had time to kill, and I eventually ended up around the corner from the Amtrak station at the Crosstown Pub.   This friendly place had a different atmosphere than what you would find in Chapel Hill, with police badges behind the bar.

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Dinner of tuna, rice, and green beans was all delicious.

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I hung around until just before nine when I went over to the train station.  The train departed on time.   I mostly slept the next nine hours.  It was just getting light when I pulled the bike off the train in Jacksonville, Florida.

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Lyman had flown in the previous evening and I was going to bike the ten miles from the Amtrak station to his motel near the Jacksonville airport.   Both the Amtrak station and the airport are on the north side of downtown, which is known as the poorer side of Jacksonville.   Friends in Jacksonville were surprised I would do this; they said the north side was unsafe.   I had read something that described the north side of Jacksonville as “urban.”   There was nothing urban about it unless one takes that as codeword for “African-American.”   There was even a bike lane, at least for a while.

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I bicycled through neighborhood after neighborhood.  It was all very suburban looking.  I assume these neighborhoods were all black.

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Maybe it is obvious to other people but I had never thought of this before.  I had heard that the average net worth of an African American family in the United States is about one-tenth of a white family.   It struck me that part of this is due to what I will call unintentional group racism.   The gain in net worth for many American families comes from buying a home and the appreciation of its value.   Yet if a neighborhood is mostly African-American, the home values go up hardly at all.   Most white Americans, probably including myself, would hardly consider buying a house in an African American neighborhood.    This aversion leads to lower housing appreciation and is probably is a huge part of this wealth gap in America.

And businesses such as grocery stores are quite scarce in these neighborhoods.  There was this fascinating 1960’s looking liquor store/strip club.

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I eventually found my way to Lyman’s motel near the airport.   He had rented a one-way car to drive our us and our two folding bicycles the thirty-five miles to Fernandina Beach, near the Georgia border.   From there we would bicycle south along the beach 120 miles to Daytona Beach over the next three days before driving another rental car back to Jacksonville.

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That first day we stopped for lunch south of Fernandina.

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Ocean front lots are expensive real estate, and over the next three days I saw many interesting houses filling those lots, some attractive, some gaudy and ostentatious.

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We crossed the Timucuan Ecological Preserve.

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We spent that first night at the Seahorse Motel just north of Jacksonville Beach.    The motel looked worn out from the street but had a pleasant view from the balcony.

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My old friends Tom Whiting and his wife Kim live near here and drove over to have dinner with us.

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The next day we biked through the fancy neighborhoods of Ponte Vedra Beach and then the highway opened up as it headed south along the ocean.

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Our second night was in St. Augustine, billed as the oldest city in America.

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We stayed in a cheap motel that was a short bike ride in the dark from town.   We drank beer and watched the sunset from our balcony which not only had a lovely water view but also overlooked the main line of the Florida East Coast Railway, which I found even more delightful.

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St Augustine is part historic town with buildings from the eighteenth century, part tourist trap, and part cool place, such as The Ice Plant where we went for its delicious designer cocktails.

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At our motel was an impromptu convention of Santa Clauses, men of a certain age and physique that let them be Santa without any makeup.   Even though it was February most of them wore Christmasy clothing.

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When we got up the next morning for our free breakfast the Santas were still around.

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It was about sixty miles the next day south to the Daytona Beach airport where we would get  a rental car to drive back to Jacksonville.   The state of Florida has done a super job accommodating bicycles on Highway A1A along the coast; there is a bike path or bike lane along almost all of it the five hundred miles from Fernandina Beach to Key West.   In some places it even veers off-road.

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Daytona Beach is known for its motorcycle culture.   South of St. Augustine Beach we stopped at a mini-mart for a bottle water  and paused to chat with this guy.  He said his 2001 Yamaha was just a better motorcycle than a Harley.

 

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Daytona Beach is a depressed looking city but seems proud of its motorcycles and it stock car races.

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The Daytona International Speedway overlooks the Daytona Beach airport where I biked up to to get the rental car to take us to my friend Tom Constantine’s house in Jacksonville.   After his delicious dinner Tom drove me later that evening to the Amtrak station.   I got off the train in Cary NC at 8:30 AM the next day.

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On this Sunday morning I was home in Chapel Hill by noon.

Once a year for the past five years I have been coming down here to bicycle around.   Each time I am amazed at the cultural polyglot.   And the buildings!   I surely do not want to live here, and I really do not want spend more than three or four days a year here.   But here on a solo trip for three nights in January things certainly never got boring.

I had wanted to cycle the Tampa Bay area instead, and I still might do that this year.   But for one hundred sixty-five dollars you can fly round trip to Fort Lauderdale nonstop from Raleigh/Durham on friendly Southwest Airlines.   And Fort Lauderdale is still the only airport I know of in the USA that has luggage storage, because of the cruise ship business.   I can arrive with my bicycle-in-a-suitcase, check the suitcase at the airport, and ride off into the South Florida Netherland.    I landed here on time just after 12:00 noon but the plane sat on the runway for forty-five minutes, so it was almost two o’clock before I got the bicycle put together and I could cycle away.

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Weather in South Florida in January is generally perfect.   People tell me they love the desert climates of places like Arizona in the winter.    South Florida is something else entirely; a constantly blowing warm bath of humid air, almost always between 65 and 78 degrees.   Shifting very low clouds, surrounded in the mornings and evenings with pinkness evolving into blue sky.

My general idea of this trip was as follows:

  1. Day One (afternoon): Fort Lauderdale airport to South Miami Beach.
  2. Day Two: Tour around Miami, then Tri-Rail commuter train to West Palm Beach.
  3. Day Three: West Palm Beach to downtown Fort Lauderdale.
  4. Day Four: Bicycle early to Fort Lauderdale airport for 10:40 AM flight home.

I biked from the airport to the south, just the other side of the runway. I crossed a canal into the neighborhood/town of Dania Beach. Both Broward and Dade counties together have many dozens of municipalities. It is really all one continuous city starting in Palm Beach down a hundred miles to where farms and the Everglades begin south of Miami.  But the names of the “towns” change constantly.

Before about 1900 there was essentially nothing here but swamps.    Almost everything here is new, some of it shiny.  I cycled through older neighborhoods on the west side of Biscayne Bay.  By  Miami area standards these places are old enough to be called historic.

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There were school kids walking around.

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In a stiff headwind I crossed the Broad Causeway to the barrier island that is Miami Beach.

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Even before I got to the Art Deco architecture of South Beach, there were all sorts of cool buildings to look at.

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I got down to South Beach just before dark,  stopping on Lincoln Road Mall to get an ice cream and watch the world go by.

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I was worried about high hotel prices, but at least on a Monday night I could stay in this place for less than a hundred dollars total.

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Restaurants can be expensive and pretentious down here, but I found this small family Italian place on Yelp and ate outside.

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There was delicious octopus.   South Beach is an extremely international place; hardly anyone fits the mold of what most of us think of as Typical White American.  I sat next to an actual Italian guy, a graduate student from near Bologna who is currently studying in England   We talked about food and he bitched about England (the people, the food, the weather).   He admitted he could not keep himself from eating Italian, even when visiting here in America.   He also got the octopus and liked it.

The next morning I rode around South Miami Beach looking at the architecture,

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before crossing the MacArthur Causeway to downtown Miami.  Miami Beach has decent bicycle lanes.

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I biked through the north of downtown into the newer Design District, then to Little Haiti.

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I turned around and rode back through all of downtown Miami, looking for the Rickenbacker Causeway, which heads to Virginia Key and ultimately Key Biscayne.   The causeway had a bike path.

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On Virginia Key I wanted to see and photograph Miami Marine Stadium, an impressive piece of modernism built in 1963 and designed by a 28 year old recent Cuban immigrant architect named Hilario Candela.  It was to host powerboat racing and water skiing shows.  Covered in graffiti, it has been abandoned since 1992 but people are still fascinated by it.  After I entered the parking lot, I was approached by a very cordial security guard with a Haitian accent.  He said people came up to him frequently trying to photograph this stadium.   His instructions were to keep people out.   He even said that I was not supposed to photograph it from a distance!   It was too late for him, I had already had taken the picture, although only of the back of the stadium.

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From Google Images this is the picture that I wanted to have taken, although in hindsight I really would have needed a boat.

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I biked back to the mainland and downtown Miami, then turned southwest towards Coral Cables.  Cycling through older neighborhoods, this former planned community from the 1920’s now has tree lined streets that remind me of New Orleans.

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I then headed north and west from Coral Gables toward the Miami Airport and thereafter the Tri-Rail station in Hialeah.   I weaved through miles of streets lined with older stucco tract housing.

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Tri-Rail was fine; $6.90 for the almost two hour ride north to West Palm Beach and you can wheel your bicycle right on the train.   I got a seat just after I boarded but by a couple stops later the train was standing room only with an impressively multicultural clientele.

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I got off the train near downtown West Palm Beach and biked south a couple miles to a hotel I had reserved the day before.  I ate across the street at a sushi restaurant in a small strip mall.  In contrast to Miami, West Palm Beach felt much less multicultural, even when sitting at a sushi bar listening to the sushi chef (who had on a Japanese hachimaki headband) talk Thai with a customer.

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The people behind me were having a loud discussion about religion, centering on “grace.”   I  realized I really did not exactly know what that word meant.   On my phone I looked up the word on Wikipedia.  The meaning of that word has inspired much discussion over the centuries, sometimes even conflict.

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The next morning I set out.  It was about fifty miles south to downtown Fort Lauderdale.   I biked through country clubbish neighborhoods of the southern part of West Palm Beach.

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Across the bay on the barrier island that is Palm Beach things were even more opulent.

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At Southern Boulevard I crossed the bridge over to the Palm Beach side just to check up on Mar-A-Lago and see if The Donald was lurking around.     I did not see any Secret Service so I stopped by the back gate and took a photo.

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Back on the mainland side of the bay, bicycling south, once you cross the line into the town of Lake Worth the area becomes much more working class, but maybe more colorful.

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South of Boca Raton I rode along the beach with almost continuous high rises.

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I had wanted to stay that night in downtown Fort Lauderdale but downtown hotels were expensive.   I booked the only Airbnb I could find near downtown.   It was memorable.

I got there about five in the afternoon.  It is in a transitioning area, a mostly African-American neighborhood being taken over by the construction of mid and high rise upscale condos.   Two artists live in this house and rent their spare bedroom on Airbnb.

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They were a friendly young couple.   They showed me their art, which they say is all a collaboration between the two of them.  Among several types of projects, they choose women whose bodies they admire and then try to convince them to let them take plaster casts of their torsos.   They then cast the torsos in ceramic and frame it.   They really like women with breast implants.

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That night I walked over to an informal restaurant in a strip mall that served delicious poke, which I learned is a Hawaiian dish of rice covered with marinated raw fish, vegetables, and a sweet soy based sauce, sort of like a large serving of disassembled sushi.

I left the house at seven-thirty the next morning.  I rode through older neighborhoods south of downtown just as it was getting light outside.

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I biked up to the airport before eight-thirty in the morning.