Winter Getaway: South Florida
by Anna Maria Diaz-Balart
The holidays are over, and if you live in the North East, the real winter is upon us. For many of us that means hours of heartbreaking miles spent on the trainer, only to emerge in the spring, pale and weak compared to our summer selves. Training camps on the West Coast have long been the go to solution. With bountiful sun and epic climbs, they are truly winter's antidote. I recently got back from visitng my hometown of Miami, Florida. While it doesnt have the climbs, its is incredibly inexpensive and super close. It also has a welcoming and vibrant cycling scene, some fantastic rides, and enough sunshine to cure the worst case of winter blues.
First and foremost I can't even write about Miami without mentioning The Miami Bike Scene. This homegrown resource has everything bike related in Miami, from Critical Mass to 6am group ride hammerfests. Miami is a wonderful cycling city because if it, and it was instrumental in helping me navigate the city when I first returned as a cyclist.
I have often rented road bikes from Miami Beach Bicycle Center. They have a decent selection of bikes, a friendly staff, all the basics you need to get out and ride, and they are at a convenient location in Miami Beach. They can help you with maps, and get you on to the Key Biscayne loop, Miami's main cycling route: great people and bike watching, a delicious pit stop for Cafe Cubano, and one ‘big’ climb.
While Key Biscayne can help you get your miles in, there is no substitute for getting out an experiencing the raw beauty of Florida. If you are visiting friends or family, or just looking for a gentle, easy spin in the company of alligators, I highly recommend Shark Valley. It is a quick ride down Miami’s 8th street and into the Florida Everglades National Park. Renting a bike there will be highly depressing compared to your road bike at home, but it is an option, and that bike will get you through the 15 miles. Dozens of alligators sunbathe right along the path, so if youve never stood three feet away from one, well it makes for a pretty impressive instagram photo. The midpoint of the ride has an amazing 65 foot tall overlook the seems right out of the show “LOST”, and, you got it, more gators. All of this is really amazing and fun, but if you're wondering why I love a 15 mile chill ride with gators, it's because you can also do this ride at night and it is every bit as terrifying as you might imagine!
A word to the wise, it is much better to do this ride during the full moon when many other people are doing it as well. Without the moon’s illumination, you have to go slower so you don't run over any gators. You are miles and miles away from city lights, you cell phone will be out of range, but nothing is more awesome than shining your bike light down from the lookout point and seeing hundreds of alligator eyes peering back at you! Some things to keep in mind: wear lots of bug repellant, make sure your lights are super bright and fully charged, bring everything needed to change flats, that your bike is in great working order, and make sure you have all the water you’ll need. The parks are open 24 hours, but if you're pedaling at night you will need to bring your own wheels.
My second favorite ride is also through the Everglades National Park but through a different entrance. This one involves driving down to Homestead through some of South Florida’s most desolate agricultural fields. Follow GPS navigation to the Ernest Coe Visitors Center. From there is a 38 mile ride to the other side of the state of Florida and the Flamingo Visitors Center. There are limited services here, so its important to check what is open and when. I have had an amazing grouper sandwich there at the Buttonwood Cafe, perfect fuel for the 38 miles back to Ernest Coe. The round trip is an incredible experience, the absolute calm and isolation of the Everglades is meditative, there is nothing but the pounding sun and a wall of wind (more than likely on the return trip) and your thoughts. There are also no cars, no people, nothing except nothingness and it is just spectacular (again, bring all your own water, tools, etc) And if you are really lucky, you will be treated to a Florida thunderstorm, it will appear out of nowhere, drench you in Hurricane force water and wind, and then disappear 15 minutes later like nothing happened. Never, ever, ever ride in Florida without first putting your phone in a bag.
On the way home you absolutely must stop at Robert is Here, quite possibly the greatest fruit stand the world has ever known. From Key Lime milkshakes, every possible fruit grown under the Florida sun, to beautiful jams and preserves...I stock up on everything Florida when I pass by. It is a cycling institution as much as it is a South Florida one. Nothing is better post ride than a giant, ice cold tropical juice. If you are a little more hungry, there’s a great taco spot in the area. Los Potosinos is located on the way in to the park and, if it looks like your ordering tacos in someones driveway, it's because you are! Both places offer amazing food and a glimpse into a Florida off the beaten path.
But by far, my most favorite ride in all of South Florida is to the Florida Keys. There is truly no ride like it, and no place quite like the Florida Keys. Recently the state has been expanding the Overseas Heritage Trail, so many miles of this awesome ride are on chill bike paths, and newly paved, marked shoulders. You’ll also travel through miles of palm tree farms (who knew that was a thing?!) as well as older roads no longer used by most drivers. If you stick to early mornings and week days, you’ll have a more pleasant time, both for traffic and temperature. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to stop at Old Florida institutions such as Alabama Jacks and Lorelie for awesome seafood and beautiful sunset over the water vistas. This is also true of almost anywhere that you stop for food or a cold beer in the Keys. Make sure to pack a swim suit, because even though the Keys do not have natural beaches, the water is not to be missed! Snorkeling or diving in John Pennecamp National Park (the US’s only underwater national park) or any one fo the myraid shipwrecks or coral reefs is truly an experience of a lifetime. I have gone on amazing trips with Conch Republic Divers. And lastly I’d be remiss if I didn't mention the Islander Resort. It's a great halfway spot for cyclists, with full kitchens, laundry, a screened in patio for all your bikes, and a salt water pool for your achy bones.
Click through some shots of the Florida Keys ride
All in all, I can’t recommend a better, closer place to overdose on Vitamin D during these next three dark months. The Miami Bike Scene has tons of other resources, shops and rides should you be looking for something different. South Florida truly has so much to offer cyclists.