A journey to the Conch Republic

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By now you’ve read all kinds of good advice in Bicycle Times on riding your bike through harsh winter conditions, but sometimes the best strategy to deal with it is to escape. I’m not ashamed to admit that during the second of… oh what, three? four?… polar vortices, or dips in the jet stream, or whatever ridiculous weather patterns we’ve had here in the Northeast, I escaped to sunny southern Florida, courtesy of the Adventure Cycling Association. It was the second of its three annual Florida Keys tours. And it was fabulous.

To kick things off, our group assembled in Ft. Lauderdale at a cozy little hostel near Hollywood Beach. Hostels were the accommodations of choice for the several indoor nights of the trip—they were inexpensive but often nicer than a typical cheap motel, with unique charm and friendly staff.

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Our first stop was Florida City, where we stayed at the most unique (and my favorite) of these hostels, the Everglades International Hostel.

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The hostel offers unique tours in the Everglades National Park, and we took two kinds: first by kayak and then on foot. The on-foot tour was called a “wet walk,” and it was more than wet — we were hiking through a cypress dome in water up to our knees.

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Our guide helpfully informed us that at this time of year, the water was too cold for snakes to swim in. He also helpfully pointed out an alligator’s nest, with its resident sunning herself on the front porch, and a large American crocodile on the bank during the kayak trip.

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From there we crossed over to the Keys. Some of us might have expected a warm and traffic-free ride, but the reality of the Keys is that there is one main highway going down the length of the island chain, and not much available real estate otherwise—so we spent some time next to belching metal boxes. Still, there was a separated bike path, the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, for a good bit of the way. Parts of it are currently under construction but once it’s done it will be a jewel of a path.

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The same wacky weather patterns that were freezing pipes and dumping snow up north were also causing us to have unseasonably chilly weather. We had to wear long sleeves, and even jackets! (“Oh, poor baby,” you say…) But fortunately the wind worked with us most of the time. And it got warmer the further south we went.

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It was simply lovely to pedal along surrounded by little more than ocean, sky, and pavement. We couldn’t stop smiling. And I will admit, there was a lot of checking the weather at home on our phones and chuckling.

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On the seventh day, we came to the southernmost point of our trip, and the southernmost point of the United States: Key West. It really is a world apart—this “Sovereign State of Mind” seceded from the U.S. in 1982 to form the Conch Republic in protest after the U.S. Border Patrol harshed its mellow.

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Next we took a high-speed ferry to Ft. Myers to begin the last leg of the journey. Traveling back inland, we traded beaches and palm trees for rural roads and orange trees. The last couple days were long and involved some stretches with heavy traffic. But it was still pretty, and most importantly, warm, and we enjoyed the camaraderie with our fellow riders that by now had become friends.

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If you don’t have any touring experience under your belt and are feeling unsure about the logistics, Adventure Cycling’s Guided Tours are a great way to try it out with minimal risk and maximum reward. Even if you are experienced, a group tour is a fantastic way to make a new set of cycling friends, and to see and do things you might otherwise miss.

Our tour was a self-supported one, meaning we carried all our sleeping and cooking gear, but our excellent guides and the group itself offered support and encouragement, so that one was never without help. (Adventure Cycling also offers supported tours if you want to travel lighter.) Each individual tourist was free to ride at their own pace, and even to veer off-course somewhat. But it was quite nice to ride with and get to know different people each day.

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