Florida Keys: Pedal and paddle trips growing in popularity
The Keller family of Washington, D.C., explores the mangrove creeks at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida. (Cammy Clark, Miami Herald, MCT / May 22, 2012)
"This is where they filmed scenes from the movies 'Hannibal' and 'I Am Number Four,'" Terrill said, adding it also has been a popular location for photo shoots by the likes of Victoria's Secret and Sports Illustrated.
As fortune would have it, a bikini-clad model was having water poured on her while being photographed by a professional crew. She was sitting on a bent palm tree that hangs over the sand and water.
"That palm tree is probably one of the most famous palm trees in the world," Terrill said.
For people seeking a quick getaway from the hubbub of city life, pedal-or-paddle outings are growing in popularity. They provide opportunities to relax and soak in nature and history while getting a little exercise at the same time.
The Upper and Middle Keys now offer many places to rent eco-friendly bicycles, kayaks and the increasingly popular stand up paddleboards. Guides are available to lead the way through mangrove creeks or along side roads away from busy U.S. 1.
It's also easy in the Keys to explore by land or sea on your own, with shop owners who are usually helpful in providing information on where to go.
Paul Leonard and Samantha Rooney, an engaged couple from Coral Springs, Fla., recently made a bike tour of Islamorada with Terrill's company, Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours, which Rooney found on the Internet.
"You can't really see all this when you're driving fast in a car," Rooney, 33, said as she rode a cruiser 3-speed at about 7 mph. "And I'm getting exercise, too."
The two-hour, two-mile and 10-stop tour also takes riders to the Hurricane Monument, which memorializes those who perished in the Category 5 monster Labor Day storm of 1935, and in front of a gated waterfront home. Terrill explains that in 1994 the home was rented out during mini-lobster season. The Sheriff's Office got a call at night about a possible burglary because only flashlights were being used.
Three deputies responded to the call and caught five men offloading 3,500 pounds of cocaine from boats. One of those deputies was Terrill.
"We thought we were going to find kids breaking in," he said.
Terrill spent six months researching the history of Islamorada for the tour, noting that the founding families in the 1800s paid $3.27 each for 150 acres of homestead land. He points out the graveyard of the Pinders, one of the founding families, that's located near the beach at the swanky Cheeca Lodge.
Backcountry Cowboy Outfitters, which was opened nine years ago by North Carolina transplants J.S. Mikula and Kristi Holman, also rents bikes. They offer cruisers, hybrids and road bikes, which make for a nice 40-mile jaunt to Duck Key and back along a series of bridges with views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.
They do not offer guided bike tours, but do educate bike renters about the area. "We tell them about the great Old Highway system we have here and show them satellite imagery," Mikula said.
The Old Highway runs parallel to U.S. 1 on the ocean side for most of Islamorada. During early mornings, bikers may see Jimmie Johnson, the former University of Miami and Miami Dolphins coach, running on the Old Highway, which is picturesque and usually has light traffic.
Also off the beaten path is a two-mile hiking and biking trail that's reopened at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. The park, which once was going to be bulldozed for condos, features one of the largest West Indian tropical hardwood hammocks in the United States and is home to 84 protected species of plants and animals.
During the past few years, much work has been done on the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, which now has 70 miles of bike and pedestrian recreational trail. It's part of the planned 106-mile corridor from Key Largo to Key West. The trail includes 23 of Henry Flagler's historic railroad bridges.
The trail, however, is not continuous and often ends abruptly. It also requires crossing U.S. 1 at several points, with some of the trail on the ocean side and other parts on the bay side. Information is available at http://www.floridagreenwaysandtrails.com.