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Roaring into the sun and sea on two wheels

KEY WEST, Florida (AP) Lots of Northerners shake off the last of the cold weather with a trip south this time of year. We decided to head into the Florida sunshine on two wheels, on a motorcycle trip from Miami down through the Keys, where the flat lanes seem to skim you over the blue-and-aquamarine, coral-lined sea before you're vaulted skyward bound up a causeway and on to another island.

From the Keys, we turned west through the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail (Route 41), then up the Gulf Coast and back east to Miami via Alligator Alley (Interstate 75). With side trips, it was around 600 miles in four days, not a big challenge for the true wind-in-your-face aficionado.

If you're flying into Florida to start your trip as this frost-encrusted Mainer did there's a good selection of motorcycle rental shops to choose from. I chose EagleRider Miami, which put me on a BMW 1200 GS, a gutsy streetworthy rig with adequate bags for carry-ons, including my wife Betty's always-abundant array of togs.

Check your motorcycle insurance coverage, and if it doesn't cover rentals, do consider buying the protection. It added less than $30 a day to the overall sum of $584 that covered three 24-hour periods spanning four calendar days.

On our first leg, we slogged our way through local traffic in Miami and the surrounding area to connect with US 1 about 50 miles south of the city. A wiser choice would have been to spend the extra few bucks and cruise toward the islands on Florida's Turnpike. If you're renting a motorcycle, you don't even need to fumble for cash at the tolls; photos of the bike license plate will be sent to the rental company, which in my case added toll charges to the bill.

The feel of escaping the mainland and entering the Keys on US 1 is no less than exhilarating. The roadway, also called the Overseas Highway, runs 127 miles, connecting the island chain with a series of bridges and expansive, seemingly endless views of the ocean on either side.

Our first stop was Key Largo. With the help of a chamber of commerce information centre, we found a seaside one-bedroom apartment there. Informal but graceful, the palm-shaded compound opened to a spacious dock overlooking Florida Bay and was a short walk to a selection of Mexican, sushi and other restaurants, including one that will be remembered for its pitchers of margaritas. And if you're not a privacy freak, sharing four to a unit can save a lot of bucks. In this case, $140 split between two couples wasn't bad.

US 1 slows down in the towns dotting the islands, but it's a good idea to keep alert for cross-traffic that doesn't seem to notice bikes. These areas are replete with shops, restaurants, and places offering side trips for diving, boating, sport fishing, parasailing and bicycling.

For the non-motorised biking crowd, bike paths are laned off along the Overseas Highway. There's also a sumptuous selection of state parks offering swimming, snorkelling, canoeing and camping. The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, combined with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, covers 178 nautical square miles and offers divers breathtaking sights of coral formations and tropical marine life.

Closer to Key West is Big Pine Key, noted for its tiny, endangered Key deer. There are ample warnings and much of the stretch across the island is fenced off, but riders should take note.

We found the turnoff from Big Pine that took us literally off the beaten path to No Name Key, noted for a roadside pub by the same name. The food and beer are fine, but the walls and ceilings dressed in a lush coating of dollar bills left by legions of patrons who've paraded through are the real attraction.

As the green mile markers across US 1 complete their countdown from 127 to 0, you're in Key West. A ride into town for a look-see circuit is fine, but it's a good idea to find a hotel, B&B or other lodging and leave the two-wheelers parked before the sightseeing and partying begin. We lucked out with perhaps the last room on the island, around $300. But, again, we bunked four to a room.

The streets fill up at nighttime and the drinks flow at Sloppy Joe's, Hog's Breath Saloon and the other noted haunts and honky tonks. (The bouncers are glad to make sure your beer is in a plastic cup instead of a bottle if you decide to take to the streets.)

Amid it all, Key West is full of restaurants to suit all tastes. At the pierside Alonzo's, a fine dinner and drinks came to about $100 on the nose.

The town's attractions are many, but Key West can hardly be uttered without mentioning its most famous denizen, Ernest Hemingway. His coral rock home and a museum can be visited for an admission. The ever-photographed monument marking the southernmost point in the continental states is open and free. Any visitor will quickly see the selection of shops featuring art, sandals, cigars and you-name-it lining the streets.

Fortunately for bikers, there's little room for extra baggage so we continued our tour virtually souvenir-free. It was on to the Everglades, a wholly different world and kind of beauty just a few hours ride away.

From US 1, on the mainland, it's a sharp left (west) to US 41, the Tamiami Trail, and a delightful straightaway into the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve. This time, instead of riding over the sea we had the sense of riding over a sea of swamp grass, bounded at great lengths by canals off the edges of the highway

The starkness of the surroundings was refreshing after the heavy commercialization along the Keys. Miles go by before you see a store or gas station, so check your fuel gauge.

The road passes the entrance to Shark Valley Visitor Center where tram tours into the Everglades are available. Traffic was light, but no fewer than a dozen airboats towed by pickups that passed by attested to the busy day vendors had taking people into the subtropical wilderness essentially a giant, shallow moving river.

The ride got more interesting, if eerie, as the sun set and we made way for Naples on the Gulf Coast. Signs appeared warning drivers to slow down for panther crossings.

From Naples, the vistas give way to miles of strip malls and shopping areas that service growing Gulf Coast communities. The final leg began with a turn back east towards I-75, or Alligator Alley, across Big Cypress National Preserve, leading back to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The ride is, again, a motorcyclist's dream, but here there are no tourist amenities, just the necessities.

In this February 2012 photo motorcyclists ride on Seven Mile Bridge along the Overseas Highway, U.S. 1, which connects Knight's Key in Marathon, Fla. with Little Duck Key. (AP Photo/Glenn Adams)

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Published March 07, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated March 07, 2012 at 8:06 am)

Roaring into the sun and sea on two wheels

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