Biking the West Coast

By: Terry Tomalin

Find biker-friendly stops, a classic car museum and signature beach views en route from Tampa to Fort Myers.

The crowd gathers early on a Sunday morning in the parking lot of Jim's Harley Davidson, the unofficial meeting place for Florida's Gulf Coast Chapter of HOG (Harley Owners Group).

The mood is friendly - the crowd has its share of bearded bikers, but there are also doctors, lawyers and even the occasional pre-school teacher - and everybody is welcome.

With little to no rain during the winter months, plenty of sunshine and temperatures in the low 70s, Harley enthusiasts from all over the country converge on the Tampa Bay area for mornings such as this.

From here, riders can head north to Cedar Key, east through the rolling hills of Central Florida or south along the sugar sand beaches to Naples.

The destination this morning is Snook Haven Fish Camp, a biker-friendly bar and restaurant nestled in a cypress swamp on the edge of the Myakka River. Located on Venice Avenue in Venice, this little getaway is known for its grouper sandwiches, Key lime pie and quarter-pound chili dogs. You'll find bikers from all over central Florida here on a weekend, watching a NASCAR race of just kickin' back listing to a bluegrass band.

Many Detours

Getting here can be difficult - not because of traffic or bad roads - but because there are so many detours along the way. Start on the south side of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and connect to U.S. 41.

Off U.S. 301 in Manatee County, swing by the Gamble Plantation State Historic Site, 1.5 miles west of I-75 at 3708 Patten Ave. in Ellenton. One of Florida's earliest sugar plantations, the house you'll find here was built long before air conditioning and other modern conveniences were standard. The two-foot-thick walls kept Major Gamble cool and safe from tropical storms.

After you've had your fill of history, pick up C.R. 64 and head west, toward the water. You'll pass another biker favorite - Miller's Dutch Kitch'n at 3401 14th St. W. in Bradenton.

Then follow C.R. 64 to the Gulf of Mexico and hang a hard left. Take your time - there are plenty of good pull-offs and public beaches - blue water and white sand are what Florida is all about.

Sarasota Scenery

Following C.R. 789 south along Longboat Key, you'll hit St. Armand's Circle, a great place to shop and eat lunch; then follow the John Ringling Causeway back to the mainland. If you head south on U.S. 41, you might make it to Naples by sunset. But since you're here, you might as well head north and stop by the Ringling Museum, at the intersection of U.S. 41 and University Parkway in Sarasota.

The once private collection holds art dating from ancient to contemporary times including Ringling's personal favorite, the 17th-century Baroque period. The nearby Circus Museum offers a rare look behind the scenes of "The Greatest Show on Earth."

South on U.S. 41, which is a favorite route for tourists (especially on weekends), you'll pass the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. After a long day in the saddle, a stroll through the 20,000 plants and 6,000 orchids is guaranteed to lower the blood pressure.

Die-hard motor heads will find a good side trip in the Sarasota Classic Car Museum at the intersection of U.S. 41 and University Parkway. You'll find an ultra-rare 1956 Chevrolet ambulance as well as other cool cars.

Ingenious Inventors

If you stay on 41 through Sarasota, the road will split at Venice Groves. Follow C.R. 776 south to Englewood, then up through Port Charlotte, and back to U.S. 41 through Punta Gorda and into Fort Myers. The Edison-Ford Winter Estates, perched along the Caloosahatchee River, was a place where the famed inventor would often come to think and work.

Henry Ford, the man behind the Model T, visited Edison's Fort Myers home in 1915 and liked the area so much, he returned the following year to purchase his own home.

From here you can follow the signs to C.R. 865 and down to Estero Island, to watch the sunset at Bonito Shores. Or then again, turn around and head back toward Venice. If you can, spend the night, because you can't possibly see all there is to see along this stretch of coastline in just one day.

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