Take a Bike Tour, See Another Florida
By Bonnie Gross
People go to Tuscany and Provence to take bike tours through scenic rural landscapes, staying in quaint villages and inns at night.
Thanks to a non-profit devoted to bicycle safety, tourists and native Floridians alike can witness Florida's scenery through its bike tours.
A Side You Don't Know
“So many people think Florida is all about theme parks, South Beach and Miami,” said Ron Cunningham, executive director of Bike Florida. “The truth is there are stretches of this state that will knock your socks off in ways that are totally unexpected. That’s where we try to put our riders.”
Most visitors don’t know about the crystalline waters of Florida springs or the winding roads through rural horse country or the oceanfront in northern Florida where the two-lane road runs right along the beach, Cunningham says.
“Our bike tours give us the opportunity to show off a part of Florida that people never knew existed,” he added.
When it comes to bike tours, Florida has two features that make it an ideal destination: It’s relatively flat, and when the rest of the country has stored their bicycles in the garage for winter, it has warm bike-friendly weather.
Those qualities attracted Michael Sinner, a service representative for a Chicago medical group.
Over the years, he said, his vacations have gravitated more and more to biking and hiking trips, including multi-day bike trips along the Erie Canal, the Great Allegheny Passage and in Alaska.
Those were great, he said, but he had never been to Florida (with or without the bike). In fact, Sinner never even seen the open Atlantic Ocean. It was time to go.
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The Beauty of Florida
“Disneyland and Miami Beach are not really my thing,” he said. “I'm more interested in natural beauty and wild places.”
And that’s what he found.
Sinner took the St. John River to the Sea Loop tour and his highlights were dipping his feet in the Atlantic, admiring the postcard-perfect lighthouses and walking the broad beaches lined with palm trees.
But there were views he didn’t expect in Florida. They biked to a fish camp in Welaka on the St. Johns River and pedaled through “pine woods that reminded me of places I love in Wisconsin,” he said.
Sinner said he “simply relished the bicycling through Florida—it was something I wanted to soak in as deeply as I could.”
Ride in Style and Comfort
Bike Florida started these boutique tours a few years ago, executive director Cunningham said, because so many baby boomers who are retiring crave active vacations. They don’t, however, crave sleeping on the ground or eating in high school gymnasiums—all features of many larger bicycle tours, including a big spring tour that Bike Florida has led for 20 years.
As a result, on Bike Florida's “luxury tours,” guests stay in hotels and eat in restaurants every night. There are three vehicles that support the ride and groups are no larger than 20.
Hotels on the tours are dependent on what’s available in these small towns and range from Hampton Inns and Comfort Inns to the Welaka Inn, which is on a high bluff overlooking the St. John's River in an Old Florida setting.
Bicyclists generally bring their bikes by car or ship them, though Bike Florida will arrange rentals too.
The cycling groups enjoy a remarkable camaraderie, Cunningham and Sinner agree.
“People you meet on bike trails, and bicyclists in general, are among the most well-spoken, thoughtful people I've met,” Sinner said. “Everybody, to a person, was fun, funny, and enjoyable company, and everyone seemed to have a fine respect for the land and for our shared journey.”
Tour De Florida
If lower rates and camping appeal to you, you might want to consider Bike Florida’s big spring tour—this event changes locations each year and attendance ranges from several hundred to as many as 1,200 participants, Cunningham said. Bike Florida plans to add new bike tours every year.