By Herb Hiller
Bike your way through Homestead and Redland and discover a slower pace of life.
Many years ago, Homestead played host to an annual "Wheelmen's Winter Rendezvous." It made the town a hotbed of bicycling advocacy.
I went down a couple of years to join in. I loved the flatness. Cycling through the Redlands of Homestead (as the surrounding farm region is known), I could look up at low-flying crop-dusters that reach as high as anything gets there.
For a hundred years, the vast Redland - as close to the tropics as mainland Florida gets - has been the outback of cosmopolitan Miami.
The same winters that fill ritzy hotels with wealthy escapists from around the world fill America's market basket with beans, cukes and peppers tended by Mexican farmhands an hour south in the rich, red soil built up over eons by the Everglades.
Now change jostles continuity. In Homestead and Redland, the bumpkin and worldly come together. Less a clash, more a dance. Think South Beach meets Yeehaw Junction to a mariachi beat.
My last trip down, I pedaled almost a hundred traffic-free miles of Redland canal banks. I breezed past coral rock walls topped by bougainvillea, past farmhouse lawns behind cross-board fences, bumped over old railroad crossings in sight of moldering barns. Spring scented roadsides with mango and avocado blossoms as I wheeled into farms for fresh berry shakes.
Homestead feels like a town best approached in slow mode. Like a century plant, its flowering has been long coming.
Henry Flagler staged his over-Keys railroad here in the early 1900s, then drained the land, which he sold to farmers. A hurricane in 1935 swept the railroad away. It was soon replaced by road.
Construction of the Homestead Air Force Base boomed the WWII economy. Dedication of Everglades National Park in 1947 supplied visitor appeal. Biscayne National Park added to that in 1980. By 1974, the extension of Florida's Turnpike to Homestead had already launched subdivisions that reached north as Miami sprawled south. Then in 1992, Hurricane Andrew tore the place apart. Thousands fled. NAFTA hurt, too, by opening America to cheap food imports, devastating traditional Redland crops.
Through Federal grants, Homestead and adjacent Florida City began re-building. The town's revival gained appeal when other Miamians, bred to the arts, gave up on fast-changing South Beach. They leapfrogged South Dade suburbs for a chance at once more shaping new urban style.
If you can, visit by pedaling through Homestead and Redland's century of history, emerging from fields into the town that opens beautifully along Krome Avenue. Unkempt swales give way to flanks of royal palms. In the Historic District, lock your bike to one of the palms that shelter antique shops, a historical museum, and restaurants of all kinds.
ArtSouth, the arts-for-renewal organization that built its South Beach reputation by successfully reviving Lincoln Road, has turned the abandoned First Baptist Church into artist studios and gallery space. The old Seminole Theatre is in the process of remodeling to become a performing arts center.
It's an easy pedal or a quick drive through the overlap between Homestead and Florida City to the Florida City State Farmer's Market with its country-style restaurant and to the Florida Pioneer Museum and Village housed in the original 1904 Florida East Coast Railway Depot and Station Agent's House.
Toward Everglades National Park, Mexican markets and restaurants line the roadside. Here, you'll find the bicycle-friendly Everglades International Hostel and the don't-miss Robert Is Here fruit stand, a cornucopia of farm products and entertaining entrepreneurial style.
In the farmlands, non-traditional agriculture newly flourishes. The Redland has become a world center of orchid culture. You can join tours at large producers like R.F. Orchids. The non-profit Redland Tropical Gardens and Botanical Foundation is organizing four landmark gardens of medicinal, tropical, jungle and other specialty plants while offering tours of wholesale farms otherwise closed to visitors.
Longstanding Florida attractions remain: the Fruit and Spice Park and the Pioneer Guild Hall (from 1907), Coral Castle (a collection of coral rock sculptures listed in the National Register of Historic Places), Monkey Jungle and Everglades Alligator Farm. Nearby is the Miami-Homestead Speedway.
The Speedway, of course, is for a dose of what's loud; bicycles for what's not.