We were blown down the coast of Florida today, propelled by a strong tailwind that had us hitting close to 25 mph on flat road while pedaling seemingly effortlessly. That’s a casual pace for the Tour de France, but a speed we mortals can’t sustain. Wow! (And so glad we weren’t trying to go north.)
Florida is quite the contrast to Georgia. Lots more money. Lots. The East Coast Greenway route took us down the coast, so start with normal beach towns. Then ramp it up and up and up some more as you hit Ponte Vedra Beach. We took the residential road one block in from the beach that ran for miles, and the estimates for the value of these mansions kept rising — a million or two dollars at a time. All ginormous. As for their beauty, well, it’s a matter of taste. One rider called it F-you money. As for me, I wondered how many of them take advantage of taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance. Not that they would see it as a handout, of course. And who does the work maintaining their yards and cleaning their homes?
But let me start at the beginning of a great day. We pedaled a few miles from our hotel off the main drag in St. Mary’s to the historic part of town, where East Coast Greenway had chartered an hour-long ferry ride across the St. Mary’s River to Fernandina Beach, Florida. Folks in St. Mary’s want to turn this into regular service, and I hope they succeed. There’s certainly a well-connected and enthusiastic cheerleader for the area. Amelia Island in Florida was beautiful, and more trails are being developed; St. Mary’s needs to find a way to lure tourists — in this case, cyclists — across the river. What story can it tell?
Though honestly, our ferry captain should be reason enough. He told one tale after another, filling us in on the history of Cumberland Island, from Revolutionary War hero Nathaneal Greeneto the Civil War to the Carnegies. We saw white pelicans, wild horses and dolphins, and piles of oyster shells — trash, he called it — that date back to Native Americans.
In Fernandina Beach, how can you ignore the pirate? If you saw us, you probably wondered how so many adults can turn into kids taking silly photos. Guess that’s what bike touring does to you.
But no real time for lollygagging and discovering Victorian Fernandina. This ferry ride had taken an hour, so it as already 10 a.m. and we’d ridden perhaps all of 6 miles. We had lots more pedaling to do, and a second ferry to catch.
But can I say that the biking in Florida was fabulous? We were on the Ocean View Trail that runs most of the length of Amelia Island and kept us well away from traffic. We’d catch glimpses of beach between the houses, or ride through woods or along marshes.
This could become quite the mecca for cycling, not just tennis and golf. Construction had just started on yet another trail, we were told, and another one is in the planning. Like just about everywhere, though, signage could be better. Do we turn left onto what looks like will be a muddy path into the woods or turn right and take the road?
And then there’s this reminder of how far many of us have already come, and how close we are to the final goal:
Eventually we made it to our second ferry of the day, getting us to Mayport and our choice of seafood restaurants. My group opted for the “shack” (actually bigger than that) that had been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and where the default cooking technique appeared to be fried. No matter; we still had 45 miles to bike, and we needed the fuel. (Others went perhaps a minute down the road to another, more refined seafood restaurant that perhaps was a better choice.)
Oh sure, there were some ugly stretches — there always are when you are dealing with cities, as the East Coast Greenway does. We had to get past the outskirts of Jacksonville, and I admit some of us took the sidewalk for a while. But once we got away from that busy road and into a residential neighborhood, we were able to reach the coast. And this is where the tailwind really kicked in. We sailed down Route A1A on a shoulder marked as a bicycle lane.
Once in St. Augustine — the oldest city in America, founded by the Spanish — we were feted by the area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Having come to the city several years ago and unsuccessfully trying to find the St. Johns River to the Sea bike route (no one at the visitors center had heard of it or the East Coast Greenway), it was heartening to hear it is slowly being built (though the completed sections aren’t contiguous) and that the area wants to capitalize on bicycle tourism.
My non-bike tip for St. Augustine: the Civil Rights walking tour I did on the earlier visit.