Back to Bradenton
Leaving the Keys was bittersweet. Bitter in that my trip was half over, and I really did not want to leave this beautiful island chain. But, sweet, because I still had over one thousand miles yet to travel with much to see, I achieved a long thought of goal, and every mile that rolled under the ST’s wheels from this time forward would bring me closer to my family back home in South Carolina.
Key Largo to Bradenton was really uneventful. I basically backtracked the way I had come down, with the one big change of not going through Panther Alley again! So I rerouted myself and decided to travel west to Naples and then up the coast to Venice, where I would stop for lunch. Maybe I should have gone through Panther Alley………
As expected, the closer I came to Naples, the thicker the traffic density became. Upon entering the city proper, traffic became insane! It has been decades since I was here, and as SR41 veered northward, there was nothing but miles and miles of strip malls, fast food fat farms, and four lanes of traffic congestion all seemingly vying for the same space on the road. I didn’t recognize the place. Panther Alley was beginning to look and feel much safer!
I took a very quick tour through Old Naples, which is very beautiful, then started looking for the first sign for I-75 that would take me out of this traffic nightmare. I don’t typically like to travel on interstate highways except for time expediency, avoiding metropolitan areas, or in this case, safety. I felt much safer blitzing along at 80 MPH than negotiating four lanes of heavy traffic with nitwits whose only focus is getting to their next shopping destination with total disregard for those sharing the road with them.
I stopped in Venice for lunch, with a nice ride through Venice Beach, the beautiful Italianesque downtown area, before catching SR 41 again and heading north. This part of SR 41, from Venice to Tampa, is rather nice. But then it’s back on the superslab to veer around the congestion that is Tampa. Shortly thereafter, I pull into my hotel parking lot in Bradenton with 280 more miles behind me. The Keys seem like a distant memory.
Old Florida or Cajun Country?; Amelia Island sings the Blues.
The weather was perfect. I awoke feeling refreshed and ready to ride. My last day in Florida was a big one – 344 miles of “Old Florida” backroads to my final destination on Amelia Island. Riding the backroads in north Florida is a dream. Virtually no traffic, beautiful scenery, and “tunnels” of live oak trees draped with Spanish Moss envelope you as you ride.
My route today is to take me from Bradenton to Homosassa Springs for a lunch stop at a very unique place that I read about in a moto travel mag. Traveling northward on roads like pictured above was a beautiful riding experience. Much different than I am used to in the mountains back home, but just as satisfying to this motorcyclist as carving mountain roads, just in a different way.
Exploring and playing on the roads between Bradenton and Brooksville finally took me to my route into Homosassa Springs in time for lunch. Following my map and directions down an old, two lane road that could be mistaken for a carriage path, I arrived at my lunch destination, a building sitting all by itself in a setting that could have been the swampy bayous of Louisiana:
Neon Leon’s serves up Cajun cuisine that is to die for. I had their shrimp gumbo with cornbread that was so good, I wanted to ask for seconds, but didn’t. Instead, I opted for a piece of key lime pie. I guess it was a bit after 1 PM when I arrived, not too many cars in the dirt parking area. The grounds make you feel like you have to dodge alligators to get to the entrance. I expected to see voodoo skulls hanging from tree limbs. This place would make a perfect setting for a voodoo halloween party.
Stepping inside, the place was dark, and lonely. One other couple that I could see was seated in a corner, zydeco music was playing, and the decor was what you would expect in a backwoods cajun hideaway. No host/hostess was in sight at or around the greeting station. Out of nowhere a voice came up from behind me: “Welcome to Neon Leon’s. How may I help you?” I spun around and there stood a beautiful dark skinned woman in a long flowing dress, jewelry everywhere. A voodoo princess? She sure looked the part. She escorted me to my table with a smooth gliding walk, and with a ghostlike smile, said my server would be right with me. The lyrics “you may check out any time you like, but you can never leave” from The Eagle’s Hotel California suddenly popped into my head.
After my delicious yum-bo gumbo meal, I started walking towards the exit, looking for the hostess who was nowhere to be found. Or was she? I thought I heard a soft voice say “Goodbye for now. You will be back”, but no one was around, I think. I was allowed to leave as I walked out the door to where the beaST was waiting. It took a moment to find her as she was now sandwiched between two behemoths in the parking lot:
Saying goodbye to Neon Leon’s, I turned the beaST north eastward as it was now time to head inland, putting the west coast of Florida in my mirrors. My next waypoint was Gainesville, a very special place for me for many reasons, but none so special as it was the place where my wife and I met. The roads to Gainesville opened up, becoming secondary highways, as Gainesville is the largest city in north central Florida, being home to the University of Florida and the Gator Nation.
I decided to avoid downtown Gainesville as it was a Friday, mid afternoon, and that means college kids streaming out of class for the weekend and traffic congestion up the ying yang. Instead, a must visit was to a place that changed my life dramatically and in the most positive way:
The Florida School of Massage in Gainesville presented itself to me at a very turbulent time in my life. It provided me with a career change from which I have never looked back, and most importantly, it is the place where my wife and I met, and started new lives, new careers, and for me, entering the training program to become a beagle minion, which, happily, continues to this day! Hence my fascination with this entertaining breed.
The sun was getting lower in the sky as I cranked up the V-4 for the final leg to Amelia Island. Two hours later I crossed over the Amelia River and into Fernandina Beach. Pulling into the parking lot of the same hotel I stayed in a week before, I shut down the ST for the final time in Florida. It was a long and exhilerating day with lots of great riding. I was hungry. A quick shower and a short walk beachside to Sandy Bottoms Beach Bar & Grill where I ordered up a few Landshark beers and a good fish dinner and salad, enjoying it all on the outdoor patio as the waves of the Atlantic crashed on the beach. It was now time to kick back, enjoy the beautiful Amelia Island sunset, and listen to some great blues music while I could still stay awake.
Now you can see why this is such a favorite place for Ruth and I, with the added bonus of it not being too long a drive from home!
The blues band was exceptional! What a great venue; outdoors, listening to one of my favorite genres of music, the sun setting on the beaches of Amelia. A perfect last night in the Sunshine State.
By now it was about 11PM, and I was knackered. I have a loooonnnggg day in the saddle tomorrow, a straight shot home to South Carolina on the superslab – 380 miles. Got to get to bed. Retracing the short walk back to my hotel, I crash in bed. Visions of this great trip and accomplishment for me dance around in my brain. Then the beer put me to sleep………………..
And In The End…………Home Sweet Home
I don’t dislike the superslab. Traveling at high rates of speed on a motorcycle in relative safety is exhilerating. But they are not my prefered avenue of travel. However, they do serve a purpose, and for me, today, it was about getting home expediently. Thus, the I’s: I-95, I-26, I-385 to home. This is where the ST shines: chewing up miles like candy, comfortably and quickly. I settled in for the long haul. By early afternoon I passed the Welcome To South Carolina sign and stopped for a brief respite (i.e. pee break) before pressing on. By late afternoon I exited off the last “I” and cruised home into my driveway. It was a long and tiring day. As always, Roo and the beagles heard the whine of the ST’s engine and came running out. I shut down The ST for the last time on this trip, then it was hugs and beagle kisses all around. Tonight, we celebrate the accomplishment of a goal a long time in coming, and the joys of travel by way of motorcycle.
SIMPSONVILLE, SC TO KEY WEST, FL
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