There’s a place where the spirits of the Hesperides is strong, where watching the final glimmer of golden sunlight as it disappears beyond the horizon has become a nightly Bacchanalian festival. Key West, Florida is rumored to have the most beautiful sunsets around and every evening artists, musicians and street performers flock to Mallory Square for the sunset celebration. It’s one big street party as people come from around the globe to take part in the festivities. Headed out of Daytona Beach in the early morning at the conclusion of Bike Week, we set a course for the Keys in hopes of arriving before the sun goes down. We’ve got 450 miles to cover first if we want to share in the celebration so we stuff the saddlebags on our 2010 Star Stratoliner Deluxes and ride hard.
We make good time on the first stretch down I-95. The road is arrow-straight and with its powerful 1854cc mill, the Stratoliners are leaving cars in our wake. The big pushrod-operated V-Twin is definitely one of the motorcycle’s strong points. Roll on the throttle and a healthy dose of power is readily available. It thumps along with plenty of character but without a rash of unnecessary vibrations thanks to efficient dual counterbalancers. We take advantage of fast-moving traffic and make good time cruising at around 80 mph. Just east of Orlando, we spot the turn-off to the Kennedy Space Center, sight of our unforgettable tour on the day the orbiter Discovery landed.
(L) The fairing of the 2010 Stratoliner Deluxe is fork-mounted and made from a combination of polycarbonate and ABS construction. (R) You’ve got to pass over a lot of bridges to get to Key West. (R) We raced the setting sun across Florida in hopes of catching the Key West sunset celebration.
We press on, watching the trees get smaller the farther south we travel. After almost three and half hours in the saddle, the welcome from the Star Stratoliner’s padded saddle has worn off and our buns are getting numb so we pull over at Boynton Beach for lunch at Two Georges Restaurant & Conch Bar. White yachts pass in the blue-green waters of the channel next to the restaurant and we rejuvenate on hearty lunches, from crab cake sandwiches to a house specialty called the Two Georges Waterfront Salad. After a hearty meal, we cut over to US-91, aka the Florida Turnpike, to continue our quest south. It is a toll road and multiple stops to pay the fare at toll booths impede our progress. Traffic has also picked up as we skirt the metropolises of Ft. Lauderdale and Miami.
We finally breach the congestion of urban sprawl as we approach the end of the state. The road cuts through sawgrass marshes and the shallow pools of the Florida wetlands before reaching Key West. The white feathers of long-necked egrets and cranes stand out like stars against the lush green landscape. Rolling through this corner of the Everglades, signs warn us to watch for gators on the road.
A tarpon explodes out of the water at Robbie’s to grab a baitfish. Austin (below) finds out the hard way why they call them ‘hungry tarpon.’
Before long, US-1 deposits us in the first step of the Keys. The Stratoliner Deluxe has made an admirable tourer thus far, with its wide fork-mounted fairing deflecting all but a small amount of buffeting at the crown of my head. The fairing is lightweight and doesn’t inhibit steering. I take advantage of the iPod plug-in and let it randomly shuffle through my library as I ride. The five-inch speakers provide clean sound unless I unleash the bellow of the aftermarket pipes which drowns them out with a robust exhaust note you feel inside your bones. Life slows down to Key time as Highway 1 squeezes down to two lanes and the speed limit drops. Prepare for a slow journey over the next 100 miles as the speed limit varies from 55-35 mph with most stretches in the 45 mph range. Starting in Key Largo, people will not hesitate to pull out in front of you, so going slow and taking it all in is the way to go. Besides, this gives you an opportunity to soak in all the natural splendor of the Keys. It also allows for more reaction time since you’re in a heavily traveled area of cross traffic with vehicles entering at any time from both sides of the road. This prevents riders from getting a spendy ticket, too, from one of the numerous troopers that lie in wait and like to conceal themselves in clusters of parked cars at roadside businesses.
We stop to stretch our legs just outside of Islamorada, pulling over at a building covered in bright aquatic-themed murals called the Hungry Tarpon Restaurant. We head out back to Robbie’s and quickly learn why this is the sportfishing capital of the world. Beneath the docks of the marina, giant tarpons circle just below the waterline looking for an easy meal. We plunk down a couple of bucks to get us a bucket of baitfish. Seeing a row of what looks like teeth jutting out from massive jaws, it takes a moment to overcome the fear of losing a finger or hand before we buck up and dangle a fish just above the water. The tarpon strike fast, lunging out of the water usually in the opposite direction you’re looking, mouths hungrily agape as they snatch fish out of your hands. Some of the tarpon are as big as me. Pelicans waddle down the docks trying to steal the baitfish as we watch a brave teen named Austin hold his arm down unflinchingly as a big tarpon takes the bait and half his arm into his mouth.
Traveling from bridge to bridge, different Keys have different smells, from sulfuric to peaty to salty. I bet locals can almost identify which Key they’re on with their eyes closed simply by taking in a big whiff. It is stimulation of the senses like this that make me glad I ride a motorcycle. We press on for another 50 miles before pulling out on the No Name Key, home to the endangered Key Deer. Signs warn riders to be on the lookout for the miniaturized deer who call the island home. The little critters are a friendly lot and will approach you if you remain still and quiet. The signs that warn of their presence also warn visitors not to feed the deer. A collision with a motorcycle would easily be fatal for this endangered species.
The No Name Pub is biker-friendly and is rumored to have the ‘Best Pizza in the Keys.’ Inside, the walls and ceiling of the pub are covered in thousands of dollar bills.
We pull in to the biker-friendly establishment called the No Name Pub which is claimed to have the “Best Pizza in the Keys.” It also has unique décor as every inch of the walls and ceiling of the pub is decorated in one dollar bills. They hang from the rafters five and six deep. We take a seat at a table with an Easy Rider article about the bar mounted in a display case above our table. Our server informs us that they’ve got a mathematical equation to estimate the amount of money on the walls which currently stands at over $115,000. We take out a pen to write our names and “Star Stratoliners in the Keys 2011” on a dollar before adding it to the collection.
Coming out of the pub, the sun hangs just above the palms so we fire up the Stratoliner Deluxes and jump back on Hwy 1. The custom version I’m riding has Speedstar Competition Long Drag aftermarket pipes that put out a big bark and add to the bikes already prodigious amounts of pep. I’m ready to uncork some of this power and make the 33-mile dash to Key West, but traffic isn’t letting us make any time and the bottom of the sun is touching the water as we cross the final bridge.
We hit Duval Street in downtown Key West holding onto a glimmer of hope of catching the party at Mallory Square. Music spills out of open-air bars like Sloppy Joes and Margaritaville and the sidewalks in the trendy shopping district are packed with spring breakers. Classic conch houses with wrap-around verandas mix with bigger buildings with New England-style charm that have been converted into businesses and restaurants. It’s Friday night so the stoplight-to-stoplight crawl kills any hopes of catching the sun setting over the water. But cheerful people standing at street corners are giving the Stratoliners big thumbs up. The light blue of the sky overhead is deepening to purple as we arrive at the Ocean Key Hotel about ten minutes too late. We catch the tail of the sunset celebration from our hotel balcony overlooking Mallory Square. Despite the sun’s descent into the Gulf of Mexico, the spectacle continues with drumming and guitars, to performers teetering above the crowd on a 15-foot-tall unicycle to the bawdy humor of comedian and juggler, The Great Rondini. Vendors and craftsman hawk their handmade wares and the smell of popcorn fills the air. We catch bits of accents from around the world in the crowd in the multicultural affair.
After a 450-mile dash down Florida, we give the Stratoliners a well-deserved break in the parking lot of the hotel. It feels good to stretch our legs with a walk around town. At the suggestion of the hotel concierge, we head over to the Conch Republic Seafood Co. for dinner. A young guy with long, brown dreads entertains the crowd with a Sublime song. The restaurant serves up culinary treats like Key West Mahi crusted in plantains and award-winning Stuffed Shrimp wrapped with bacon and stuffed with blue crab. The food is incredible and affordable and their list of Caribbean rums is long. Afterwards we stroll over to the Schooner Wharf Bar for more strong rum drinks disguised in fruity concoctions and catch a set by local favorites, the Doerfels. The music by the family group is funky and fun. One brother strums away on a homemade hockey stick mandolin while another plucks a stand-up bass. You can barely see the baby-faced 13-year-old drummer behind the riser but you can hear him laying down a beat. The sister works her magic on the violin and vocals while a local named George sits in on the sax as the talented group plays into the night.
The next morning we wake to the sight of a cruise ship sitting dockside outside our patio window. We’ve got a photo and video shoot of the 2010 Stratoliner Deluxes slated for the afternoon so we take a morning tour of the Keys from the water with Sea Rocket Boats. Climbing aboard Hydrothunder, like good motorcycle guys we sit gawking at its twin turbo 325 horsepower engines. Jokingly we brag about the Stratoliner’s 117 lb-ft of torque and its forged pistons cooled by oil jets. Captain Jack shares tidbits of the island’s history with us, from how the economy revolved around sponges until they overharvested them to how locals would turn off the lighthouse and ships would wreck so they could lay claim to their cargo. He took us for a spin around the manmade Hilton Island formed from sand pumped in when they dredged the harbor. A vintage stunt plane is doing 360s and rolls in the sky while we sit back and enjoy our aqua tour.
Afterwards, we fire the Stratoliner Deluxes back up to take a ride to the Sourthernmost Point buoy. Even in the middle of the afternoon, there’s a long line of visitors waiting to have their picture taken at the tip of the continental U.S. We jockey for position with the crowds for a photo op before heading over to another local hangout, the Hogfish Grill, for some fish tacos.
The Doerfel brothers jam out at Sloppy Joe’s. Our trip to the Keys wouldn’t have been complete without a slice of Key Lime Pie.
The palm-lined marina behind the Hogfish serves as a perfect backdrop to shoot pics of the customized Star Stratoliner Deluxe we’ve been riding. The deep luster of the bronze paint and the yellow and burnt orange accents on the custom Deluxe are glistening under direct sun. The paint scheme draws out the details of the Strato Deluxe, from the lines of its wide front fairing to the art deco ribs on the gas and oil tanks. Every surface of the Jeff Palhegyi-customized Stratoliner is color-matched, from the fairings to the fenders, saddlebags to the tanks. Chrome adds to the bike’s classy disposition, from the saddlebag trim rails to custom teardrop mirrors. The fairing lowers designed by Palhegyi have been a boon during our 450-mile ride and though it has a shorty smoked windscreen, it has helped as well by providing a cocoon in the saddle. The bike is a prime example of the customization potential of the Stratoliner Deluxe and draws attention everywhere we go. The diversity of people who have admired the bike is crazy, ranging from hardcore bikers to little old ladies in front of our hotel.
We spend our last night doing the bar hop down Duvall. We follow the sound of the band we can hear from our hotel patio as it travels down the alleyway from the Hog’s Breath Saloon. We sip frozen rum-spiced drinks at Fat Tuesday before piling into The World’s Smallest Bar. In our quest for the best tiki bars in town, we leave the Stratoliners parked safely away at the hotel. Though we missed our date with the Hesperides at the sunset celebration, we dive headfirst into the party in the Duvall district that rages into the wee hours as we agree it’s time to start a new celebration for the sunrise.