Mark Terrill led a couple on bicycles down a narrow road lined by perfectly manicured trees, flowers and shrubs. At the end was the crystalline white sand beach of The Moorings Village, a luxurious 18-acre resort along the Atlantic Ocean that formerly was a coconut plantation.
“This is where they filmed scenes from the movies ‘Hannibal’ and ‘I Am Number Four,’ ” Terrill said, adding it also has been a popular location for photo shoots by the likes of Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated.
As fortune would have it, a bikini-clad model was having water poured on her while being photographed by a professional crew. She was sitting on a bent palm tree that hangs over the sand and water.
“That palm tree is probably one of the most famous palm trees in the world,” Terrill said.
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For people seeking a quick getaway from the hubbub of city life, pedal-or-paddle outings are growing in popularity. They provide opportunities to relax and soak in nature and history while getting a little exercise at the same time.
The Upper and Middle Keys now offer many places to rent eco-friendly bicycles, kayaks and the increasingly popular stand up paddleboards. Guides are available to lead the way through mangrove creeks or along side roads away from busy U.S. 1.
It’s also easy in the Keys to explore by land or sea on your own, with shop owners who are usually helpful in providing information on where to go.
Paul Leonard and Samantha Rooney, a couple from Coral Springs, Fla., recently made a bike tour of Islamorada with Terrill’s company, Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours, which Rooney found on the Internet.
“You can’t really see all this when you’re driving fast in a car,” Rooney, 33, said as she rode a cruiser 3-speed at about 7 mph. “And I’m getting exercise, too.”
The two-hour, two-mile and 10-stop tour also takes riders to the Hurricane Monument, which memorializes those who perished in the Category 5 monster Labor Day storm of 1935, and in front of a gated waterfront home. Terrill explains that in 1994 the home was rented out during mini-lobster season. The Sheriff’s Office got a call at night about a possible burglary because only flashlights were being used.
Three deputies responded to the call and caught five men offloading 3,500 pounds of cocaine from boats. One of those deputies was Terrill.
“We thought we were going to find kids breaking in,” he said.
Terrill spent six months researching the history of Islamorada for the tour, noting that the founding families in the 1800s paid $3.27 each for 150 acres of homestead land. He points out the graveyard of the Pinders, one of the founding families, that’s located near the beach at the swanky Cheeca Lodge.
N.C. transplants are outfitters
Backcountry Cowboy Outfitters, which was opened nine years ago by N.C. transplants J.S. Mikula and Kristi Holman, also rents bikes. They offer cruisers, hybrids and road bikes, which make for a nice 40-mile jaunt to Duck Key and back along a series of bridges with views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.
They do not offer guided bike tours, but do educate bike renters about the area. “We tell them about the great Old Highway system we have here and show them satellite imagery,” Mikula said.
The Old Highway runs parallel to U.S. 1 on the ocean side for most of Islamorada. During early mornings, bikers may see Jimmie Johnson, the former University of Miami and Miami Dolphins coach, running on the Old Highway, which is picturesque and usually has light traffic.
Also off the beaten path is a two-mile hiking and biking trail that’s reopened at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. The park, which once was going to be bulldozed for condos, features one of the largest West Indian tropical hardwood hammocks in the United States and is home to 84 protected species of plants and animals.
During the past few years, much work has been done on the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, which now has 70 miles of bike and pedestrian recreational trail. It’s part of the planned 106-mile corridor from Key Largo to Key West. The trail includes 23 of Henry Flagler’s historic railroad bridges.
The trail, however, is not continuous and often ends abruptly. It also requires crossing U.S. 1 at several points, with some of the trail on the ocean side and other parts on the bay side. Information is available at www.floridagreenwaysandtrails.com.
For those who like to paddle, the website also provides information for kayakers who want to follow the heritage trail.
June 2: National Trails Day
On June 2, National Trails Day, there will be a free guided bike tour and kayak trip to Indian Key in Islamorada, but participants must bring their own bikes and kayaks or rent them.
Twenty years ago, when Frank Woll opened Florida Bay Outfitters in Key Largo, kayaking was not nearly as popular as it is today. “But I wanted to do something that was environmentally friendly and something that would allow me to sleep at night,” said the New Jersey native.
The company offers several guided tours. “Every trip is different,” Woll said. The reason: weather conditions and mobile wildlife.
The Garden Cove Tour that winds along the mangroves on the ocean side is his most popular. And summer is the best time to kayak in the Keys, when the warmer waters attract more sea life and calmer winds make for clearer water and less strenuous paddling.
“In the summer turtles start coming around,” he said. “You always see dolphins year round, but now you will see more stingrays and spotted eagle rays. Nurse sharks come in to mate and you might get lucky and see them.”
Herons and pelicans are always around.
Woll recommends kayaking during the week, when boat traffic is lighter.
In Key Largo, rentals also are available at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can rent and launch kayaks or canoes for self-guided exploration of calm channels and meandering mangrove creeks.
A few miles down the road in Islamorada, Backcountry Cowboy Outfitters offers kayak rentals and guided tours. One trip goes to Indian Key Historic State Park, where you can take a break from paddling to explore the island that in 1836 was the first Dade County seat.
The island once was the site of a lucrative business for salvaging cargo from shipwrecks along the reefs of the Keys.
Paddling with ‘Kayak Dave’
“Kayak Dave” Kaplan, 52, who was a safety kayaker last year during Diana Nyad’s attempt to swim from Cuba to Key West, has been giving tours by water for 12 years around Marathon and the Everglades.
His most popular trip is an approximately three-hour tour that goes to Sister Creek, Whiskey Key and uninhabited Boot Key. It’s a circuit that goes under a canopy of single-file mangrove trails and secret passageways and opens up to isolated lagoons.
For the more ambitious, he also offers a Seven Mile Bridge crossing, with stops at historic Pigeon Key and Molasses Key, which has a white sandy beach where people can snorkel.
“You’ll never know what you see there,” he said. “I’ve even seen an octopus.”
Stand up paddleboarding, an ancient form of surfing with Hawaiian origins, has become increasingly popular. Unlike surfing, it’s easy to learn.
“And because you stand on the board, it’s easier to view what’s in the water,” said Terrill, whose Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours also rents stand up paddleboards and gives guided tours with them. “You can see dolphins and manatees and especially going across the flats to Indian Key you can see tons of fish.”