March 10 2011 by Jason Fogelson
I manage to avoid the waffles this morning at breakfast. I do not manage to avoid the biscuits and sausage gravy that the BEST WESTERN Capital Inn & Suites provide, however. Delicious, and quite filling. I'm ready to ride.
I'm growing quite attached to this Electra Glide Classic. A fellow guest buttonholes me in the parking lot while I'm gearing up to ride, and we have a great conversation about his work for Harley-Davidson, as a supplier for electrical parts. We both stand and admire the bike in the morning sun. "I bet that'll do just about anything you want it to," he says. He's right. I feel like I could ride around the globe on this bike, just in time to start another loop around again.
For now, I only have to ride Florida's Panhandle region. I'm going to follow my nose a bit today, without a firm ride plan. As long as I keep heading west, I can go south at any time and pick up US 98, which runs along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico all the way along the Panhandle. I'm going to explore the interior a little bit before I dip down, just to see what it's like.
I'm rewarded with some beautiful two-lane roads, bobbing and weaving through farmland and small towns. I had no idea that there were so many small farms and ranches in Florida. Some look a bit ramshackle; others exude prosperity. Often, the two kinds of farm share a boundary. It makes for a very interesting ride. The roads are smooth and serene, with gently sweeping curves and small changes in elevation. The temperature is in the low 70s, which makes for very pleasant riding.
In the city of Chattahoochee, Florida, I finally decide to change direction, and head south. I glide through pine woods, and the ambiance gradually shifts from rural farmland to sleepy beach town. Soon, the Gulf of Mexico is in view. I connect with US 98, and resume my journey westward.
There's a big military presence in Florida, especially evident in the Panhandle. I pass several installations, including airfields and artillery testing grounds. The US has over 109,000 personnel stationed in the state of Florida, and many of them are clustered in the Panhandle. Makes you feel safe.
Starting in Port St. Joe, though, the coastal towns are dominated by vacation and leisure businesses. Mile after mile of ocean view homes line the beach, and the white sand beaches look incredibly inviting. Many homes sport "For Sale" signs. I'm not sure if this is a symptom of the economy, a result of the BP oil spill, or just the nature of resort areas during the off-season, but it doesn't paint a rosy picture. Things will probably look very different in a few weeks when the weather warms up.
I ride through a few of the famous Spring Break towns, like Panama City and Panama Beach. Without all of the crazy college students, they are sedate and relaxed. That too will change in a few weeks. Glad I'm here now, and not fighting the crowds.
I stop for lunch in Destin at Pompano Joe's, a famous local hangout on the beach. They serve an amazing sandwich, the Grouper Reuben, which is just what it sounds like. They substitute grilled grouper for pastrami in the classic Reuben sandwich. I finish up with a slice of Key Lime pie, because I'm on the Gulf Coast, for heaven's sake. I'm fortified for the rest of my ride.
Which isn't too far now. Just a few towns over is my destination, Fort Walton Beach and the BEST WESTERN Fort Walton Beachfront Hotel. I check in, and rush to my 6th floor room, which overlooks the Gulf. I have a great balcony view, and the weather is absolutely perfect. I quickly shed my motorcycle gear, put on my swimming trunks and head down to the beach. The water is crystal clear, the sand is white and all is well with the world. I luxuriate with a cigar and the Sinatra biography on my Kindle. Life is good.
The sun begins to set over the Gulf, and I'm hungry again. Both things happen every day, like clockwork, and I'm always delighted.
I go back up to my room and change for dinner. Heather at the front desk has recommended several nearby restaurants, all within walking distance. I decide to go to Old Bay Steamer, because I'm in the mood for more fresh seafood. I get a platter full of fresh steamed crab, shrimp, clams and oysters, accompanied by new potatoes and corn on the cob. My platter comes with a set of nutcrackers and a bucket for shells. This is the kind of meal I have to roll up my sleeves for, because I'm going to get messy. At least I'm not alone, as fellow patrons fill their buckets and happily wipe their faces with rolls of paper towels. I tempt the fates with another slice of Key Lime pie for dessert. This slice is even better than the one I had at Pompano Joe's. I recently learned that a real slice of Key Lime pie isn't green - the green is food coloring, and doesn't add to the flavor. Old Bay Steamer's pie is suitably cream-colored, and delicious.
I waddle back to the hotel, and notice a sign promising a free drink in the hotel bar. All I have to do is "Like" Swizzle Stick Martini Lounge on Facebook. No problem! I whip out my iPhone, click on the Facebook app, find the company and point to "Like." A quick stop at the front desk, and I've got a coupon for a free drink in the tiny bar across the lobby. Swizzle Stick turns out to be a cozy little hole in the wall joint with a 10-seat bar and a few tables. They feature live music every night of the week, usually a singer/guitarist playing cover tunes. It's a great little spot, and tonight it is full of friendly hotel guests enjoying each other's company. I relax with my free drink, leave a nice tip at the bar, and retire for the evening.
Tomorrow is the last day of my ride. I'm ready for home, but already missing this trip. I'll continue following the Gulf Coast, winding up back in New Orleans where I started five days ago, five states ago.
Miles ridden: 218
Next: Fort Walton Beach, Florida to New Orleans and home again