Road Trip: ATL to Key West & Back (Part I: Orlando)

THE TRIP

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 8.03.46 PMThis three-part blog series describes our pre-anniversary vacation get-away to Key West, Florida.  This would be our third visit to Key West and something of a bucket list trip since we’d be making the journey from Atlanta to Key West by motorcycle.  Given that we’re on a motorcycle, the trip needed to be broken-up into manageable day-rides of not more than 8 hours / 500 miles.  Therefore, what you’ll find in this first blog entry (Part I) is some pre-ride activities, the Saturday ride down to Orlando as well as our two-day stay in Orlando.  The subsequent blog entry (Part II) covers the Monday ride from Orlando to Key West and our four-day visit in Key West.  The final blog entry (Part III) covers the Friday ride from Key West to St. Augustine, our two days in St. Augustine and the final ride home on Sunday.  The direct mileage for the trip is 1,743. However, Blue’s odometer clicked off a total of 1,848.3 miles from start to finish noting that we did make some side trips in Orlando & St. Augustine.

THURSDAY

20150625_200832Other than acquiring the SunPass for the Florida Turnpike (which arrived last Tuesday) and doing the typical pre-ride checks on fluids and tire-pressure there really wasn’t a lot of anything special to do in terms of “getting anything” for 1,800-mile motorcycle trip to Key West and back. Blue will probably need to go in for a new rear tire and perhaps some warranty check things when we get back, but is otherwise running well and needs nothing.

With the bike and good-to-go all I needed to do was to bring them back together which I did on Thursday night. The next task was pulling out all of the rain gear as we’d definitely be encountering rain on our travels to Orlando and Key West.

Also on Thursday I pulled the vent doors off Blue’s lowers so there would be more airflow past the engine on the ride down. As soon as Blue goes out of warranty I’ll probably change out the cams to see if that can fix the engine heat: the engine heat from the 110” motors is truly unbearable once the ambient air temp hit’s the mid-80’s / low-90’s even when you’re rolling along at highway speeds .

20150626_220619I also had to cut the lawn as it would be an absolute mess if I let it grow for two full weeks given we’d be having several days of much-needed rain. I threw in a couple of loads of laundry while I was cutting the lawn to get a leg up on that activity as I’d need several pair of socks for the 9-day trip.  Debbie used her evening to pick out the outfits she wanted to have for the trip; always fun when I get a fashion show!

FRIDAY

As work came to a close on Friday, we had two things.. well, three things we had to do: Finally a Friday at Loco Willy’s, packing the clothes we’d be taking and getting a good night’s rest before the 475-mile ride down to Orlando.

logoWith everything staged at home, we headed off to Loco Willy’s for Finally a Friday and despite finding the inside bar filled with interlopers, we were able to find seats at the outside bar with Billy and had a great time visiting with our partners in crime David & Deb. As we head south to Key West, they’ll be heading southwest to New Orleans for the 4th of July as our motorcycle travel plans were a bit too ambitious for all but the really hardcore touring riders. So, we’ll have a great time once we’re all back from our separate adventures sharing our experiences and memories on July 10th!

Back at home after Finally a Friday, it was really pretty low-key: most of our luggage was ready to go in the morning so all we had to do was get to bed, have a good-nights rest and be up around 6am so we could be on the road before 7am. That all played out rather well as, well… never mind. Let’s just say it was a nice night and a very good morning that put us in the right frame of mind for our vacation which was all about relaxing.

SATURDAY

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 7.57.13 PMI should probably note that other than having to be in Orlando by Sunday, Key West by Monday, St Augustine by Friday and back home by Sunday night, there are no other firm plans for this vacation. No, this vacation is all about relaxing so there aren’t any schedules or appointments other than 9am on Sunday in Orlando and the aforementioned check-in days at our hotel in Orlando and the Cypress House in Key West. This will be a first for me / us!!!

As I said, we were up around 6am without the assistance of the alarm and out of bed about 30 minutes later we were packing the bags, checking the weather and figuring out what we needed to wear for the first leg of the ride down through Macon into South Georgia. We had a good thundershower roll through around 5:00am that soaked all of the roads pretty well so even though it wasn’t raining when we rolled out around 7am, we had rain pants, our insulated wind breakers, all-weather gloves and our full-face helmets on which was definitely the right call. The roads leaving Atlanta were all wet and that made for a messy ride. However, with the right gear on we had a comfortable, dry and warm ride into daybreak.

20150627_094119Our first stop didn’t come until we reached Cordele, Georgia, around 9:00am, about a third of the way to Orlando. Cracker Barrel was our safe-haven for a late morning breakfast snack and we were able to ditch the rain pants as partly sunny skies were beginning to heat things up. I also switched over to my half helmet. Of course, about half-an-hour later I could see rain on the horizon and knew we’d be going through it. However, on the bright side, I could see through the rain and could also see sunny skies on the back side. So, I rolled the dice and we kept pressing without stopping to put on the rain gear and got lucky. My knees were soaked but the nylon insulated jackets kept my upper body dry and, well, my body blocked the rain from Debbie. Within 20 minutes my jeans were dry and we were good… for a while.

About an hour later I could see dark clouds and black skies on the horizon. There was no sense that the rain was going to be light or let up so we pulled off and put back on the full rain gear and full-face helmets and it was the right call: the next 45 minutes we were in and out of rain-soaked roads, light and heavy rain with thunder and lightning all around. It was a mess, but we were warm, dry and comfortable the whole time. After we got past that the sun broke through and by that time we were just north of Gainesville, Florida.

20150627_125345I was hoping we could take off the rain gear but looking at weather-radar it looked like there were some strong storms just ahead of us so we stayed in the rain gear for the next leg, other than me putting back on my ½ helmet. As it turned out, the rain had just passed before we rolled through so it was good that we had on rain gear to help with all of the road spray and lingering showers. But, shortly thereafter we began to bake in our rain gear as the temps had soared to the 90’s with unrelenting sun.

20150627_134622At the next exit we stopped and stripped off all the rain gear and Debbie switched to her ¾ helmet as it looked like we’d be “enjoying” sunny skies all the way to Orlando and sunny skies meant hot highways… and I mean HOT highways. We hopped on the Florida Turnpike just about 15 minutes after our 3rd stop and thank God we ditched all but our street clothes and helmets: IT WAS HOT! Oh, and love that SunPass… Sure, it sucks to pay $30 to drive to Key West, but at least we didn’t have to stop and pay tolls.

We rolled into the Hilton Grand Resorts / Tuscany just around 2:30pm and began our vacation in earnest. I will say, the Hilton Resort properties and personnel gave us a great first-impression which they sustained throughout the visit.

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We hit the pool-side bar and grill as soon as we arrived for a late lunch and made fast friends with Jason our bartender and server. We had our first cocktails of the week along with an exceptional grilled Mahi-Mahi wrap and Caesar salad and began to decompress in earnest. After lunch we moved into our room, then hit the pool to grab some vitamin D before heading back to the pool-side bar for more cocktails and dinner with Jason. We must have spent two hours having dinner by which time the poolside movie – Spongebob Squarepants, the movie – began on the big screen as the sun went down. Son-of-a-gun, it was a very entertaining movie… and a great end to a great first day of our vacation.

SUNDAY

Without any assistance from the alarm clock, we were up around 7:30am, had a light breakfast at the hotel bistro around 8:15 and by 8:45 were on Blue headed towards our Hilton Grand Vacations marketing presentation at the Park Soleil property at 9am.

hilton_grand_vacationsLet me summarize the Hilton Grand Vacation experience this way: very informative and eye-opening. VERY polished sales people and a good product. Good enough that we ended up basically buying into an option to take a pre-paid 7-day vacation in Hawaii during the next 18 months for about ½ the cost of what anyone would pay for a 4-star hotel OR the option to buy into the Hilton Grand Vacation Club against any of the “deals” offered to us with some very nice points bonuses. Suckers? maybe. We’ve got a lot of homework to do on how the fractional ownership plans work (Clark Howard, here we come), but if we understand it we think we can find a sweet spot on the plans available to us that will open up more travel at lower lodging costs and hit a break-even-point in 4 to 5 years tops. Again, worst case scenario, we’ll be able to stay in a two-bedroom condo at very nice Hilton Property on Oahu for 7 days at about .50 cents on the dollar within the next 18 months, our two-night stay in Orlando plus another night at a Hilton Garden Inn of our choice (we’re thinking Gatlinburg).  We’ve always wanted to take a trip to Hawaii so perhaps this will become the forcing function. I get a fly-anywhere companion pass each year from Delta that we rarely use and really should so it could all work out rather nicely.  If you’re more curious what the sales presentation was like, here’s a link to a blog entry from someone who attended back in 2013 and who also passed on the primary product offering. Not sure if they had the “price freeze” option that they offered to us during the “feedback session” with the Corp. Manager as  it wasn’t mentioned. So that may be the only difference.

After our presentation, we headed back to our own Hilton Grand Vacations resort where we split a burger at the pool-side-bar and grill (great food and good value, really) and then spent the first half the afternoon relaxing by the pool.

Orlando-Harley-Davidson-ExteriorWe took a short ride on Blue over to Harley-Davidson of Orlando to see what it looked like (I was underwhelmed considering how big the market must be here) but walked away with a $20 do-rag as my head was getting burnt on the ride over. Yes, that means we were embracing and enjoying the heck out of Florida’s “use your own judgment” laws regarding helmets. We stopped off on the way back to the Hilton to grab Debbie a big tall fountain drink and some more Bull Frog sunscreen; can’t have too much sunscreen in Florida!  Once we were back at the Hilton it was back to the pool-side-grill & bar for cocktails, appetizers and dinner.

1080602_58_bThe evening at the bar was truly exceptional. Jason was there to take care of us and even with kids running around at the pool, the bar was an oasis for us. There’s sports on the televisions if you need a distraction, Jason and the rest of the staff are a joy to talk with and the other patrons have been Easter Eggs. Everyone we’ve met have been interesting and enjoyable folks to talk with who are clearly as relaxed as we are. The food has been excellent: better than 90% of the restaurants you’ll find in any city and great values for folks like us who split most of our meals. We’ve had nothing but very good Mahi-Mahi, salmon, shrimp and the aforementioned burger and lovely salads with every meal. They spin-up Fat Tuesday frozen drinks a drink at a time with a blender and cubed ice (the only way to do it if you don’t have a bank of Taylor machines running) and it’s just been wonderful.

In fact, I’ve been writing most of the Saturday and Sunday blog entries sitting here at the bar sipping my Silver Tequila intermixed with soft drinks and with Miss Debbie at my side engaging in a running dialog. What could be better? I’m not sure I’ve ever sat at a bar for hour hours and felt more welcome just being there. This almost makes us want to stay for the next three nights instead of heading on to Key West… Almost.

The one huge negative about the stay here was the nearly complete lack of sound proofing between our room and the one next to vis-a-vis the adjoining door.  On our first night we apparently had no one next door as it was a delightful and quiet evening.  However, on Sunday night we found ourselves listening to two older women who were loud and overly talkative for the better part of an hour around 10:00-11:00p.  Oh… My…. God!  Really?  And, as luck would have it, one them woke up hacking and otherwise having something of a morning spell and their roommate playing 20 questions… again, without any moderation on the volume.  So, at least for any future stays, we’d definitely be asking for a studio or one-bedroom without an adjoining door… if that was possible.  Hey, we like our privacy and quiet!

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About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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