We start at the crossroads of Grand Avenue, McFarlane and Main Highway.
Mounting up and proceeding one block east, we turn into Commodore Plaza. We take in its shop windows and outdoor restaurants, going up one side and coming back on the other.
Everyone knows that Commodore Plaza is the heart of Coconut Grove but not everyone knows about the Commodore. About 50 yards to the west along Main Highway, a plaque tells the story of "Commodore" Ralph Middleton Munroe who built his home here in 1891. Back then Coconut Grove was a fishing village and there was no Miami, just a "Fort Dallas." The Commodore made his living salvaging goods from ships that wrecked on the coral reefs stretching south of Key Biscayne to Elliott Key and Key Largo. And behind the hardwood forest is the entrance to his 1891-vintage home, the Barnacle, now a state historical site (open 9AM to 4PM, Fri.-Mon.).
Returning to Main Highway, we saddle up and head west along the tree-root-encrusted, coral wall.
Was your face brushed by hanging, brown "mono-filament" lines? They are air roots from the ficus banyan trees towering above. A turn-of-the-century import to South Florida from India, the ficus banyan trees quickly made themselves at home. Vine-like, they grow up the sides of indigenous trees as "strangler figs," gaining height, then extending lateral limbs with hanging air roots that take hold and turn into a tree trunk.
Continuing westward, the brick sidewalk gives way to an asphalt bicycle path running through a ficus tunnel. Main Highway is lined with churches and schools. After three minutes riding, we notice on the right a coral wall capped with orange tiles. Behind this is Plymouth Congregational Church.
We turn in for a closer look. Spanish mission style facade and bell-tower, and its charming courtyards make this a much-sought church for weddings, as well as for prayer and quiet devotional thought. Exploring the church grounds to the north, we come across a bronze plaque marking the site of the "Cocoanut Grove Public Utilities Company" (telephone and water) established in 1916 by William Matheson.
We mount our bikes again and ride west. At the Vanguard School, the bike path curves left and runs along Douglas Rd. Historic Ingraham "Highway" veers off to the right but we don't take it. Unfortunately, that green tunnel carries too much fast-moving traffic. We continue south (straight) on the bike path along Douglas Rd. At the bottom of the run is Sunrise Park with drinking fountains.
We turn right at the 16-story Italianate condominium building and pedal for three minutes up the hill. There, the bike trail turns left and joins Le Jeune Rd. We stop in the middle of the bridge.
It spans the Coral Gables Waterway which was cut and blasted from the coral rock in the early 1900s. To the east, the Waterway connects with Biscayne Bay. To the west it continues towards the Everglades, providing one mile of backyard dockage for ocean-capable motor yachts and many miles of Venice-like residential environment -- and winter refuge for manatees, especially during a cold snap.
(Parking is always free and usually available at the traffic circle to the south of the bridge. If arrive by car, this would be a good place to start the tour.)
We mount up and head south for ten minutes along Old Cutler Road, an historic road that took advantage of the high ground of the Atlantic Coastal Ridge to connect the fishing villages of Coconut Grove and Homestead.
We turn into the Matheson Hammock County Park. (Parking is free at the first lot, approx. 25 yards inside the entrance. If arriving by auto, this is another good place to start your tour.) We take the bike path, not the main road, gliding by palmettos and slick-barked gumbo-limbo trees, and descending into a mangrove swamp. In the high tides of spring and fall, the path is awash with seawater. The mud is pocked with crab holes and sprouting with mangroves. The small green stakes rising from the mud are seedpods that took root. Standing on salt water-resistant roots, the trees rise on gnarled trunks that sprout tumor-like growths. Mangroves are South Florida's natural ocean/land interface.
Next, the main parking lot (which is not free) offers a nice Bay vista. From left to right, we see Coconut Grove high rises, Brickell Avenue condominiums and the skyscrapers of downtown Miami. Farther to the right is the arching bridge of the Rickenbacker Causeway leading to Key Biscayne.
You would have been riding on it now, if you had selected the other bike tour.
Riding clockwise around the lagoon pool and looking seaward, we can notice box-like structures near the horizon. This is "Stiltsville," a collection of squatter houses built in the 1950s. They stand on stilts on the shallow strip of dead coral reef that runs southwest in the direction of the Florida Keys. This strip of coral furnished Commodore Munroe with many of his salvageable wrecks.
The lagoon pool is a fine place for seeing interesting examples of the opposite sex, but for swimming I prefer the wading beach on the far side of the marina.
We head for the marina and walk our bikes along the aluminum bridge which affords a good view of the mangrove swamp in action -- as a spawning ground for salt-water fish. The marina has the usual seagulls and pelicans, but what are those black, long-necked, hook-billed, sea-going ducks? They are cormorants that swim under the water to catch fish.
At the end of the "I" dock (Slip I-24) can be found a 34-foot Grampian center-cockpit, two masted sailboat. The Gizmo has served as my research vessel for Bahamas West End Is Murder and as a source of inspiration for the nautical aspects of my Ben Candidi/Rebecca Levis novels.
If you feel nautically inspired, the Castle Harbor Sailing School (305-665-4994; link) can take you out on a sailboat race for $25 (Sat., 10AM - 1:30PM, no experience necessary) or teach you to sail in four days ($435 for a group of two or more).
Next door, the marina store and fuel dock is a good place to buy sandwiches, snacks and drinks. We cross the auto bridge and follow the signs to the wading beach -- my favorite Miami spot for salt-water swimming.
The trees make good clothes hangers and the water is good for wading. The first 25 yards will be a little mucky, but soon we are up to our knees or waists in pristine water, with a good view of the sea grass below. It is easy to commit to the water and to swim in the direction of Key Biscayne. Equipped with swim goggles, we can amuse ourselves for a half hour examining the sponges, the turtle grass, and the tiny fishes and creatures growing in it. For my part, I always enjoy a half-hour of "swimming my laps" in six-foot water. I often see a manta ray gliding bat-like along the bottom. (They're shy and harmless as long as you use common sense.)
In summer days you can see photosynthesis in action: oxygen bubbles rising from the sea grass. The sea grass also traps warm water, producing interesting interesting temperature sensations as you swim by. To experience more ecology in action, swim over to the tree line and stick your head between the mangrove roots. This aquatic forest of tangled roots, which extends back for hundreds of yards, is a spawning ground and nursery for countless species of ocean fish.
For a freshwater shower, return to the bathhouses near the parking lot. The nearby Red Fish Grill would be a nice place for formal dining on another evening (haute cuisine, reservations only, 305-668-8788).
If we have time after leaving Matheson Hammock, we may want to continue south along the bike path and read the half-dozen nature signs explaining the ecology of the hammock. And for the botanically minded, the world-famous Fairchild Tropical Gardens (9:30AM to 4:30PM; $8.00; 305-667-1651; link) is only two minutes farther south.
After returning to the downtown Grove, there is more fun to be had on the way to dinner, with or without bikes.
From the crossroads, we follow McFarlane past Peacock Park (named for the historic Peacock Tavern) and pick up the bike path running along the Bay. We pass the Dinner Key Anchorage.
At the Convention Center (27th Ave.), we veer to the right and skirt the marina with its docked shrimp boats and sailboats. Across the anchorage is an Australian pine inhabited "spoil island," created from "spoil" dredged when they dug the channels.
Following the marina front, we come upon a two-story, white and blue-trimmed building. We pass it on the left and study its facade. It is the Miami City Hall. But the familiar western hemisphere globes in bas-relief are not a Miami logo. They belong to Pan American Airlines. The building was once the terminal for the legendary Havana Clipper -- the large, high-winged, four-engined flying boat that rolled down a nearby ramp, taxied out past the spoil islands, roared down Biscayne Bay and flew off to the Havana harbor.
Now, what better way to enjoy the Grove's historic ambience than with a fish dinner at a waterfront restaurant? Luckily, my favorite - Scotty's Landing - is nearby. We go to the Pan Am hanger labeled Grove Key Marina and follow the instructions of my fictional Ben Candidi:
"It's an outdoor restaurant in a fisherman's shack motif. To get there, you have to walk through a boatyard, past the enormous I-beam scaffolds on which they store motorboats, one over another, up to 30 feet high. During the day it was interesting to watch them taking down boats and putting up boats with a tow-motor fork lift the size of a small battle tank."
Select a table all the way at the end where you enjoy the view of the docked yachts, the spoil island and of Key Biscayne across the Bay. You will have a good time and want to come back.
And if you want to relive the Coconut Grove experience, pick up a copy of my Pharmacology Is Murder and let my hero Ben Candidi take you home -- to his sailboat in the Dinner Key anchorage. You can learn more about Ben and his soulmate, Rebecca, on my Main Page.