Touring aboard the 2012 Honda Gold Wing
Traveling with style. I am not talking about lavish accommodations and exclusive modes of transportation, although that might be part of it. It is doing things with a little flair, going somewhere new in a slightly different way, or putting together unusual combinations.
When I planned our first big motorcycle vacation, I felt compelled to introduce my wife Jane to my particular brand of style. While we have been on several short motorcycle trips-mostly centering on a single location-she had not been on a multi-day, multi-point, and multi-mode trip.
To ease Jane into the motorcycle touring lifestyle, I secured the new 2012 Honda Gold Wing. With ample power for me, and a large passenger compartment for Jane, the Gold Wing is a natural choice for an endeavor like ours. Purpose built as a motorcycle for serious riders who have distance woven into their DNA strands, the Gold Wing benefits from 37 years of road experience and single-minded determination to make the best traveling machine possible.
On final approach into Orlando from LAX, Jane and I admire the abundance of open water in Florida; we could use some of that on the West Coast. Soon after departing the airport, we pick up the Gold Wing-a Carcharodon-proportioned motorcycle with enough buttons and knobs to control a Pink Floyd concert. That may be hyperbole, but the Gold Wing is an impressively sized and appointed machine.
Getting a quick run-down on the electronics and a warning about the distraction of adjusting them on the road, Jane and I prepare for the short ride up to Sanford where we will have the bike loaded on the Amtrak Auto Train for the 17-hour trip up to Lorton, Virginia.
Loading the train is quite a process. Cars and bikes line up under a long awning, each receiving a magnetic placard with a number used to match owner with vehicle. Two-level rail cars backed up to bright yellow ramps transport passengers’ vehicles. Motorcycles are secured to dollies with heavy-duty wheel chocks and webbed nylon straps, and then two motorcycles per dolly are loaded onto the rail cars using a tow-motor. The Auto Train runs daily, so the operation is smooth and efficient.
Passenger boarding is a little less smooth since it is done “land rush” style with everyone waiting in the station until boarding is announced. Each passenger has a car number, which must be located through the throng of people on the narrow platform, along the longest passenger train in America.
Even with a full train, boarding sorts itself out quickly with the assistance of train attendants. Upon finding our car, the attendant escorts us to our bedroom. Necessarily small, the room is comfortable and private with a large picture window, two sleeping berths, sink, and a water closet that converts into a shower.
Being Amtrak’s most-used passenger line, the Auto Train staff is friendly and skilled. Dinner is surprisingly good, and we share a table with fellow passengers. After an evening of chatting in the lounge car and watching the sky grow dark, Jane and I retire for the night to our room. Sleep is difficult, however, due to the strange surroundings and roughness of the ride.
Exiting the train, chill air and high humidity punctuate the ominous clouds of an imminent storm. Retrieving the Gold Wing from an attendant, I guide the bike through the Amtrak parking lot trying to avoid geriatric snowbirds attempting to extricate their bug-encrusted cars.
Running through the menu on the navigation system to bring up the XM satellite weather image, I can see that in 30 minutes we will be drenched. No matter-a few orange and yellow bow echoes on the weather map will not bring us to reconsider our choice of transportation.
Preparing for the morning’s ride, I walk around our Gold Wing for an inspection. Ultra Metallic Blue paint returns a subdued reflection of the darkening sky as I review the controls. Storage capacity has increased for 2012, with redesigned side cases that accommodate longer items. The top case is opened remotely using the key fob and houses the SD card slot for transferring routes to the navigation system. Honda’s new online Trip Planner allows you to plan, share, and download routes to an SD card.
A Crown Victoria reeking of blow-by and burnt transmission fluid backs to within inches of my front tire, adding a sense of urgency to packing and leaving the Amtrak station. Letting out the clutch, I feel the satisfying pull from the 1832cc flat six, as we make a quick exit from the chaotic exodus of Lincoln Town Cars and surplus Police Interceptors.
Moments later, Jane and I are making our way out of the Lorton train station, south of the Capital Beltway, to nearby Interstate 95. As the engine speed increases, the oversquare motor comes to life with a subdued rhythm reminiscent of a modern Porsche, producing zero torque-roll and nearly imperceptible vibration. Wind rushing around my helmet quickly drowns out the engine’s sound emissions.
Turning right on Germanna Highway, we quickly pass through the densely packed shopping centers, chain hardware stores, and fast-food establishments of suburban Fredericksburg as we head toward the verdant battlefields in Chancellorsville and the dark grey front of the approaching storm. The air grows heavy in my nostrils as the first drops of rain hit my face shield just in time for us to turn south on Constitution Highway. With an hour’s worth of two-lane before our lunch stop, we resign ourselves to pushing through the downpour.
Arriving in time for lunch at Michie Tavern on Thomas Jefferson Parkway, near Monticello, we enjoy a brief break in the rain. Walking around to the front of the whitewashed colonial house-turned-restaurant, Jane informs me that during the heaviest rain a puddle developed on her seat. Some quick bailing and setting the seat heater on high kept her comfortable.
Initially constructed four years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Michie Tavern was moved near Monticello in 1927 where it would attract more tourist attention. Serving a rendition of colonial dishes buffet style by servers in period dress, the Tavern exudes an authenticity the makes it well worth the visit.
Refreshed by our stop, though concerned by the thunder rolling through the hills, I press the reverse button to back the Gold Wing out of its parking stall. A motorcycle with reverse is a little foreign at first, yet nearly essential on a 900+ pound bike. Turning onto I-64 for the 24-mile ride to Blue Ridge Parkway, it starts to pour again.
Experiencing premier motorcycling roads is the driving force in my selection of any tour, and the Blue Ridge Parkway is the reason Jane and I are on the back of a Gold Wing in the mountains of Virginia. From I-64 near Waynesboro, we head south for the 115-mile ride to our stop in Roanoke.
Immediately the Parkway twists up into the green plumage of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with views alternating between vistas from the east slope to the west. The thick scent of moldering leaf litter combines with the ground fog rising from the warm blacktop, making the road feel as distant below our wheels as the quickly fading horizon through the gray sheets of rain.
Third gear works its charm on the wet serpentine; roll off the throttle and the Gold Wing effortlessly tracks through the turn. Power out of the curve and repeat for the next transition-the sequence replaying over and over in the same secure fashion. Power application through the shaft is linear and engine braking is positive, giving a smooth ride to Jane.
All preconceived notions of how such a large motorcycle should handle must be abandoned. Specifications alone do not give meaning to a motorcycle; it is defined by the human/machine interface where mechanics and electronics transfer sensation to the central nervous system, producing the mind-altering experience that encourages us to embrace the two-wheeled lifestyle.
At an overlook, I must stop to wipe off the broad windscreen and adjust it to its lowest position. At the slower speeds of the Parkway, the windscreen’s mild curve does not shed water effectively, making it difficult to see in the tight turns and watch for the occasional groundhog darting across the road. Lowering the screen allows me to see over it for a clear view ahead.
Aside from forward visibility, the wet conditions affected the ride minimally. The Bridgestone radials grip whether you are accelerating, braking, or leaning hard enough to scrape. Dual floating 296mm discs with six-piston calipers in front and a single 316mm disc with six-piston calipers in back provide ample stopping power. Our bike has the ABS option, which gives me confidence to brake hard. Anti-dive forks with almost five inches of travel and a computer-controlled Pro-Link shock on the single-sided swingarm give an outstanding level of isolation from the road, yet exhibit no wallow in turns at touring speeds.
After an evening of reminiscing over the days ride at the Hotel Roanoke, we hit I-51 to burn the 260 miles to Asheville, N.C. to take a tour of the Biltmore. Cold cloudy sky breaks to sunshine as we transition westbound onto Interstate 40.
Time comfortably passes as the miles stretch out behind us. I adjust the iPod’s playlist-amplified by the surround sound audio system-while Jane enjoys the sights from her seat, which has new covers and cushion for 2012.
I concentrate on the road ahead because I find that when my eyes wander, so does the bike. The agile steering that made riding the Parkway so enjoyable is a detriment on the highway because any slight pressure on the bars makes the Gold Wing deviate from its course. Despite that one consideration, the machine is unaffected by external stimulus, like the bow-wake of passing trucks or crosswind.
Turn of the century extravagance at its highest with four acres of floor space and 250 rooms, the Biltmore was modeled on three 16th-century French châteaux by architect Richard Morris Hunt. George Vanderbilt opened his country retreat on Christmas Eve in 1895. Our visit consisted of a champagne reception on the roof over the spiral staircase followed by dinner in an underground vault at the Biltmore Estate Winery.
Our final day on the Gold Wing takes us back to the Blue Ridge Parkway, as we head west to Knoxville. The weather is finally perfect and the views from atop the ridge are spectacular with haze lying in layers stretching out to the blue horizon.
Tunnels cut through the ridge take us from one exposure to the next, as the Parkway snakes through its route. Jane and I make a side trip to Looking Glass Falls before riding down to Waynesville for lunch. Turnouts with a single picnic table beside a stream encourage a romantic interlude. Small communities among the forests and rivers support tourists interested in outdoor activities.
That evening, walking by the shops and cafés of Market Square in Knoxville, I congratulate Jane on completing her first tour on a motorcycle. I am pleased to learn she enjoyed it enough to be sorry the trip is over.
We both acknowledge the Gold Wing’s contribution to making the trip enjoyable. With its ease of handling, ample power, and navigation system for me-and its comfortable passenger seating, road isolating suspension, smooth power application, and entertainment system for Jane-the Gold Wing takes good care of both rider and passenger.
Honda’s diligent engineering and evolutionary design since 1975 has given us, not a compromise, but a melding of conflicting desires. Torque, geometry, and balance blend with comfort and amenities; the result is the 2012 Honda Gold Wing, which effortlessly retains its position as the defining motorcycle in the luxury-touring genre.
Story from previous issue of Ultimate MotorCycling…to view the digital edition, click here.
Photography by Kevin Wing