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Calistoga Run: Two-Up On Kawasaki’s Latest Luxury Tourer

In the motorcycle business, press junkets can have a predictability to them.  Fly to the location of the press introduction, get transported to a luxury hotel/resort, and attend a welcoming dinner complete with gourmet food and all the alcohol you can drink (or want to drink the day before a ride on an unfamiliar bike).  The next morning you gather in groups (typically a “slow” group and a “fast” group) after listening to a technical presentation about the new machine.  The groups are then led on a ride covering a variety of roads, from straight highways to tight, twisty canyons.  After 140 miles, or so (my PR before this trip was 265 miles in a single day at a press intro), it is back to the hotel for a shower and another “farewell” dinner at a fine restaurant.  End of story.

Kawasaki invited me to ride from its Irvine, California headquarters to the small Northern California town of Calistoga to attend a round of the AMA Flat Track National championships at the Calistoga Half-Mile venue.  It was an opportunity to do something different.  Very different.

I would be riding a bike I was already familiar with,  Kawasaki’s luxury touring cruiser, the Vulcan 1700 Voyager.  Although I had enough miles on the Voyager that nothing came as a particular surprise from a riding perspective, I didn’t have significant time using the Voyager for one of its intended purposes, i.e., riding two-up with a passenger and 60 pounds, or so, of luggage. 

I arranged with Kawasaki to take my wife Kim along on the trip.  It seems I had forgotten how much a woman packs for a four-day outing, but I resigned myself to the possibility that I might be limited to a single pair of clean underwear.  That is, until we arrived at Kawasaki and watched the saddle bags and trunk devour quite a bit more than we had anticipated.  In the end, Kim was able to take everything she wanted (“needed” is another issue), and I had everything I normally pack for a press trip of similar length.  After adding 16 psi to the adjustable rear shocks to handle the extra load, we were on our way.

Departing in late July, I was looking forward to avoiding the typical California summer heat by traveling north along the coast.  Somewhat to my surprise, Kawasaki immediately led us inland, heading over the I-5 grapevine toward the central valley.  Since I hadn’t bothered to look at the route map, I was pleasantly surprised when the group was led off the grapevine and onto Highway 95.  We were very quickly surrounded by relatively lush, green forest, as opposed to the drab, brown ground cover found on Highway I-5 during the summer.  The temperature began to drop to a more tolerable level, and the tarmac got narrower and twistier.  Things started to get fun. 

Riding two-up with a full load of luggage on this big  bike takes some getting used to.  Parking lot speeds and stop-and-go traffic present some challenges for the rider as the decidedly top-heavy arrangement (with an adult passenger and full saddlebags and trunk present).

The added air pressure in the rear shocks may not have helped low speed stability, but they certainly helped the bike turn in quicker once we were moving.  After finding my rhythm on the big Voyager, despite moving more than 1,000 pounds of motorcycle, human flesh and luggage, the twisties became a blast.

Traveling through Highway 33 and then on to Highway 58, the heat seems to spike up again, but you can sense the approaching coastline and cooler, moister air.  It is on Highway 58 where a faster group breaks off the front to push the pace about as much as we dare on these big bikes, but the Voyager responds very well.  The superb linked braking system, coupled with reasonable ground clearance for a cruiser of this sort, and loads of  low-end grunt off the corners, result in a sizeable gap developing between our front group and some of the other riders.

Kim, meanwhile, is following all of those rules a passenger should follow by leaning with me into the bends and staying relaxed.  Both of us find the seating accommodations well suited for a long trip, with the passenger perch (complete with back rest) quite a departure from the experience on the back end of most motorcycles.  Both rider and passenger have large floorboards mounted in a manner to largely eliminate vibration reaching your feet.  Kim was so comfortable, she confessed that she fell asleep at one point (not recommended) on Day 2 of the trip.  More about that below.

After visiting a memorial to James Dean, at the sight of his fatal crash at the age of 25 while piloting his Porsche Spyder, we continued our trip on towards the coast and our hotel for the first evening in the City of Cambria, which is directly on Highway 1 where we would again head north the following morning.

After a restful evening in Cambria, we got back on the bikes early on a cold, misty morning and began to head north on Highway 1. We stopped to visit a fairly famous stretch of beach near San Simeon, where large seals populate the sand and frolic in the shallow water. After a group of us made our way through a hole in a fence, we were soundly criticized, and rounded up, by an 80-year-old docent. Properly so.

It was nice to get back on the bikes, and it was this cold morning heading up the coast when Kim actually fell asleep in the passenger seat for a short period of time. If this isn’t a testament to the comfort of that perch, I don’t know what is.

Shortly thereafter, we arrived at one of the most famous stretches of California coastline… Highway 1 through Big Sur and into Monterey. This is the twisty, scenic route that you may have seen on television, if not in person, such as the broadcast of the Tour of California bike race. The scenery is breathtaking, and the twisty road sometimes edges along a cliff above the Pacific.

We came to an abandoned lighthouse on a point overlooking the Pacific. The lighthouse may have been abandoned, but there were small apartments there. Accomodations were very simple (bunk beds shared in a large room), but it was cheap and it looked like a fun place to stay for a couple of days. Being on that point of land, the air was incredibly clean and crisp, and the scenery was even more beautiful than that typically witnessed from the road.

Continuing north, after eating lunch in Monterey, we pushed onward through the city of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. Kim and I were both getting a bit tired at this point. I’m not used to consecutive 300+ mile days on a motorcycle, despite my role as a motorcycle journalist. This isn’t meant to reflect negatively on the comfort of the Voyager, which is certainly a bike I would consider carefully as an option on a cross-country tour.

Through the narrow and steep streets of San Francisco, the Voyager, despite all of its bulk, the luggage and passenger, handled remarkably well, and the torque of the huge v-twin effortlessly pulled it up and over all of the hills.

The sun was setting as we pushed north of the city through Marin County on the freeway. To go along with my general fatigue, we had the added discomfort of trying to avoid staring into that bright spot ahead of us. I was glad when we finally reached our dinner destination, i.e., a sushi restaurant in Napa County. Kim and I had one of the best meals ever. I’m sure that our long day in the saddle contributed to the sensation, but the food really was exceptional.

After dinner, I assumed we had just a few miles more before arriving at our hotel room. I felt refreshed and was pleased to climb back aboard the bike and head into Calistoga. This trip turned out to be another hour-and-a-half, or so, and the air was quite cold. The cold cut through my jeans despite the wind protection offered by the Voyager fairing, and it was with great relief that we pulled into the hotel parking lot at roughly 8 PM.

Calistoga is a very small town, with lots of character and atmosphere. Having grown up in bustling Southern California, it was nice to see that there are still small towns like this in my state. Main Street was a short walk from our hotel, and that is where we ate all our meals, and did some window shopping before traveling over to the Raceway to watch flat track racing that evening.

It has been a long time since I watched a flat track event. The half-mile oval in Calistoga seems to have some nice dirt that offered decent traction. Watching the races, I was reminded of just how tough these racers are. Crashes are too frequent, and we saw a couple of bad ones that evening. As it turns out, Kawasaki has a couple of competitive flat track machines based on the Ninja 650 engine.

After flying home the next day, for the next couple of weeks the two-day 650 mile ride kept entering my mind. With the weather, and the distance covered, it was almost grueling at times, but the memories I was left with were all positive. It really was one of the best motorcycle trips I’ve ever taken. The variety of terrain, and roads covered was remarkable, and the big Voyager handled it all like a competent, modern luxury tourer with the added benefit of retro style.

26 Comments

  1. jimbo says:

    Dirck
    You’ve sharpened your road test writing to be the most concise and informative of any I read. The images are “hot” too!

    Regarding this quote: “…Through the narrow and steep streets of San Francisco, the Voyager, despite all of its bulk, the luggage and passenger, handled remarkably well, and the torque of the huge v-twin effortlessly pulled it up and over all of the hills…” The exact streets you traveled are unknown. But for readers who’ve never been in SF, a little context: When this happened, SFFD Truck 10 was old and tired. The officer was visiting/detailed in just for that day. We were at the bottom of one of the steepest hills of Lyon St., heading E on Broadway or a street north of Broadway. We stop. The officer says make a R up the hill. We had already broken at least one axle on that truck previously. We told him not a good idea. This was the kind of officer who orders you to do exactly what is not recommended. He orders the driver up the hill. Half way up we broke the drive axle. Change over the entire truck, 1/2 a day out of service.

    That same street or one just like it…when I was a kid driving my dad’s ’70 Plymouth Sport Fury station wagon (383 with dual hood bulges, fast, light forest green with tons of metallic), you’d approach one of the downhill sections of a steep hill like the one described above. The intersections are all flat. You drive up to the crosswalk just as the hill slopes down, the 12 acre hood shadows the downhill slope, and you’d just have so say a prayer that there wasn’t three pedestrians under the car as you inched through the crosswalk. Fun! You really had to stick your head way out the window to make sure.

    And the airborne section of the Wawona Street hill (just N of Larsen Swimming Pool and Sigmund Stern Grove) before they closed the street because of so many deaths and injuries…oh, the good ole days.

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  2. Steve Lawson says:

    An excellently written article, informative, with outstanding photos. I wanted to buy a large tourer, but absolutely hate the batwing fairing front of the Voyager (I was trading up from a Yamaha VStar 1300). When sitting on the bike you feel enclosed at the front with a large dark area of dials and speakers etc that even block your view of the road right in front of the bike. Otherwise, it is a fantastic bike to ride, second to none in my opinion. So I bent the rules a little. I bought a 2010 Vulcan Nomad. This is the same frame and engine exactly as the Voyager, but has an upright full windscreen on it, instead of the batwing fairing. This gives it a wonderful retro look, with an open uncluttered view of the road ahead. I then mounted the topbox from the voyager on the back (it comes as a kit from Kawasaki with all the fittings) and now I have all the comforts of the Voyager in a fantastic looking and handling bike! I made an enlarged set of lowers for the front forks to give better wind protection, put on a seatback for the driver, and my partner and I can and do sometimes ride all day long on extended trips in total comfort on this great crusier. Do I miss the linked ABS brakes? No, but probably only because I have never tried them – the brakes on the Nomad are extremely good. Do I miss the radio and music blasting from the speakers? Definitely not – we have a set of Nolan helmets with built in blue tooth and we talk to each other all day long when we want to on a ride. I have downloaded my entire ipod music library onto my GPS which is also blue tooth equipped, so we can listen to music whenever we want or receive GPS instructions by bluetooth. If this isn’t heaven in a touring bike, what is?

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  3. jimbo says:

    Man, I forgot how dry it gets in CA since moving to Utah. The grass on those hills look scorched.

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  4. Michael H says:

    Any motorcycle manufacturer that offers a heavy touring bike, especially a v-twin touring bagger, should be able to state in clear terms how their motorcycle is substantially better than the touring bikes offered by Honda, BMW, Yamaha, HD, Victory, etc. Kawasaki does not do that for their new Vulcan.

    Is it lighter weight? Does it handle much better than its competitors? Is it made of advanced materials? Does it offer more power with less displacement? It its routine maintenance low-cost and simple? Does it have features none of its competitors have?

    There is no mention in the article above of the Kawi having radial tires, or an ABS brake system, or adjustable front forks, etc. it is behind the times versus its competitors. That’s a bit of a shocker, given how competitive Kawi is with it’s other models. I get the feeling that Kawi wanted to offer a v-twin bagger, but didn’t want to offer a bike so good that it would subtract from sales of the Concours 1400.

    Kawasaki gives no compelling reason for anyone to buy this bike.

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    • todd says:

      the majority of people in the market for this type of motorcycle do not compare specs when shopping, nor do they care much that one 700# bike is 3# lighter than the next 700# bike. What is boils down to is one rider wants a Kawasaki because his best memories were on a Mach III, another gets the Honda because his first bike was a CB350, still another gets a Harley because he has no preference and does what everyone else tells him to…

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    • Eric says:

      Where does this commentary come from? Kawasaki does actually have a Web page here (http://www.kawasaki.com/Products/product-details-features.aspx?autoplay=false&id=379&scid=0) that details all the advantages of the Vulcan, such as RADIAL tires, the K-ACT braking system WITH ABS, etc. Looks pretty advanced to me. I’ve never owned a Kawi myself, and may never own one, but the comments above seem like an unwarranted and poorly researched slam. And why would someone buy a cruiser like this? Probably because it just looks cool, even without adjustable forks.

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    • Dirck Edge says:

      Follow the link at the beginning of the article to the Ride Review, and then the link in that article to the First Ride report. This bike has the best brakes, including ABS, in this class, and handles at, or near, the top of this class (large displacement cruisers). It also offers excellent wind protection and rider/passenger comfort (see twowheeladdict’s comments below).

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    • Michael H says:

      MEA CULPA! I didn’t click through to the previous reviews. Apologies to Kawasaki, as well.

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  5. Artem says:

    Pretty cool article. May be slightly large (just imho), but informative in all kinds.
    Regards.

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  6. twowheeladdict says:

    I bought a 2010 Voyager in May. It is the most comfortable bike I have ever owned. I consistantly do 400 mile days on two lane roads. (8500 miles so far)The plastics are flexible yes, but not brittle. Oh yeah, I love the looks of the bike. and better yet, my wife loves the looks of the bike. She is the one who told me to buy it. Now that is a great wife.

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  7. falcodoug says:

    I have never wanted to own a touring bike as yet but if I did the Kawasaki would be a good place to start.

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  8. Bill Madole says:

    From the side looks a lot like my Royal Star Venture but from the front it is ugly.

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  9. Vrooom says:

    265 miles in a day is your PR!?! Not my style of bike, though my wife would probably love it. She always looks at Goldwings with a certain envy. That two tone front cowling is hideous, but as others said, it’s better from the side.

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  10. steveinsandiego says:

    interesting how kawi has flooded the tourer market with the vulcan 2000 LT, the voyager, the vaquero, the 1700 nomad, the 1700 LT, and the 900 LT.

    JCC, after riding cruisers for nearly 12 years, last year i bought a kawi ninja 650r, which i have ridden nearly 13K miles while hopping onto my vulcan 1600 for only a thousand miles. however, now i’m eager to try out the kawi versys. it has garnered rave reviews for sensibility and practicality in nearly every aspect. could be my next set o’ wheels.

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  11. JCC says:

    Wish Kawasaki (or Yamaha) would build a complete tourer on a 900 (or 950) that had most of the amenities of the big guys but weigh in at 600 lbs. (wet). At 62 I am tired of pushing around 900 lbs. in the garage and parking lots; and, it needs to come in at $10K!!!

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    • Geep says:

      I whole heartily agree, had a Honda GL500i Silver Wing Interstate, a baby Gold Wing in all aspects…the closest we can come to what we are talking about nowadays is Burgman or SilverWing Scooter and you do see lots of them touring

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    • Cranky Bob says:

      You’re right on JCC. Touring bikes are way too heavy for a lot riders to handle. One would think that with all the technology available today that you could build a bike that rides as nice as a 900# machine but weighs in at 600#. Guess we can go to the moon but can’t build a bike with the same qualities at a much lower weight. Unbelievable.

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    • jimbo says:

      It’s a good point. “Supersizing” is just another of the many inevitable sins of capitalism, seen in bikes same as fast food. If a little is good, more is better. My ’00 BMW R1150GS was one of my favorites of about 65 motorcycles. I’m pretty big and strong, and I eventually tired of even it’s just sub-600 lb wet curb weight.

      Something like a naked “R” version of the coming BMW 6-cylinder 1600cc GT or GTL, with a windshield and bags, might be a nice sport-touring rig.

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    • Geoff B says:

      Check out the Vulcan 900lt. Not as good for two-up as the bigger bikes, but comes with windshield and saddlebags. –Looks like a big cruiser, but only about 650lbs.

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  12. Joe T says:

    Great report!

    Many have commented negatively about the Voyager’s plastic bags, trunk, and leg fairings (air deflectors). The comments are that these pieces are flimsy and do not seem up to the task long term. What are your thougth on those comments?

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  13. NOLA Dave says:

    That big Kaw looks good from the side, but to quote Lyle Lovett, “it’s ugly from the front”.
    That fairing looks like the ripped a fender off of a 70s era Winnebago and slpped it on the forks and proclaimed, “That’ll do fer now.”.

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    • jimbo says:

      I don’t get this. Regarding looks I’m quite critical of touring bikes in general. Overall, this thing looks more acceptable to me than the average. After closely re-checking the fairing, it looks at least OK.

      There’s gotta be significant profit margin and sales potential here. Look at the heavyweight full dress offerings: Honda, Triumph Rocket 3 dresser, HD, BMW, Kawi, Yamaha, etc.

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  14. CLB III says:

    Thank you for an informative review of the bike and your sojourn. I think I would lean towards the new Vaquero bagger instead of the full dresser but that is my bias in machinery of this type.I know I would take the Vaquero over the Star Roadliner Deluxe because of a higher level of standard equipment and more accessories available.

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