KEY WEST, Fla. The Florida Keys offers every water activity imaginable from sailing to sport fishing. But a fishing charter or snorkeling excursion will cost you.
Fortunately, the Keys, a series of islands spanning more than 100 miles connected by bridges and causeways, offer plenty to do at no cost, from sunset views to nature spots.
Driving the toll-free Florida Keys Overseas Highway south from Florida City to Key West takes about three hours, though youll want to stop to sightsee. But the drive alone is worth the trip: You feel as though you are floating over water as you hop from island to island, with pristine views on either side. Its also one of the rare places where both sunset and sunrise can be seen over the water, depending on which way you turn your head.
A couple of tips: Bring snorkel and flippers so you dont have to rent. If you plan a hotel stay, find one that lets guests use kayaks for free. You can fish off the bridges, but youll need a license unless youre here on the states two Free Fishing Days, April 6 and June 8.
For more visitor information, download a free Florida Keys iPhone app or visit www.fla-keys.com.
Here are five places in the Keys with free highlights for each.
If youre heading south into the Keys from the Miami or Fort Lauderdale areas, Key Largo is the first island you hit. State parks offer great opportunities for bird watching and nature photography, but many, like John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, charge entrance fees. So head to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center (near Mile Marker 93) to see rescued and rehabilitated wild birds.
The bird sanctuary http://fkwbc.org accepts donations but has free admission. Free brochures guide you through boardwalks surrounded by falcons and other wild birds in cages. Watch out for wild pelicans walking the boardwalk they wont bite, but they also wont get out of your way. Cross over the Mangrove Wetland to a beach where birds roam freely.
A bicycle and pedestrian corridor known as the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail starts in Key Largo (Mile Marker 106) and stretches 70 miles. It eventually will run the length of the Keys parallel to U.S. Highway 1.
Known for world-class sport fishing, Islamorada, which calls itself a village of islands, has a vibrant art scene with a free art walk event (between Mile Markers 81 and 82) the third Thursday of each month sponsored by the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District www.moradawayarts.org. Five galleries stay open late as artists and musicians line the streets.
Annes Beach http://floridakeystreasures.com/Beaches/annesbeach.shtml at Mile Marker 73 is a quiet beach with a rocky shore and shallow clear blue waters. Parking is limited, but its rarely crowded.
Stop for a picture with a giant lobster known as Betsy at The Rain Barrel Artisan Village, near Mile Marker 87. The popular figure of a crustacean is just one of many drive-by attractions on U.S. Highway 1.
Sombrero Beach Park is a lovely community spot with a crescent-shaped beach, white sand and palm trees. Facilities include volleyball courts, picnic pavilions, playground equipment, restrooms and showers. There is no fee to enter or park. Its open from 7 a.m. to dusk. To get there from the Overseas Highway, turn south on Sombrero Beach Road.
Big Pine Key
The Lower Keys have a more laid-back feel than the northerly islands, with fewer restaurants and tourist attractions. Signs warn you to slow down and watch out for Key Deer, an endangered species.
In Big Pine Key, you can see the small deer with white tails at the National Key Deer Refuge www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer. You cant feed them, but you can watch them feed. You also can bike or jog here. To see the elusive lower Keys marsh rabbit, go in early morning and stay quiet by the tall grass.
You also can tour the Bat Tower in Sugarloaf Key www.keyshistory.org/SL-Sugarloaf-Key.html at Mile Marker 17. Just dont expect to see bats. The 1929 structure was built to lure bats as a way to combat mosquitoes. Bats stayed away, but the tower stands.
Key West is known for beautiful sunsets, and the place to watch them is Mallory Square www.sunsetcelebration.org.
At the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden www.keywestsculpturegarden.org youll find 38 bronze busts of prominent men and women who had homes here, from Henry Flagler to Ernest Hemingway and President Harry S. Truman.
Finally, stop at the southernmost point in the continental U.S. for a picture at the replica of a large concrete buoy so you can say you were 90 miles from Cuba.