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 you'll 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. It's 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 don't 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 you'll need a license unless you're here on the state's 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:
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.
Anne's Beach - http://floridakeystreasures.com/Beaches/annesbeach.shtml at Mile Marker 73 - is a quiet beach with a rocky shore and shallow clear blue waters. There's limited parking but it's 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. 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. No fee to enter or park. It's open from 7 a.m. until 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 can't feed them but you can watch them feed; you can also bike or jog here. To see the elusive lower Keys marsh rabbit, go in early morning and stay quiet by the tall grass.
You can also tour the Bat Tower in Sugarloaf Key - www.keyshistory.org/SL-Sugarloaf-Key.html - at Mile Marker 17. Just don't 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 - you'll find 38 bronze busts of prominent men and women who had homes here.
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.