Touring Florida can be expensive, especially for a traveler who chooses waterfront hotels and gourmet restaurants. But along 1,200 miles of coastline and 11,000 miles of rivers and waterways — as well as spots of dry land — are plenty of places for free fun. Here’s a sampling:
The Keys, a series of islands spanning over 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, which takes about three hours, is worth the trip alone. 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.
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.
• Key Largo: 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 won’t bite but they also won’t 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 will eventually run the length of the Keys parallel to U.S. Highway 1.
• Islamorada: Known for world-class sport fishing, Islamorada 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.
• Marathon: 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.