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 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 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.
KEY LARGO: If you're 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 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, 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.