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5 Free Things: In the Florida Keys, the focus is on nature

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.

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.

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 to 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: 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, from Henry Flagler to Ernest Hemingway and President Harry 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.


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