Florida Outdoor Activities
Bike in the Everglades
Even non-outdoorsy types enjoy the wealth of wildlife that thrives in the Everglades, the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. The Shark Valley section of Everglades National Park is one of the best routes for spotting critters. Cars aren't allowed past the visitor center parking lot, but pedaling the park's quiet, flat 15-mile loop trail provides a bird's-eye view of the swampy plain, where alligators laze in the saw grass and wood storks, ibis, and great white herons fish in the brackish water. Catch your breath at the top of the 65-foot observation tower, located at the halfway point through the park - the panoramic views from the summit are worth the climb. Bike rentals are available from the visitor center in the park; a guided tram tour traverses the loop as well.
Where there's shoreline, there's likely a great place to cast a line, but what you reel in varies from site to site. Islamorada in the Florida Keys is known for bonefish; Stuart, 40 miles north of Palm Beach, bills itself as "the sailfish capital of the world"; Panama City attracts cobia, a tasty game fish that puts up a good fight; and the waters around St. Petersburg draw tarpon that can weigh in at up to 200 pounds. Freshwater anglers should head to Lake Okeechobee in Central Florida, where largemouth bass congregate. For Florida fishing regulations, visit www.floridaconservation.org; for statewide fishing charters visit www.flafish.com/charters and search based on location and type of charter.
Kayak (With a Twist) in St. Petersburg
From the Panhandle to the Keys, kayak and canoe rentals are a popular concession in Florida's state parks, providing intimate access to mangrove forests, marshy wetlands, and barrier islands. In the prime paddling grounds around St. Petersburg, personal trainer Tim Ganley guides a diverse roster of kayaking and stand-up paddleboard trips that include 4- to 6-hour ecotours and sunrise or sunset excursions. His high-powered, 3-hour Kayakercise boot camps meld paddling with a workout on a white-sand island beach, while Ka-Yoga and Kai-Chi trips incorporate a sandy stop to practice yoga or tai chi. Dolphin sightings are common.
Scuba Dive in Biscayne National Park
High-profile dive sites near reefs and wrecks dot the Florida coast – particularly in the Keys; but for a scuba experience that's off the beaten path, head to Biscayne National Park in Homestead, an hour's drive south of Miami. Thanks to strict limits on boat traffic, gorgeous, healthy reefs support midnight parrotfish, angelfish, schools of sergeant majors, sizable barracuda, and many other tropical fish. The park's concessioner operates two-tank scuba trips on Saturday and Sunday mornings, with possible additional excursions based on demand. Online reservations recommended (book three to four days in advance).
Seaside Horseback Ride on Amelia Island
Florida's only state park with horseback riding permitted on the beach sits 33 miles northeast of Jacksonville, at the southern tip of Amelia Island. Within the 200-plus acres of tranquil Amelia Island State Park, Kelly Seahorse Ranch takes up to 10 people at time on 1-hour trail rides that pass briefly through a maritime forest before hitting a lovely, open stretch of coastline, where bottlenose dolphins occasionally pop up in the surf. The relaxed tour is good for beginners (no galloping is allowed), but all riders must be at least 13 years old and 4 feet, 6 inches tall.
Snorkel in the Keys
With shallow, clear water, schools of fish, and the continental United States's only living coral barrier reef starting a few miles off shore, the Keys are tailor-made for snorkeling – even for first-timers. Top snorkeling sites include John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo (turn in at mile marker 102.5 off the Overseas Highway; www.pennekamppark.com) and Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in the Lower Keys (accessible via boat tour from Bahia Honda State Park; www.floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda). You can book trips and rent masks, snorkels, and fins from the visitor centers at both parks; Pennekamp also rents powerboats (reserve a month in advance for summer weekends).
Surf Lessons in Cocoa Beach
Although not exactly home to Pacific-style curls, the central section of the eastern Atlantic coast of Florida has worthwhile waves. Surf-centric Cocoa Beach, home of the infamous, 24/7, 52,000-square-foot Ron Jon Surf Shop, is a good place to learn the ropes. Florida Surf Lessons conducts 3-hour group surf clinics ($99) every other Saturday in Cocoa Beach or about 2 hours south in Jupiter. Two-hour weekday workshops ($79) and private lessons (from 1.5 hours to half-day; call for rates) are held by request year-round in locations from Cocoa Beach south to Miami Beach. Reservations are required.
Swim with Manatees Near the Crystal River
Sightings of endangered West Indian manatees, gentle aquatic mammals that average 10 feet in length and weight up to 1,200 pounds, occur statewide, but the best place to see them up close is 70 miles northwest of Tampa around the Crystal River. Birds Underwater runs year-round tours to swim with these easygoing giants in Kings Bay. Some manatees ignore visitors, while others behave like aquatic puppies, rolling over and over for attention. Avoiding mob mentality leads to better encounters; try to float away from the group. Book at least a month in advance for peak-viewing season, from mid-October through Easter, when the water is clearer and the population may top 400 manatees (up from 30 to 40 in the summer). Nearby Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park has a manatee observatory, a cost-conscious alternative (tickets are $13 for adults and $5 for children).
Visit the Dry Tortugas
Accessible only via boat, the Dry Tortugas are a seven-island cluster in the Gulf of Mexico with excellent snorkeling and bird-watching. The isolated national park is also home to Fort Jefferson, an unfinished 1846 fortress that encompasses half a mile and has 50-foot walls (it's also one of the largest brick structures in the Western Hemisphere). A catamaran, the Yankee Freedom ($165) and makes the 9-hour round-trip journey (half the time is spent in transit) – a worthwhile splurge that includes a tour of the fort, snorkeling gear, breakfast, and buffet lunch. To enjoy crowd-free time on the island, reserve one of the limited overnight camping spots; it requires packing all essentials, though, including drinking water.
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On an open-seating flight, head for the back of the airplane. If the flight's not full, it'll likely be emptier back there.
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