Bird-watching, boating and sailing, camping, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, golfing, tennis -- you name it, the Sunshine State has it. Here's a brief overview of some of the best places to move your muscles, with tips on how to get more detailed information.
The Florida Sports Foundation, 2390 Kerry Forest Pkwy., Ste. 101, Tallahassee, FL 32309 (tel. 850/488-8347; fax 850/922-0482; www.flasports.com), publishes free brochures, calendars, schedules, and guides to outdoor pursuits and sports throughout Florida.
For excellent color maps of state parks, campgrounds, canoe trails, aquatic preserves, caverns, and more, contact the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Communications, 3900 Commonwealth Blvd., Tallahassee, FL 32399 (tel. 850/245-2118; www.dep.state.fl.us). Some of the department's publications are mentioned below.
Biking & In-Line Skating
Florida's relatively flat terrain makes it ideal for bicycling and in-line skating. You can bike right into Everglades National Park along the 38-mile-long Main Park Road, and bike or skate from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs on the 47-mile-long converted railroad bed known as the Pinellas Trail. Many towns and cities have designated routes for cyclists, skaters, joggers, and walkers, such as the pathways running the length of Sanibel Island, lovely Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, Ocean Drive on South Beach, and the bike lanes from downtown Sarasota out to St. Armands, Lido, and Longboat keys.
With hundreds of both land- and sea-based species, Florida is one of America's best places for bird-watching -- if you're not careful, pelicans will steal your picnic lunch on the historic Naples Pier. The J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is great for watching birds.
With its northeast Florida section now open, the Great Florida Birding Trail will eventually cover some 2,000 miles throughout the state. Fort Clinch State Park, on Amelia Island, and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, in Cape Canaveral, are gateways to the northeast trail. Information is available from the Birding Trail Coordinator, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, 620 S. Meridian St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-1600 (tel. 850/922-0664; fax 850/488-1961; www.floridabirdingtrail.com). You can download maps from the website.
Many of the state's wildlife preserves have gift shops that carry books about Florida's birds, including the Florida Wildlife Viewing Guide, in which authors Susan Cerulean and Ann Morrow profile 96 great parks, refuges, and preserves throughout the state. The guide is also available directly from the publisher, Falcon Press (tel. 888/922-0789; www.falcbooks.com).
Boating & Sailing
With some 1,350 miles of shoreline, it's not surprising that Florida is a boating and sailing mecca. In fact, you won't be anyplace near the water very long before you see flyers and other advertisements for rental boats and sailboat cruises.
The Moorings (tel. 888/952-8420 or 727/530-5651; www.moorings.com), the worldwide sailboat charter company, has its headquarters in Clearwater and its Florida yacht base nearby in St. Petersburg. From St. Pete, experienced sailors can take bareboats as far as the Keys and the Dry Tortugas, out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Key West keeps gaining prominence as a world sailing capital. Yachting magazine sponsors the largest winter regatta in America here each January, and smaller events take place regularly.
Even if you've never hauled on a halyard, you can learn the art of sailing at Steve and Doris Colgate's Offshore Sailing School (www.offshore-sailing.com), headquartered at the South Seas Plantation Resort & Yacht Harbour on Captiva Island, with an outpost in St. Petersburg. The prestigious Annapolis Sailing (www.annapolissailing.com) has bases in St. Petersburg and on Marathon in the Keys.
Florida Boating & Fishing, available free from the Florida Sports Foundation, is a treasure-trove of tips on safe boating; state regulations; locations of marinas, hotels, and resorts; marine products and services; and more.
Florida is dotted with RV parks (if you own such a vehicle, it's the least expensive way to spend your winters here). But for the best tent camping, look to Florida's national preserves and 110 state parks and recreation areas. Options range from luxury sites with hot-water showers and cable TV hookups, to primitive island and beach camping with no facilities whatsoever.
Regular and primitive camping in St. George Island State Park, near Apalachicola, is a bird-watcher's dream -- plus you'll be on one of the nation's most magnificent beaches. Equally great are the sands at St. Andrews State Park, in Panama City Beach (with sites right beside the bay). Other top spots are Fort DeSoto Park, in St. Pete Beach (more gorgeous bayside sites); the remarkably preserved Cayo Costa Island State Park, between Boca Grande and Captiva Island in Southwest Florida; Canaveral National Seashore, near the Kennedy Space Center; Anastasia State Park, in St. Augustine; Fort Clinch State Park, on Amelia Island; and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, on Key Biscayne in Miami. Down in the Keys, the oceanside sites in Long Key State Park are about as nice as they get.
In each of these popular campgrounds, reservations are essential, especially during the high season. Florida's state parks take bookings up to 11 months in advance.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Recreation and Parks, Mail Station 535, 3900 Commonwealth Blvd., Tallahassee, FL 32399-3000 (tel. 850/245-2118; www.dep.state.fl.us), publishes an annual guide of tent and RV sites in Florida's state parks and recreation areas.
Pet owners, note: Pets are permitted at some -- but not all -- state park beaches, campgrounds, and food service areas. Before bringing your animal, check with the department or the individual park to see if your pet will be allowed. And bring your pet's rabies certificate, which is required.
For private campgrounds, the Florida Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds, 1340 Vickers Dr., Tallahassee, FL 32303 (tel. 850/562-7151; fax 850/562-7179; www.floridacamping.com), issues an annual Camp Florida directory with locator maps and details about its member establishments in the state.
Canoeing & Kayaking
Canoers and kayakers have almost limitless options for discovery here: picturesque rivers, sandy coastlines, marshes, mangroves, and gigantic Lake Okeechobee. Exceptional trails run through several parks and wildlife preserves, including Everglades National Park, Sanibel Island's J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and Briggs Nature Center, on the edge of the Everglades near Marco Island.
According to the Florida State Legislature, however, the state's official "Canoe Capital" is the Panhandle town of Milton, on U.S. 90 near Pensacola. Up here, Blackwater River, Coldwater River, Sweetwater Creek, and Juniper Creek are perfect for tubing, rafting, and paddleboating, as well as canoeing and kayaking.
Another good venue is the waterways winding through the marshes between Amelia Island and the mainland.
Many conservation groups throughout the state offer half-day, full-day, and overnight canoe trips. For example, the Conservancy of Naples (tel. 239/262-0304; www.conservancy.org) has a popular series of moonlight canoe trips through the mangroves, among other programs.
Based during the winter at Everglades City, on the park's western border, North American Canoe Tours, Inc. (tel. 239/695-3299; www.evergladesadventures.com), offers weeklong guided canoe expeditions through the Everglades.
Thirty-six creek and river trails, covering 950 miles altogether, are itemized in the excellent free Canoe Trails booklet published by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Communications, 3900 Commonwealth Blvd., Tallahassee, FL 32399 (tel. 850/245-2118; www.dep.state.fl.us).
Specialized guidebooks include A Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to the Streams of Florida: Volume 1, North Central Florida and Panhandle, by Elizabeth F. Carter and John L. Pearce; and Volume 2, Central and Southern Peninsula, by Lou Glaros and Doug Sphar. Both are published by Menasha Ridge Press (www.menasharidge.com).
In addition to the amberjack, bonito, grouper, mackerel, mahimahi, marlin, pompano, redfish, sailfish, snapper, snook, tarpon, tuna, and wahoo running offshore and in inlets, Florida has countless miles of rivers and streams, plus about 30,000 lakes and springs stocked with more than 100 species of freshwater fish. Indeed, Floridians seem to fish everywhere: off canal banks and old bridges, from fishing piers and fishing fleets. You'll even see them standing alongside the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) that cuts across the Everglades -- one eye on their line, the other watching for alligators.
Anglers 16 and older need a license for any kind of saltwater or freshwater fishing, including lobstering and spearfishing. Licenses are sold at bait-and-tackle shops around the state.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 3900 Commonwealth Blvd., Tallahassee, FL 32399-3000 (tel. 850/245-2118; www.dep.state.fl.us), publishes the annual Fishing Lines, a free magazine with a wealth of information about fishing in Florida, including regulations and licensing requirements. It also distributes free brochures with annual freshwater and saltwater limits. And the Florida Sports Foundation publishes Florida Fishing & Boating, another treasure-trove of information.
Although you won't be climbing any mountains in this relatively flat state, there are thousands of beautiful hiking trails in Florida. The ideal hiking months are October through April, when the weather is cool and dry and mosquitoes are less prominent. Like anywhere else, you'll find trails that are gentle and short, and others that are challenging -- some trails in the Everglades require you to wade waist-deep in water!
Most Florida snakes are harmless, but a few have deadly bites, so it's a good idea to avoid them all. If you're venturing into the backcountry, watch out for gators, and don't ever try to feed them (or any wild animal). You risk getting bitten. (They can't tell the difference between the food and your hand.) You're also upsetting the balance of nature, as animals fed by humans lose their ability to find their own food.
The Florida Trail Association, 5415 SW 13th St., Gainesville, FL 32608 (tel. 877/HIKE-FLA [445-3352] or 352/378-8823; www.florida-trail.org), maintains a large percentage of the public trails in the state and puts out an excellent book packed with maps, details, and color photos.
For a copy of Florida Trails, which outlines the many options, contact Visit Florida (www.visitflorida.com). Another resource is A Guide to Your National Scenic Trails, from the Office of Greenways and Trails, Department of Environmental Protection, 3900 Commonwealth Blvd., Tallahassee, FL 32399 (tel. 850/245-2118; www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt). You can also contact the office of National Forests in Florida, Woodcrest Office Park, 325 John Knox Rd., Ste. F-100, Tallahassee, FL 32303 (tel. 850/523-8500; www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/florida).
Finally, Hiking Florida, by M. Timothy O'Keefe (Falcon Press; www.falcbooks.com), details 132 hikes in Florida, with maps and photos.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.