Diving, boating and sailing, camping, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, golfing, tennis -- you name it, South Florida has it.
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 spectator 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. Many towns and cities have designated routes for cyclists, skaters, joggers, and walkers, such as the paved pathways along Fort Lauderdale Beach and Ocean Drive on South Beach.
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.
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.
The prestigious Annapolis Sailing (www.annapolissailing.com) has a base in Marathon in the Keys.
Florida Boating & Fishing, available for 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 literally 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.
Top spots include 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. Each of 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 and Briggs Nature Center, on the edge of the Everglades near Marco Island.
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).
If you don't want to do it yourself, you can observe Florida's flora and fauna on guided field expeditions -- and contribute to conservation efforts while you're at it.
The Sierra Club, the oldest and largest grass-roots environmental organization in the U.S., offers eco-adventures through its Florida chapters. Recent outings have included canoeing or kayaking through the Everglades, hiking the Florida Trail in America's southernmost national forest, camping on a barrier island, and exploring the sinkhole phenomenon in North-Central Florida. You do have to be a Sierra Club member, but you can join at the time of the trip. Contact the club's national outings office at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441 (tel. 415/977-5500; www.sierraclub.org).
The Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy has protected 578,000 acres of natural lands in Florida and presently owns and manages 36 preserves. For a small fee, you can join one of its field trips or work parties that take place periodically throughout the year; fees vary from year to year and event to event, so call for more information. Participants get a chance to learn about and even participate in the preservation of the ecosystem. For details on all the preserves and adventures, contact the Nature Conservancy, Florida Chapter, 222 S. Westmonte Dr., Ste. 300, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714 (tel. 407/682-3664; fax 407/682-3077; www.nature.org).
A nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental research, the Earthwatch Institute, 3 Clocktower Place, Ste. 100 (P.O. Box 75), Maynard, MA 01754 (tel. 800/776-0188 or 978/461-0081; www.earthwatch.org), has excursions to survey dolphins and manatees around Sarasota and to monitor the well-being of the whooping cranes raised in captivity and released in the wilds of Central Florida.
Another research group, the Oceanic Society, Fort Mason Center, Building E, San Francisco, CA 94123 (tel. 800/326-7491 or 415/441-1106; fax 415/474-3395; www.oceanic-society.org), also has Florida trips among its expeditions, including manatee monitoring in the Crystal River area, north of Tampa.
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 and online at www.fl.wildlifelicense.com/start.php.
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.
Florida is the unofficial golf capital of the United States. But one thing is for certain: Florida has more golf courses than any other state -- more than 1,150 at last count, and growing. I picked the best for chapter 1, but suffice it to say that you can tee off almost anywhere, anytime there's daylight. It's a rare town in Florida that doesn't have a municipal golf course -- even Key West has 18 great holes.
Greens fees are usually much lower at the municipal courses than at privately owned clubs. Whether public or private, greens fees tend to vary greatly, depending on the time of year. You could pay $150 or more at a private course during the high season, but less than half that when the tourists are gone. The fee structures vary so much that it's best to call ahead and ask, and always reserve a tee time as far in advance as possible.
You can learn the game or hone your strokes at one of several excellent golf schools in South Florida including Jimmy Ballard's school at the Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo or at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens where they live, breathe, and eat golf.
You can get information about most Florida courses, including current greens fees, and reserve tee times through Tee Times USA, P.O. Box 641, Flagler Beach, FL 32136 (tel. 888/GOLF-FLO [465-3356] or 386/439-0001; www.teetimesusa.com), which publishes a vacation guide with many stay-and-play golf packages.
Florida Golf, published by the Florida Sports Foundation, lists every course in Florida. It's the state's official golf guide and is available from Visit Florida (www.visitflorida.com).
Golfer's Guide magazine publishes monthly editions covering most of Florida. It is available free at local visitor centers and hotel lobbies, or you can contact the magazine at 2 Park Lane, Ste. E, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928 (tel. 800/864-6101 or 843/842-7878; fax 843/842-5743; www.golfersguide.com).
You can also get more information from the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA), 400 Ave. of the Champions, Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418 (tel. 800/633-9150; www.pga.com); or from the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), 100 International Golf Dr., Daytona Beach, FL 32124 (tel. 904/254-6200; www.lpga.com).
More than 700 courses are profiled in Florida Golf Guide, by Jimmy Shacky (Open Roads Publishing), available at bookstores for $20.
Scuba Diving & Snorkeling
Divers love the Keys, where you can see magnificent formations of tree-size elk-horn coral and giant brain coral, as well as colorful sea fans and dozens of other varieties, sharing space with 300 or more species of rainbow-hued fish. Reef diving is good all the way from Key Largo to Key West, with plenty of tour operators, outfitters, and dive shops along the way. Particularly worthy are John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, and Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary off Big Pine Key. Skin Diver magazine picked Looe Key as the number-one dive spot in North America. Also, the clearest waters in which to view some of the 4,000 sunken ships along Florida's coast are in the Middle Keys and the waters between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Snorkeling in the Keys is particularly fine between Islamorada and Marathon.
Over on the Treasure Coast, which didn't earn its name for nothing, you'll find an underwater bounty of shipwrecks, reefs, and dive sites.
If you want to keep up with what's going on statewide, you can subscribe to the monthly magazine Florida Scuba News (tel. 904/783-1610; www.scubanews.com). You might also want to pick up a specialized guidebook. Some good ones include Coral Reefs of Florida, by Gilbert L. Voss (Pineapple Press; www.pineapplepress.com); and The Diver's Guide to Florida and the Florida Keys, by Jim Stachowicz (Windward Publishing).
Year-round sunshine makes Florida great for tennis. There are some 7,700 places to play throughout the state, from municipal courts to exclusive resorts. Some municipal facilities equal expensive resorts, except they're free or close to it. Some retired professionals even have their own tennis centers, including Chris Evert in Boca Raton.
The three hard courts and seven clay courts at the Crandon Tennis Association, 6702 Crandon Blvd. (tel. 305/365-2300), get crowded on weekends because they're some of Miami's most beautiful. You'll play on the same courts as Lendl, Graf, Evert, McEnroe, Roddick, Nadal, Federer, and other greats; this is the venue for one of the world's biggest annual tennis events, the Sony Ericsson Open. There's a pleasant, if limited, pro shop, plus many good pros. Only four courts are lighted at night, but if you reserve at least 48 hours in advance, you can usually take your pick. Hard court fees are $4 per person, per hour during the day; $6 per person, per hour at night. Clay court fees are $7 per person, per hour during daytime only. Grass courts are $11 per person, per hour during daytime only. The courts are open daily from 8am to 9pm.
Famous as the spot where Chris Evert got in her early serves, the Jimmy Evert Tennis Center, 701 NE 12th Ave. (off Sunrise Blvd.), Fort Lauderdale (tel. 954/828-5378), has 18 clay and three hard courts (15 lighted). Her coach and father, James Evert, still teaches young players here, though he is very picky about whom he'll accept. Nonresidents of Fort Lauderdale pay $7.50 an hour per person before 5pm and $9 an hour per person after 5pm.
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.