I recently offered a tip sheet for doing Key West on the cheap. Of course, one of the best ways to save money is to check out lower-profile areas. Key West deservedly gets a lot of hype, but there's fun to be had throughout the Florida Keys.
I asked Carolina Bustamante of Newman PR, which represents the Keys, to recommend some free and cheap activities. Here are her faves.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: The visitors center features a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium and other natural history exhibits interpreting the park's unique marine environment. There's also a theater where visitors may watch nature videos. Snorkeling and glass bottom boat excursions are also available. Admission is $2.50 to $8.50, depending on the number of people in your vehicle. pennekamppark.com.
Florida Keys Wild Bird Center: Learn about the native and migratory bird populations of the Keys and Everglades, and see firsthand the rehabilitative efforts of the animal care for injured, sick, rescued or orphaned birds. There's no admission fee, but donations are encouraged. fkwbc.org.
Rain Barrel Artisans' Village: Stroll through the tropical gardens and see the best in contemporary art and American crafts. Discover that one-of-a-kind creation that makes shopping a fun experience. Watch the artists create your masterpiece. Take a photo with Betsy the Lobster, the world's largest biologically correct replica of a lobster. Admission is free, but B.Y.O. spending money. keysdirectory.com/rainbarrel.
History of Diving Museum: Adult admission is $12, but you can print a $2 off coupon. You can also take advantage of the free lecture series with diving legends and historians from around the world. Oh, and the museum's founder, Sally Bauer, is being inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. divingmuseum.org.
Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park: See a cross-section of an actual coral reef, above ground – for free! You might even find a valuable fossil. fla-keys.com.
Long Key Bridge fishing: Cast off between mile markers 63 and 65. A fishing license is required, though available at most retailers including Kmart, bait and tackle shops and the like. There's no charge to drop a line; if you catch dinner, you'll save even more money!
Feeding tarpon at Robbie's Marina: "Amazing," "breathtaking" and "impressive" are words marina staffers often hear from first-time visitors to the end of the dock. They're referring to is the school of 50 to 100 tarpon that come daily and linger for hours. robbies.com/tarpon.
Old Seven Mile Bridge: Walk for free, rent a bicycle and ride over the bridge, explore Pigeon Key and have a picnic lunch, sunbathe or swim. For a tour around the island and through its historical buildings and museums, a donation to the Pigeon Key Foundation of $12 is appreciated. pigeonkey.net.
Sombrero Beach: Admission is free. Need I say more? ci.marathon.fl.us.
Turtle Hospital: You know you're intrigued! Take a 90-minute guided educational tour of the hospital facilities and the sea turtle rehabilitation area. At the end of the program, guests are invited to feed the permanent residents. Admission is $15 for adults, $7.50 for kids. Reservations are highly recommended. turtlehospital.org.
Crane Point Museum and Nature Center: Check out interpretative displays of local wildlife, marine-life, dioramas and dramatic exhibits featuring artifacts and objects of cultural interest. Also visit the Adderley House – the oldest house outside of Key West – and the Marathon Wild Bird Center. Admission is $12.50 for adults, or less for kids and seniors. cranepoint.net.
National Key Deer Refuge: The property consists of about 9,200 acres of land that includes pine rockland forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater wetlands salt marsh wetlands and mangrove forests. These natural communities are a critical habitat for hundreds of endemic and migratory species including 17 federally listed species such as Key deer, lower Keys marsh rabbit and silver rice rat. fws.gov/nationalkeydeer.
Bahia Honda State Park: With an award-winning beach and historic bridge, Bahia Honda State Park at mile marker 37 has become a favorite destination for visitors to our island paradise. The park, encompassing more than 500 acres and an offshore island, offers some of the best snorkeling and beachcombing in Florida. It's perfect for a quiet family getaway. bahiahondapark.com.