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More Than Sand and Saltwater 

Things To See and Do Off the Beach In Florida

As spring drives your thoughts to vacation season, a trip to Florida might be the perfect thing to satisfy your getaway longings. Just a few hours drive for New Orleanians, a Florida vacation can be as short as a weekend or as long as a week or two.

Florida typically sees 320 days of sunshine per year and has an average daily temperature of 75 to 80 degrees, so the beach is usually the main attraction. Hours of lying in the sun can get a little boring, however, so go armed with other options for fun in the sun.

It's easy to forget that Florida's beaches and surrounding areas actually offer a variety of aquatic and outdoor activities that include cruises and charter boat excursions as well as jet skis and wave runners, pontoons, fishing, snorkeling, diving and parasailing. Located along both the Gulf and the Atlantic coasts, rental companies and tour guides abound in Florida and offer affordable daily rates for all types of lessons, trips and equipment. There are plenty of alternatives.

Parasailing is available throughout all regions of Florida and ranges in price from $60 to $100 per person and up to $150 for a tandem run. Prices vary depending on whether the run takes off from a dock or the beach. Companies that run off the beach charge more because they fly you directly in front of your hotel and beach companions, without requiring travel to and from the site. If you'd rather fly farther out above the Gulf of Mexico, however, other companies run from local docks, which may require a short drive to the departure point.

If you're more aquatically inclined, scuba diving and snorkeling are widely available. While underwater, you'll see white star and ivory tree coral clusters, 4-foot basket sponges, purple sea whips, yellow angelfish, dolphins, 6-foot manta rays, porpoises and 350-pound loggerhead turtles among other schools of fish like mackerel and amberjack. You may even find a petrified forest filled with lobsters, sponges and sea squirts.

There are several places along Florida's coastline that offer diving instruction from $25 for basic lessons to $400 for a four-day openwater certification course. There may be additional fees for the use of rental equipment following lessons.

You can also experience Florida's spectacular array of sea creatures by taking a cruise or renting a charter boat. A number of water safari adventure and charter companies offer daily trips for both fishing and regular tours, ranging in price from $300 to $600 depending on the length (half or full day), type of excursion and number of participants (usually up to four).

Trips to local bays, where you might catch trout, redfish or flounder, are often shorter and less expensive than offshore trips where you can expect to find grouper, snapper, amberjack, king mackerel, wahoo, tuna and marlin. These prices usually include a local Florida fishing license, rod, reel, lures and bait, a cooler with ice and other necessary safety equipment. Reservations are recommended.

If you're not interested in the time commitment of a fishing charter, wave runners and jet-ski rentals are available. Like most rental rates, fees are calculated by time -- from 30 minutes up to a full day or even a week. Rates typically start at $70 per hour for each vehicle. Drivers must be at least 16 years old and have a valid driver's license. Most places require a parent's signature for anyone younger than 18, and those 21 and younger may also be required to take a brief Florida boater's test. Fees usually include fuel; reservations are not required. Some companies also offer activities such as guided dolphin tours for about $100 per runner, which seats up to three people.

Likewise, pontoon and other boat rentals are available at many beaches and are based on half- or full-day excursions and cost between $105 and $400, depending on the type of boat rented. They usually include fuel, and reservations are often required.

If you want to expand your outdoor activities but motorized vehicles aren't really what you're looking for, think about heading a few miles inland to one of Florida's many state parks, forests or conservatories.

Blackwater River State Forest is one such park -- and the location of some of the best canoeing rivers in the country. Unique to Northwest Florida, these mostly spring-fed shallow waters, which are 2 1/2 to 3 feet deep, wind through miles of the Florida Panhandle and provide a perfect setting for canoeing, kayaking and inner tubing, picknicking, hiking and camping.

As you make your way along the water through sandbars lined with forests of cedar, cypress and juniper, you'll find several spots along the banks where you can have a picnic, hike and even camp.

Canoe rentals range from $15 to $70 per canoe for trips ranging from a half-day to three days. Departure times and guide availabilities vary. Some companies require a minimum number of participants for tours. Most offer tents or cabins for those who wish to camp overnight. Kayak prices work similarly and range from $20 to $75. Inner tubes are usually cheaper and are rented by daily rates that average $16 per tube. Most rental companies offer all three.

Large parks like the Apalachicola National Forest, which covers more than 500,000 acres, also provide biking, horseback riding and nature trails as well as tent camping, picnic shelters with grills and tables and restrooms with showers. Vacation destinations near these parks include Destin, Panama City, Pensacola, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and St. Augustine.

If you're headed to Central Florida -- best known for all things Disney and theme-park related -- cities such as Tampa, Kissimmee, Orlando and Cocoa Beach offer most of these adventures and more, including hot-air balloon trips and surfing. Taking a break from theme-park commercialism and crowds for a day can be fun and easy to do, as there are plenty of other attractions in and around these areas.

Cocoa Beach, home to the largest surf complex in the world and many of the best surfing spots on the East Coast, offers a variety of places where you can take lessons and rent surf boards. Private lessons range from $60 to $150 per student for one- to three-hour classes, $60 to $100 for semi-private lessons and $50 to $90 for group lessons with three or more people. Boards are provided during lessons and are available to rent afterward.

Perfect for enjoying a bird's eye view of Florida's lakes, rivers and wildlife, hot-air balloon trips are available throughout most of central Florida. Trips typically accommodate four to six people and, most companies will take you anywhere you want to go. Prices start at $175 per person, but children under 90 pounds may fly for under $100. Reservations are often required, and most companies have a 48-hour cancellation policy. Rides may come with special perks such as a champagne brunch after you land.

Less theme park and attraction-oriented, South Florida also offers much in the way of natural flora and fauna in addition to its own specialties. Destinations such as Fort Meyers, Naples, Sarasota, the Keys, Miami and West Palm Beach place an emphasis on windsurfing, sailing and wreck-diving, while also highlighting wildlife conservation efforts. Several offshore sailing locations in southern Florida offer three- to six-day adult instructional courses that include both classroom training and on-water experience. These vary in length and time of day depending on the course you choose. Schools typically are located at regional resorts, package their lessons with accommodations and start at $1,650 per person for a three-day stay.

Windsurfing also is popular in this region and is best pursued along the Sanibel Causeway, where several companies provide instruction, rentals and sales. Lesson rates for beginners and advanced surfers typically start at $100 per student per hour and decrease with each additional member attending a lesson. Equipment rentals range from $50 per hour to $300 for the week.

Snorkeling and scuba diving, referred to as "wreck-diving," reveals a world unknown to most of Florida's other beaches. Sunken transport vessels, yachts, airplanes and other wreckage located off the coast of Miami and the Keys provide some of the most interesting and beautiful exploration sites. Reefs in these areas are host to several historic shipwrecks as well as an abundance of sea creatures such as grunt, pork fish, moray eels, barracuda, coral and gorgonian.

South Florida also is widely known for its stunning vegetation, both above and below water. Key Largo founded the country's first undersea wildlife preserve in 1960, which led to the creation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which currently covers more than 2,800 square nautical miles.

Likewise, Sarasota is home to some of the most beautiful botanical gardens, some of which date back to the early 20th century, and exhibits the world's best orchids, bromeliads and exotic hibiscus as well as bamboo, ferns, roses and more than 100 different species of palms.

So whether you choose to travel to North, Central or South Florida, a variety of outdoor activities await you at nearly every vacation destination. More than just sand and saltwater, Florida offers a multitude of leisurely pursuits that will make your trip all the more exciting and memorable.

For more information, visit Florida can be found online at Florida's Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site, www.facvb.org, and the Florida State Park's Web site at www.floridastateparks.org.

click to enlarge Below the surface, Florida is a wonderland of exotic aquatic - flora and fish.
  • Below the surface, Florida is a wonderland of exotic aquatic flora and fish.
click to enlarge South Florida has lots of off-beah activities like wind- - surfing.
  • South Florida has lots of off-beah activities like wind- surfing.
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