Bicycling in Florida's beach towns is one of the best ways to see the sights and get closer to nature at the same time.
Many of the state's beaches feature slower speed limits, bicycle lanes and crosswalks, making them a family-friendly place to pedal. And if you know where to find firmer sand, taking a beach cruiser out on the sand can be a fun, year-round activity.
Anna Maria Island, for instance, offers a slower pace of beach life, with quaint cottages lining residential streets instead of towering condominiums. Locals say bicycling is one of the best ways to get around this island -- especially on the quieter north end.
Visitors will find bicycle racks outside most shopping plazas, and rental companies, such as Beach Bums, often equip their bicycles with baskets so carrying goods back to your rental is a breeze.
Bicycling on the beach is actually not allowed on Anna Maria Island because of nesting turtles, which are protected, but the main stretch of road features a bicycle lane, and the in-town trolley has room for cruisers if you end up a bit further from your hotel than expected.
Some other great beach-biking towns:
Daytona's extra-wide swaths of hard-packed sand are famous for their ease of travel. Vehicles are even allowed on Daytona Beach, but it is just as friendly for bicyclists, who will find the 20-mile stretch of sand a perfect playground for wide-tired cruisers. Michael Sinniger of Daytona Fun Rentals rents bicycles by the day or week. "You're out in the breeze," he said. "And you see more of Daytona on a bike. "Stick near the water line at low tide for the hardest-packed sand and best biking conditions, he suggests.
Head east from Jacksonville and you'll find the bicycle-friendly Jacksonville Beach on the Atlantic Ocean, where visitors will find lots of bicycle racks outside the city's shops and restaurants. Champion Cycling and Rent Beach Stuff are two of many rental companies in the area. For extra convenience, some companies deliver their bicycles directly to local hotels along the beach.
Bicycling Sanibel Island is a fun way to get around, but if you're looking for something more off the beaten path, take your wheels to J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a protected swath of land on the island's north side, which features over 6,400 acres of mangrove forest and provides habitat to more than 220 species of birds. The refuge offers one-way eight-mile and four-mile loops, open to both motorists and bicyclists. The best time to catch wildlife is during low tide and in the morning. Also, migratory birds often make Sanibel their home in the winter months. The refuge is open Saturday through Thursday and the entry fee is $1 per biker. The nearest rental facility is Tarpon Bay Explorers, two miles down the road, and they offer half- or full-day rentals.
The main roads of South Beach may be busy, but hit the sidewalk along Lummus Park in the art deco district and you can enjoy the best view of both the beach and the stunning architecture along Ocean Drive. Bike and Roll in Miami offers a South Beach location to rent bicycles and an "art deco bike tour," which typically takes two to three hours.
The historic island town of Cedar Key is so small that bicycling is one of the best ways to get from place to place. Listed on the National Historic Site Register, the island is only two square miles, and a bike ride past some of the old buildings, including the Island Hotel & Restaurant, offers scenic views of old-fashioned Florida.
Bicycling is welcome at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, one of the state's treasured beaches, which features tall dunes of sugar white sand off Florida's panhandle. Though biking on the sand during low tide is possible, local companies, including Scallop Cove, recommend sticking to the nearly four miles of paved road inside the state park, which follows the beach's sandy shores.
Biking is not only the best way to get around the four square miles of Key West, according to Tom Theisen, owner of BikeMan Bike Rentals, "It's the only way." With limited parking, many find biking to be the easiest mode of transportation on the island. And with the ability to take a plane or speedboat to Key West, many are not even bringing their cars anymore. Most bicycle rental companies on the island offer one-speed cruisers, as well as smaller bicycles for children, and bike seats and trailers for toddlers. To get off the main roads, check out the sidewalk trail along Smathers Beach, part of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, which is open only to bicyclists and pedestrians.
-- Jessica Vander Velde for VISIT FLORIDA