Some 30 miles northeast of Key West and 20 miles southwest of Marathon lies Big Pine Key, home to a variety of attractions, things to do, and places to stay. Although sometimes overlooked by Keys visitors, Big Pine and the Lower Keys offer a lifestyle perfect for us seniors and others who want to take things slow and easy.
Big Pine is home to the famous National Key Deer Refuge, where the diminutive animals roam freely, foraging for food and frolicking in the woods.
Many humans live within the 8,400-acre refuge too. My husband and I were among them, and the deer came right up to the fence surrounding our home, nuzzling the frangipani. One evening I took my camera and ventured into the field next to our property to document the friendliness of the small creatures. One tiny fawn came right up to me and put his face on the lens of the camera as I snapped his picture! The following Christmas my family members received t-shirts imprinted with the image.
The refuge was established in 1957 to save the diminutive animals, whose number at that time was about 50. Today the deer are no longer threatened by extinction and their number has increased to approximately 700 — making the refuge a wonderful environmental success story.
In 2003 the Florida Department of Transportation installed fencing and two vehicle overpasses along the Florida Keys Overseas Highway on Big Pine, so the deer can travel safely between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico sides of the road.
The refuge’s visitor center is located in Big Pine Key Plaza; stop by to pick up information about the refuge and the deer themselves. Explore the area by hiking the Jack Watson Nature Trail, named for the refuge’s first director, and take as much time as you want to meander along the narrow path.
(Please remember, though, no matter where you encounter the tiny deer, no feeding is permitted.)
Another unusual sight on Big Pine is the Blue Hole, a freshwater habitat for wading birds. This was an old rock quarry used during the construction of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, which connected the Keys to the mainland and each other for the first time in 1912.
Any angler will enjoy discovering the Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cottages & Marina, on the Gulf side of the island. This camp makes a perfect base for both offshore and backcountry fishing, and if you decide to spend a night or two, you can fish from the renowned bridge. Close by is the supremely laid-back No Name Pub, known for its amazing pizza. I have friends who come from Sarasota every year for a week’s stay to catch their dinner each night.
Not to be missed is Bahia Honda State Park, a few miles from Big Pine, where you’ll find the best beach in the Keys. You can take your beach chair and umbrella and settle down for a quiet afternoon with a book. An occasional dip in the water will keep you cool all afternoon. Those who enjoy camping can stay overnight, and cabins are available for the less hardy types. Reservations are required for tent space or cabin rental.
Looe Key Reef, renowned as one of the best reefs for diving, offers snorkelers and divers a rare opportunity to explore the coral and marine life found there. Just a few miles offshore, Looe Key is famous as the site of the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival, an annual event that combines subsea musical entertainment with a focus on reef preservation.
Interested in some quality time in the unique Lower Keys? The eastern arm of Big Pine Key is the site of bed-and-breakfasts catering to those seeking a slow-paced sojourn surrounded by natural wonders.
For a relaxing vacation, you can’t beat the Big Pine Key area. Nature lovers, anglers, and those seeking a peaceful and quiet spot to while away the hours can find everything they seek on Big Pine.