About the Keys
LOWER KEYS MAIN OVERVIEW
Traveling south from the mainland, picturesque Little Duck Key
at MM 40 is the first of our emerald islands to come into view. Continuing
along the stunning Overseas Highway (US#1) you reach Ohio and Bahia
Honda Keys, home to one of Florida’s most pristine and award-winning
state parks. Passing through West Summerland Key you reach
the Lower Keys’ residential and commercial heart, Big Pine
Key, located at MM 29-33. For the real estate buyer
or investor, the Lower Keys start here. Quaint galleries,
stores and restaurants, from casual seafood eateries to fine dining
establishments, are at your fingertips. After Big Pine Key,
US1 passes through Little Torch Key (past sparsely settled Middle
Torch Key, which leads to even more natural, sparsely settled Big
Torch Key), Ramrod Key, Summerland Key, Sugarloaf Key (MM 16-20)
and the Saddlebunch Keys which run to about MM 12.
Big Pine Key
Big Pine Key’s amenities include several options for accommodations, the Winn Dixie Shopping Plaza, Monroe County Library, post office, an art gallery, clothing and jewelry stores, pet shop, pawn shop, drug store, several banks, gas stations, churches, restaurants, hardware stores, bait/tackle/dive shops, doctors, a volunteer fire department, school and more. There is only one traffic light, at MM 30.5. On Saturday mornings it seems as if everyone in the Lower Keys comes to the Big Pine Flea Market. Second only to Key Largo in size, Big Pine Key is also home to the National Key Deer Refuge, which covers nearly 9,000 acres on Big Pine and No Name Keys (all ages will enjoy visiting the refuge headquarters in the shopping plaza.)
The island is sprinkled with numerous neighborhoods, many with good boating canals offering access to both the Atlantic and back country (approximately 2.5 to 3.5 ft. controlling depth). There are also ‘inland’ neighborhoods in which you’ll find homes usually lower in price. If you’re looking for more elbow room, there are homes on acre parcels scattered through the Big Pine Key, which has a population of approximately 5,000 year-round residents. Single family homes are available for purchase in a wide range of prices beginning as low as $300,000, up to multi-million $. Mobile homes are priced lower (these can usually be replaced by a single family home), and there are also vacant lots with building permits available for purchase.
As you drive up Key Deer Boulevard (at MM 30.5, turn at the traffic light & US1), be aware that the speed limit is 30 mph. Notice the miles of bike path enjoyed by bikers, walkers and joggers. You’ll also see protected pinelands on each side of the road. Watch for key deer that frequently nibble vegetation and sometimes unexpectedly cross to the other side of the road. Walk along the nature trails that wind through the National Key Deer Refuge pinelands & hardwood hammocks, and observe the bird life.
Grab snorkel gear or dive equipment for a trip to exotic Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area—it’s 3 miles or so offshore, straight out Newfound Harbor Channel. Or plan a kayak adventure into the backcountry with the help of a local outfitter. Before slipping off the island, note the site of a world-renowned marine science educational facility, known as “Seacamp” and “Newfound Harbor Marine Institute” at the southeastern tip of Big Pine Key.
If you have school-age children, the Big Pine Elementary Academy (formerly known as the Big Pine Neighborhood Charter School) has recently expanded to include 4th grade, and has plans to add grades through 8th. Students also have the option to attend Sugarloaf Elementary and Middle Schools, at MM 17. From Big Pine Key, high school students have the choice of attending Marathon or Key West.
No Name Key is accessed only through Big Pine Key, via Watson Boulevard. No Name Bridge is a favorite for fishing (just before the bridge is the No Name Pub, a ‘must’ for many visitors and locals.) No Name Key has quite a few homes but no public water or electricity—resourceful homeowners use solar power, generators, wind generators, and cisterns (large storage tanks for catching rain water.) The canals offer some of the best boating in the Lower Keys. Surprisingly enough, the lack of utilities does not negatively affect home prices as one might expect. Many key deer live on the island.
The Torch Keys are located just west of Big Pine Key and are comprised of three separate islands known as Big, Middle, and Little Torch Key. Little Torch Key is the primary residential area. On the south side of US1 is Jolly Roger Estates with its deeper flow-through canals allowing larger boat and sailboat access. Little Torch Key also is a good place to rent a boat for exploring on your own. There is also residential development on the north side of the highway. It is home to Parmer’s Resort, Parrotdise Bar and Grill (the only restaurant around that’s also accessible by boat), Dolphin Marina, and Little Palm Island’s shore-side station & gift shop. This is where you catch the 1920’s style deluxe motorboat to Little Palm Resort & Spa, the internationally acclaimed private island paradise, listed among the top resorts in the world.
While there is some residential development on both Middle and Big Torch Keys, these islands are largely protected by state and federal wetlands and hardwood hammocks. Many of the homes in Middle and Big Torch use cisterns to catch rainwater since FKAA is not available all the way out (Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority).
Continuing further south on the island chain you reach Ramrod Key (approximately MM 27). Ramrod has pleasant neighborhood developments located both north and south of the highway, as well as a gas station with quick mart. If you’re hungry or looking for entertainment, there are two great spots along US1. Looe Key Reef Resort offers accommodations, food, dive charters, and nightly music at its Tiki Bar. Just down the road you’ll find the recently expanded Boondock’s Restaurant and Miniature Golf offering good food, drinks, and fun for all ages, as well as entertainment nightly. Boating control depths are typically 2-3.5 feet with good access to both offshore and back country. You’ll also find a longtime local nursery for your landscaping needs.
Continuing west over Niles Channel Bridge, is Summerland Key, MM 25. Mote Marine Laboratory, a world-class marine science educational and research organization, operates a facility on this island. Home to fish-rich waters and a fleet of charters, “The Big One” is rarely the one that gets away here.
Imagine flying your own plane to your island paradise home where you step onto your sports fisherman or cabin cruiser for a weekend of sun and fun. Summerland is a mecca for large boat owners and private pilots. It’s one of the few places in the whole country where you can have it both ways.
The island boasts wide flow-through canals and a private air strip for local residents making it a perfect spot to park a Beechcraft and a 50 foot + boat. The majority of homes on Summerland are located on the Atlantic side of the Overseas Highway. Although there is some price variation, homes here are generally more expensive.
Summerland Key has a small ‘downtown’ along US1, with locally owned Murray’s specialty food market, a couple of restaurants, post office, banks, a wholesale fish shop, some healthcare offices, an office building, sandal shop, women’s clothing store (look for the pink boat) and gas stations. It is the biggest retail hub between Big Pine Key and Key West.
There are a number of (perhaps legendary) stories of how Cudjoe Key got its unusual name (pronounced kuh’joe.) Many Cudjoe streets are named after either famous or amazingly obscure pirates, which might include a Mr. Cudjoe. Another story has the island described in 19th century Key West scuttlebutt as the location of “Cousin Joe’s” woodcutting and charcoal-making place, of which there were quite a few in the Lower Keys.
Whatever its history, Cudjoe Key is a quiet and peaceful residential island surrounding its own bay. The island’s fishhook appearance and bay are such distinctive features that they can be seen easily in satellite pictures. It also has some restaurants (Square Grouper is a local favorite), a salon & day spa, gift shop, and nursery for your landscaping needs. Nearly all the homes are on the Atlantic side of the Overseas Highway. Boating access is excellent, with controlling depths generally ranging 2-4 feet.
At MM 23, Spanish Main Rd. leads to numerous streets with canal-front and open water single family residences. 601 Spanish Main is the address of Venture Out, a gated, mobile home condominium resort community which has its own post office, mini-market, 80 ft. heated pool, and more. It is the only subdivision in the Lower Keys allowing short-term or vacation rentals of less than 28 days. It also has a few RV sites available for rent.
At the bend in US1 are a local food market and a new commercial building nearing completion. Locals are looking forward to the gym which will be opening up. At the west end of the island (approx. MM 20) is Cudjoe Gardens with its wide, deep, flow-through canals that accommodate large boats. In general, the homes are more expensive here, and the neighborhood has a more manicured, consistent appearance, the result of deed restrictions. The Sheriff’s Substation is located at the corner of US1 & Drost Drive.
North of US1 in Cudjoe Key there are a few canal-front homes on excellent boating canals on the east side, and quite a few homes in Cudjoe Acres (yes, acre sites—even some horses here).
Heading west, just over the bridge from Cudjoe Key is Mangrove Mama’s, another locals’ favorite restaurant. There are also signs directing campers oceanside to the KOA. Sugarloaf Elementary and Middle School is on Crane Blvd. in Upper Sugarloaf Key, visible from US1 (look for the traffic light at MM 19.) There are a couple of residential areas north of the school. Sugarloaf School serves all of the Lower Keys from the Seven Mile Bridge through Big Coppitt Key. Bus transportation is available for all students with the exception of those on Upper Sugarloaf. (Lower Keys students in grades 9-12 attend either Key West or Marathon High School.)
At the ‘flashing light' in Lower Sugarloaf Key (MM 17), are a volunteer fire department, motel and restaurant, and a place where you can rent a kayak or a boat, buy essential supplies, and get a bite to eat. Former home of the Sugarloaf Pineapple Plantation, Sugarloaf Key offers quiet solitude to its residents. The majority of homes are located south of the Overseas Highway looking out onto the sparkling turquoise waters of Upper and Lower Sugarloaf Sounds. If you are looking for larger properties and more luxurious landscaping, be sure you check out Sugarloaf Shores with its canal-front and open water homes. Large oceanfront estates rim the outside of the island facing out to the Atlantic.
If you are a pilot, Sugarloaf has a basic public airstrip you can fly into. There’s a popular sky diving operation, and you’ll often see folks falling from the sky. The houses along the airstrip get together at Christmas and the “Ho-Ho-Ho” and lights can be seen for miles.
Sugarloaf Key is also home to the Bat Tower, an historical site chronicling a creative, if failed, attempt at pest control.
Continuing west on US1, you’ve come to Bay Point (part of the Saddlebunch Keys) a smaller residential area boasting homes with beautiful water views, and more shallow boating. If you’re a coffee lover (and even if you aren’t) be sure to stop by Baby’s Coffee, the Southernmost Coffee Roasters, at MM 15 for a fresh cup, a smoothie, coffee con leche, or pound of Baby’s gourmet coffee (of course, they have much more than coffee.) Check out http://www.babyscoffee.com. A little further down US1 is Knuckleheads, the newest restaurant in the area, and there’s a pizza place, too.
Largely undeveloped Saddlebunch Key retains its natural beauty and offers a lovely scenic drive along the remnants of the Overseas Railroad. You’re only 20 minutes from Key West—have fun!
* Check out a map: the group of islands we call the Lower Keys are obviously different enough geographically from the Upper and Middle Keys (which run east-west, and end at Marathon) to have been considered by Colonial Spain as a different group of islands altogether. They were administered from Cuba, not from St. Augustine like the rest of Florida.
* When Spain sold Florida to the United States it did not intend to include Key West and the Lower Keys; the young (then Lt.) Admiral-to-be Perry was sent in the USS Shark (true story) to enforce the USA’s claim to the contrary. The rest is history.
*The fabulous ecosystem of the Lower Keys backcountry provides rich opportunities for boating and fishing, and certainly better kayaking and birding than any other portion of the Florida Keys from the Mainland to Key West. Almost the entire area north of the Overseas Highway (US1) is protected wild environment as part of either the National Key Deer Refuge or Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. That makes the Lower Keys very special, from a homeowner’s or visitor’s perspective.
* Teddy Roosevelt started the national wildlife refuges here about 100 years ago, to save the birds; and the bird life is definitely a terrific part of the Lower Keys special ambience.
* Looe Key is one of the best places to snorkel and dive in the whole Keys chain. It wasn’t always so tranquil: it got its name when a British ship of that name went down centuries ago, and it was long a principal cause of shipwrecks in this part of the Keys.
* Fishing: surrounded on all sides by water, the Lower Keys have long been a haven for fishermen. Anglers enjoy testing their skills in the deep blue waters offshore, or in tranquil Florida Bay, known to locals as the ‘backcountry’. Bridge fishing is another easy way to catch dinner; there are nine fishing bridges from which to choose in the Lower Keys.
* Key West: just a short drive away, full of history, museums, first class restaurants, hotels and resorts, and the famous Duval Street and sunsets at Mallory Square. Someday you’ll be able to go to Cuba with ease, since you’re only about 90 miles away!
* Biggest drawback driving through the Lower Keys is that there’s only one lane each direction (I think of it as my ‘2-hour driveway’ to Florida City. Fortunately, the half hour to 45 minute drive to Key West traverses the most pleasant scenery, much of it slowly enough (45 mph) to enjoy it.
* Boating is different here: our water is fairly shallow, big boats are less common here than in the Middle and Upper Keys, or Key West.
* The exceptions to that rule tend to cost more: Cudjoe Gardens, Summerland Key, Jolly Roger Estates in Little Torch Key, and one section of Big Pine along Pine Channel. There are a few deep, natural channels between the Gulf/Bay (backcountry) and Atlantic which most of the bigger pleasure boats can use.
* Employment: If you live here, and are not retired, most likely you will work in either Key West or Marathon. Both of these towns are about a half hour to one hour drive at max from Big Pine, even at rush hour (an oxymoron for sure).
* Remember that “mile markers” in the Keys, which are the standard way of giving an address along the Overseas Highway, start in old town Key West at MM 0. Big Pine Key is roughly MM 30, or 30 miles away--MM 48 is in Marathon, and MM 99 is in Key Largo.
* Local employment is fairly concentrated at this time, either tourist-related, government related, or construction. The rest of the services sector is still pretty small.
In conclusion, if you want to be near world-famous Key West, yet have a quiet neighborhood and homes that are more affordable than the rest of the Keys, the Lower Keys are the place to be!
To see more general information see the links under Florida Keys.
Key West is both a place and a state of mind. It lies about as
far away as you can go in this USA, almost part of the tropics,
some four hours and 150 miles south and west of Miami. You cross
a lot of bridges and spectacular blue and green water to get there,
and when you get there you’re only 90 miles from Cuba. Cruise
ships consider a stop at Key West part of their Caribbean itineraries!
It’s not a big place, and it is a place where real people live. It has a year-round population of just over 26,000 and a median resident age of 39 years. Key West also includes the neighboring communities of Stock Island, where a lot of the remaining commercial fishing is based, and which used to be where Key West’s supplies were “stocked” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Key Haven, with wide canals and lots of pleasure boats.
Key West has been described in about a zillion travel guides and
Web sites and the name used in countless movies as the place people
want to finally get away to. Having lived in Cudjoe Key (23 miles
away) and selling real Estate in Key West, I have a good feel for
The best way to describe Key West, is a vacation place. Meaning whenever you’re there, the ambience and atmosphere catches you up in it and you could well be somewhere in the Bahamas or the Caribbean.
Key West is also a state of mind. You can watch sunsets from Mallory Square on the harbor, or from the bars and restaurants on the boat basins. You can shop or whatever on famous Duval Street. Since nobody knows how to throw a party like Key West does, you can join in at Fantasy Fest (think Mardi Gras) at the end of October, and see for yourself. This is, after all, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Whatever you imagine about Key West is probably true.
Or you can enjoy the reality of Key West’s other state of mind too – its wonderful diversity, history, and creativity. Lots of writers, artists, artisans, and musicians have always called this state of mind/special place home, from Hemingway to the present day.
There are also plenty of areas in Key West where the locals go
besides Duval Street and the sunset bars. In fact when you get
off of Duval, you will find restaurants, art galleries, grocery
stores and antique shops in the neighborhoods, and tree-lined little
streets with lots of tropical foliage where people live.
So although you’re in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, the neighborhoods here are quiet, lined with historical architecture and have a very comfy feel. And the historic district is very compact. You can walk everywhere.