The Lower Keys are Florida’s best-kept secret. They have been the getaway spot for more than 75 years. The islands are home to earthy mangrove forests as well as miles of unspoiled beaches. The area is also known for calm, warm diving water away from the more commercial dive areas.
Big Pine had humble beginnings, most notably as a post-Depression shark-processing center. Workers would catch sharks, skin them and send their meat and skins north to Miami and New Jersey, respectively. Due to its relatively short shelf life, shark meat rarely made it north of Georgia. The skins, however, were a stronger alternative to traditional leather; sharkskin was tougher than cowhide and, once it was cured, was stronger still — a material called shagreen. The material became popular with shoemakers and garment makers, though somewhat more costly than cowhide.
The multitude of Lower Keys (Little Torch, Cudjoe, Sugarloaf and Summerland, among others) each have their own individual histories, and many offer localized museums and traditional restaurants in addition to many specialty shops.
The Lower Keys are home to many quiet resorts and single-family homes, in addition to RV campgrounds and picnic areas. Big Pine is the area’s “designated” shopping district, with several specialty shops as well as general goods and services. Little Duck Key (upper half of the Lower Keys) offers Veterans Memorial Park — pet-friendly, sandy beaches and a multitude of picnic areas — the perfect choice for a family day getaway. Bahia Honda Key, located a few miles away, has Bahia Honda State Park, another perfect camping and picnicking area with beaches that often make the Top 10 lists of beautiful beaches in the country, for many magazines. Looe Key is the diving destination, with several possibilities for diving and snorkeling the Looe coral reef. The Looe coral reef is home to the annual Underwater Music Festival — an offbeat multimedia display. Previous highlights included a troupe of snorkeling, guitar-playing Elvises, an underwater art gallery, an underwater masked ball (complete with “costumed” dancers) and a “Divas of the Deep” exhibit, featuring sirens who “sang” along with the orchestra. In addition to the traditional broadcast, the festival is projected into the deep, via speakers mounted beneath a flotilla of pontoon boats. Visit www.lowerkeyschamber.com for more information.