By KRISTEN LIVENGOOD

Big Pine Key is one of the biggest inhabited islands in the Florida Keys chain and home to some of the most diverse creatures (not the guy at the bar at Coconuts) that thrive in the Keys, including endangered species from miniature deer to blue butterflies. Take a trip to the island and live like a local while exploring the ponds and rocklands, decorating dollar bills, and finding treasures from local artisans.

EXPLORE
Blue Hole and Watson Trail

The Blue Hole is home to two American alligators and a wide variety of freshwater fish and turtles and saltwater fish like tarpon that share a home together thanks to a freshwater lens that sits on top of the saltwater rock quarry. A short distance past the Blue Hole is Jack Watson Trail, two trails that bring hikers though the pine rocklands of Big Pine Key. With slash pines and solution holes, there is a nice viewing deck on the left-hand trail as well as information tags along to help identify trees and Big Pine Key history. The right-hand trail is less than a mile and loops around.

EAT
No Name Pub

No trip to Big Pine Key is complete without sticking a dollar on the famous No Name Pub walls. Known for having more than $250,000 on the walls, The Pub also has some of the best pizza, fritters, and taco salad on the Pine. One of the ultimate favorites is the homemade, house-cut silver dollar fries. Here are the step-by-step directions on how to actually find the place: turn down Wilder Road at the Big Pine Key stoplight (the only stoplight on the island and the road is on the right of Winn Dixie Plaza) follow Wilder to the stop sign and make a left, follow that road around the right-hand curve, over a little bridge, keep going around a couple more curves (WATCH FOR KEY DEER!) and your destination is on your left shortly past the Doctor’s Arm community sign. If you go over “the old wooden bridge,” which is actually not wooden anymore, onto No Name Key, you have gone too far.

BUY
Flea Market and Out of the Blue Gallery

Even in the summertime, there are year-round vendors located at Big Pine Flea Market on the weekends. Some favorites include the orchid guy, the hat lady, the soap place, Cone Republic ice cream, the cooler guy, the Redlands fruit and veggie stand. … We think the hat lady is worth a trip all on its own, since she has the wide-brimmed sandbar hats sought after for cheap! The flea market is at 30250 Overseas Hwy.

Visiting midweek or want to explore more? Swing into Out of the Blue Gallery and Gifts, a short distance west of the flea market at 29842 Overseas Hwy. The shop is filled with unique local artisan treasures that make perfect gifts or additions to your home. It’s a favorite for Piners!

By KELLY KRIEGER

Beautiful Key Largo. Although Key Largo is best known for its superb diving and amazing sunsets, this little slice of paradise has a lot more to offer. Like any vacation or “staycation,” the key to “The Keys” is exploring new things and sharing in local favorites.

EAT

Starting off your day with a well-balanced breakfast is important, and Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, located at MM 99, is it. Served from 7 to 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, Mrs. Mac’s offers an assortment of gourmet fluffy omelets, house specialties like Mrs. Mac’s Famous Mornwich, Texas style French toast or my favorite, Eggs Benedict, in addition to a wide variety of options to satisfy any appetite. Mrs. Mac’s also offers an amazing lunch (served Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and dinner (Monday-Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.) menu. Don’t forget to save room for a piece of their world-famous Key Lime pie as once featured in an issue of “Cosmopolitan” (whole pie also available to go). There’s nothing better than a creamy Key Lime pie with the perfect graham cracker crust. (There’s also a second location, Mrs. Mac’s II, located less than a mile south.)

BUY

After you fill up on a hearty breakfast, it’s time to “shop ’til you drop,” as they say. Key Largo is home to many fun places to shop, but on this day, it was Largo Cargo located at MM 103 oceanside that captured my interest. I stopped by to find a few fun gifts for my niece and nephew and found myself pleasantly surprised by the great items they have available: unique T-shirts, colorful beachwear, adorned picture frames, elegant jewelry, Florida Keys souvenirs, the list goes on. From the moment I walked though the door, I was greeted by a very friendly and helpful person who guided me in the right direction, making it an enjoyable experience. In addition to clothing, beach items and home goods, Cargo Largo has a section filled with sweet treats like Key Lime pie, Key Lime chocolate bars and one of their best sellers, Key Lime cookies. My sweet tooth will get me every time.

EXPLORE

If you enjoy sharing in a piece of history, then you should not miss the opportunity to take a cruise aboard the famous steamboat from the 1951 John Huston film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, “The African Queen.” Located at MM100, 99701 Overseas Hwy., The African Queen will take you back in time while you enjoy stories from its past during a leisurely cruise on your way to dinner at a local favorite, The Pilot House Restaurant. Every detail is pre-set and timed perfectly for an amazing cruise and meal. Cruises depart daily, and last a little more than an hour. Log on to www.africanqueenflkeys.com or call 305-451-8080 for reservations.

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