Why Big Pine? The Florida Keys are popular for good reason -- proximity, climate, endless water sports and more. But that popularity has its downsides, as crowds and development have encroached upon delicate ecosystems and begun to compromise the islands' natural charm. Not on Big Pine. Much of the island is federally protected wildlife habitat, off-limits to development. A close-knit, small-town community works conscientiously to protect the local environment, and real estate remains surprisingly affordable, considering its surroundings. Big Pine is a little reminder of how the Keys used to be. And there's still room for you.
Life of an "Expat" "We used to guest here," says Jen DeMaria of the Deer Run Bed & Breakfast, which she and her fiancé, Harry Appel, discovered 10 years ago on the first of what became annual visits to Big Pine Key. "Every time we came..."
"Harry said to the owner, kind of half-joking, 'If you ever want to sell this place, give me a call.'" Event- ually, that call came, and in 2006, Harry and Jen bought Deer Run, then moved south from their native New Jersey. They remade their lives, as both innkeepers and stewards of the local environment. "It's all about the nature here," says Jen, 44. "People are drawn to this area for its unspoiled beauty." Unlike some of its more developed neighbors -- Key West or Marathon, for instance -- Big Pine's largely protected habitat is home to several endangered species, including the Key deer, which resembles the more familiar whitetail but is considerably smaller. The local waters are also a sanctuary, their calm shallows readily explored by sea kayaks. "You get out on the water, you paddle around, you see turtles, you see rays, you see sharks, you see parrotfish, you see all sorts of little things," says Jen. "Every time you pick up a shell, there's something living in it." The couple's surroundings aren't the only things that have changed since their move to the Keys. Deer Run operates as an eco-friendly inn, certified "green" by the state of Florida. Jen and Harry serve organic vegetarian cuisine and guide their guests toward low-impact activities. Even running a B&B is work, to be sure, but it's nothing like life in the corporate law offices where Jen toiled for 20 years as a paralegal. "The stress is completely different, if you even want to call it that," she says. "Now I wake up and cook in the morning. After my chores are done, I have time in the middle of the day to do anything I want to. I can go for a bike ride; I can go work out; or I can walk on the beach. I feel very peaceful now."
Facts of Life
For a small-town vibe on a hidden island. See more island real estate suggestions in the Best Islands to Live On database.