Some may find the area during a road trip down the Florida Keys Overseas Highway and others, like Howard Livingston, find it by boat. South of the brash lifestyle of Miami and slightly north of colorful Key West lie Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys.
Howard discovered the Florida Keys on a sailing trip in the mid-1980s and, like others who feel the addictive appeal of the island chain, was determined to make it his home.
After many subsequent visits, he quit his corporate job and moved to Summerland Key to follow his dream of becoming a professional musician. Today, he’s widely known for his tropical-rock band, Howard Livingston and the Mile Marker 24 Band.
“Summerland Key has kind of a country environment,” he explained. “Everyone knows everyone, and everyone takes care of each other. And it’s the best of all worlds — I’m a short drive from the incredible nightlife of Key West, and afterwards I can come back home and have a campfire in my backyard.”
Howard spends much of his time outdoors on his boat, diving and exploring his extended “backyard” — also known as the Atlantic Ocean. During the summer, he visits Looe Key Reef weekly and enjoys diving in what he calls the “best place on the planet.”
Even after many dives at Looe Key, he remains awed by the different types of fish that inhabit the flourishing underwater region.
“Last week I took some friends who spend a lot of time snorkeling in Hawaii and they were flabbergasted by the fish species they saw, including a huge goliath grouper,” Howard marveled.
Though he’s lived on Summerland Key for more than eight years, he admits still feeling a bit like a tourist.
“My favorite places to go now are the same places that were my favorite to go before moving here,” he stated. “And there are so many different restaurants and things to do, I’m still exploring.”
This summer, he and his wife and band manager, Cyndy, discovered an island they call their “secret beach.” Located on the backside of the Keys in the flats, it’s only accessible by boat during low tide. The flats are so full of small islands, Howard said, that others could explore to find secret beaches of their own.
He also recommends enjoying the water at the Lower Keys’ Bahia Honda State Park, where the beach has earned repeated kudos as one of America’s top 10.
Howard’s other favorite spots include Boondocks Grille and Draft House on Ramrod Key. The emporium’s attractions include a large menu, mini golf, live music daily — and regular performances by Howard Livingston and the Mile Marker 24 Band.
“It’s a place for a great meal, getting to meet locals and has one of the best stages in the Lower Keys,” the seasoned musician said.
According to Howard, “the best hogfish sandwich on the planet” can be found at Keys Cuisine, a food truck located on Big Pine Key. Keys Cuisine owner Kim Moore started the business three years ago after retiring as a nurse. In addition to supremely fresh fish, her menu also features grilled burgers, chicken and salads.
Howard also likes the No Name Pub, a quirky eatery off U.S. Highway 1 in an idiosyncratic settlement known as No Name Key. As well as its no-nonsense good food, the pub is known for its historic Florida Keys charm and ramshackle décor that includes interior walls papered with dollar bills.
“It’s always packed, has a great ambiance and has the best pizza,” Howard advised. “Don’t forget to leave your dollar.”