Last week I wrote about the joy of discovering interesting places right in my own back yard, so when the weekend rolled around and the weather turned warm and balmy, I drove to Tarpon Springs, Florida, just an hour and a half north of Sarasota. Originally established in 1884 as an exclusive winter resort for wealthy northerners, Tarpon Springs earned its name from the Tarpon, a variety of sailfish abundant in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico surrounding the town. Although successful as a resort, it was soon discovered that the Gulf waters also held riches in the form of sponges covering the sea floor, and by the 1890’s the sponge diving industry had become the community’s most important industry. Greek divers who earned their living by harvesting sponges from the floor of the Mediterranean immigrated to Tarpon Springs and by the 1930’s the sponge industry was generating millions of dollars.
Today, Tarpon Springs proudly bills itself as the “Sponge Capital of the World” and offers something for everyone. Shops line the sponge docks, displaying wooden bins overflowing with half a dozen varieties of sponges, from the inexpensive silk sponges used for applying makeup to the pricey Sea Wool sponges used for bathing and washing cars.
Spectators watch as Cuban cigars are rolled and cut at small wooden stands tucked into alleyways.
Down a side street is the Halki Market, a tiny neighborhood grocery store, where five-gallon buckets of olives stand alongside shelves stocked with dozens of varieties of Greek olive oil.
Eating is one of the great delights of visiting Tarpon Springs. In addition to the traditional Greek food served by local restaurants, no visit is complete without a stop at one of the ubiquitous Greek bakeries that line the street, where row upon row of delectable pastries are displayed in glass cases.
Cruise boats carry tourists into offshore waters where they watch divers harvesting live sponges from the ocean floor or try their hand at deep-sea fishing.
But there is much more to Tarpon Springs than the sponge docks and shops along Dodecanese Boulevard. Wander into the narrow streets behind the docks to glimpse real life in this decidedly Greek community: dilapidated old boats moored along the banks of narrow canals, giant Pelicans sitting atop wooden mooring posts, and stacks of crab traps occupying the front yards of local fishermen.
Just a short distance away is Spring Bayou, the site of the original settlement, where stately mansions line the streets and Fred Howard Park provides a lovely white sand beach shaded by palm trees. The Shrine of St. Michael, a small chapel built by a Greek family in thanks for the miraculous cure of their young son, is also open daily. Walking and trolley/bus tours of the city are available and include the Cultural Center on South Pinellas Avenue.
Those fortunate enough to visit Tarpon Springs on January 6th witness the annual Epiphany Celebration, sponsored by St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral. During this popular festival, thousands of visitors watch as young men dive into the frigid waters of Spring Bayou to retrieve a white cross tossed into the water by the Archbishop. The young man who successfully retrieves the cross receives a special blessing from the Archbishop.
By 6 PM I was back home in Sarasota, having fully enjoyed my day trip and momentarily satisfied my travel craving without spending a fortune. My only expenses for the day were half a tank of gas and lunch at the fabulous Hellas Greek Restaurant (above). Oh, and of course, a nice big sponge for washing my car.