TARPON SPRINGS, FL — A good vacation can remind us how pleasant it is to stay at home. To that end, a day trip that includes the northbound drive from Clearwater to to Tarpon Springs along US Highway 19 may be especially effective. Try it. Go ahead. Fasten the kids into the backseat on a hot summer afternoon and put your parenting skills to the test as you endure stop-and-start traffic for 16 long miles with unsynchronized stoplights and enough strip malls jammed end-to-end to make a city planner weep. This is a road pockmarked with misery, judging by the billboards for divorce attorneys, accident lawyers and sinkhole claims experts. But no need for despair — there are also plenty of strip-mall churches en route.
Tarpon Springs, with its Greek heritage, brings the flavor of the Aegean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico. Here the smell of gyros and baklava fills the air. The local color scheme (pale blue on brilliant white) comes straight from the flag of the old country. Somewhere around here you just know there’s got to be a raucous wedding reception going on at Aphrodite’s Palace.
Tarpon Springs’ Mediterranean history dates from the 1890s, when sponge divers from Greece came here to harvest the rich sponge beds in the Gulf of Mexico. In spite of period of destructive red tide, the gulf oil spill and other environmental insults, Tarpon Springs remains one of the most prosperous natural sponge markets in the world.
During the town’s heyday in the 1930s, more than a thousand Greeks lived here and manned a fleet of 200 boats. Each diver wore a 177-pound diving suit complete with a copper helmet and air hose that allowed them to dive in 36-foot deep water for about 2 hours.
The center of the action is still at the sponge docks along Dodecanese Boulevard, where sponge boats return from the Gulf with their rust-colored catch as they have each day for the past century. These boats work a 10,000 square-mile sponge bed that stretches between Key West and the Panhandle.
There are about 5,000 species of sponge worldwide, five of which are found along Florida’s Gulf Coast. The part we use is essentially a skeleton, which is covered by a tough skin in the wild. The shops here offer more sponge varieties than most of us knew existed, from giant wool sponges to skinny finger sponges.
Your first stop must be the Spongeorama, with its free museum of sponge history. Here we discover that natural sponges are superior to the manufactured variety in nearly every way. They hold more water, and rinse out more thoroughly. They don’t allow bacterial build up. And while most sponges sold here are used in household application, the owner once sold a sponge for use on the electrodes of Tennessee’s electric chair.
At the far end of the docks, the Coral Sea Aquarium is also worth a visit. The Aquarium’s unique petting zoo invites visitors to pet sting rays and baby sharks. Aquarium owner Scott Konger said its perfectly safe. “This species of shark has tiny teeth, and they don’t get very large. And we remove the barbs of the stingrays.” The aquarium’s main 120,000-gallon tank contains several larger sharks that are hand-fed by diver’s twice each day. The aquarium is a good representation of underwater life in the region and most of the fish were collected within 30 miles of Tarpon Springs.
You’ll want to end the day by enjoying the local Greek cuisine. You won’t do any better than Hella’s Bakery and Restaurant, whether you’re looking for a quick gryo or some of their signature seafood and lamb dishes. The bakery’s baklava and spanakopita is simply delicious. Who knew a Florida day trip could be your ticket to a continent half a world away?
Tarpon Springs Information:
Tarpon Springs is located north of Clearwater along U.S. 19. From Ocala, take Interstate 75 south to State Road 52 West. Drive time: About an hour and a half. For visitor information, call the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce at (813) 937-6109.
The Spongeorama Exhibit Center is located along the sponge docks at 510 Dodecanese Blvd. The museum is free and cruises start at $15.95 for adults, including sunset cruises, dolphin cruises and a half-hour cruise that features a demonstration by a copper-helmeted sponge diver. For cruise information, call (813) 942-3771.
The Tarpon Springs Aquarium is located along the sponge docks at 850 Dodecanese Blvd. Admission is $7 for adults and $5.75 for children 12 and under. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Aquarium admission and information: (727) 938-5378.
Epiphany Celebration. Every January, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas becomes the center of the Epiphany celebration, which includes a regal procession through the town that culminates in a ceremonial diving contest in which young men attempt to retrieve a white cross. The winner gets a year of good luck.
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