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TARPON SPRINGS - GREEK FOOD, SPONGES, FESTIVALS

Story and photos by

Tarpon Springs doesn't look like a typical Florida community. While sunbathers tan on Clearwater Beach, less than an hour away, shrimp and sponge boats bob along Tarpon Springs' waterfront. Instead of condos, there are low-rise buildings painted with scenes straight out of the Aegean.

Greek wall mural
Greek wall mural
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Sentimental bouzouki music wafts from tavernas. Strings of sponges dangle in front of shops, and signs beckon from restaurants: "It's really Greek and really good."

We sauntered over to the Sponge Docks and talked to a couple deck hands relaxing with bottles of Spartan beer. "We go out for up to 13 days at a time," they told us. "Sometimes as far as Nicaragua. When the boats return, we lay out the sponges for a weekly wholesalers' auction in front of the Exchange building."

Today, the handful of boats that harvest sponges is just a remnant of the fleet of more than 200 vessels that prospered at the turn of the century.

The first Greeks, who settled in Tarpon Springs after 1905, used long poles to hook sponges from the shallow waters offshore. Later, John Cocoris, a Greek, showed divers how to use copper-helmeted diving suits to pluck sponges from deeper waters.

As the industry grew, more divers emigrated from Greece, bringing their families and colorful traditions. The Sponge Exchange became the world's busiest sponge market in the 1930s.

Tarpon Springs sponge industry plaque on Sponge Docks
Tarpon Springs sponge industry plaque on Sponge Docks
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Then, in 1940, disaster struck. A "red tide" algae disease destroyed the sponge crop. By the time the sponges recovered in the 1980s, synthetic imitations had invaded the dishpans of America and the industry never fully recovered.

Nowadays, natural sponges have very limited commercial uses, primarily for medical, cosmetic and automotive use. Most of these sponges used to come from the Mediterranean, but now, many international buyers obtain their sponges from Tarpon Springs.

Things to see and do on the Sponge Docks

A free movie, museum dioramas and photographs in the Spongeorama sponge factory, located on the docks, summarize the 4,000-year-old history of the sponge industry. Spongeorama's Cruise Lines bring passengers along Anclote River and the Gulf of Mexico to see dolphins and historic sites.

Sponge boats in harbor
Sponge boats in harbor
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll
Natural sponges dry in boat.
Natural sponges dry in boat.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On St. Nicholas Boat Line sponge boat cruises, you can watch a helmeted diver "harvest" a planted sponge from the ocean floor. Passengers can feel a natural sponge before its skin is removed. Cleaned sponges, displayed in Tarpon Springs' shops, are just the animals' skeletons.

Deep-sea fishing charters depart from here, as well. (Tarpon Springs is named after the tarpon fish that swim along the coast.) The Sponge Docks also boast a saltwater aquarium, 15 restaurants and more than 100 specialty shops.

Shopping for sponges in downtown Tarpon Springs

Downtown Tarpon Springs is one mile south of the sponge boat docks. Comprised of antique shops, art galleries, places to eat and graceful old mansions, it's listed in The National Register of Historic Places.

Shopping for sponges
Shopping for sponges
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We strolled leisurely along Dodecanese Boulevard, shopping for round yellow sponges, tiny finger sponges and long thin loofahs. Invariably, we met the Greeks — at work in their shops and relaxing in tavernas with glasses of licorice-flavored ouzo.

Of the 21,000 inhabitants of Tarpon Springs, 25 per cent are Greek. They form a close-knit community, sending their children to Greek language classes after school, attending concerts, art exhibits, films and Sunday mass at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

The yellow brick Byzantine-style building is a replica of St. Sophia's in Istanbul. It's open daily and worth a visit to see the icons, stained glass and marble sculptures inside.

Greek restaurants

About a dozen families operate restaurants that serve Greek specialties, including stuffed vine leaves, fragrant moussaka and nutty baklava, soaked in syrup.

Try the soutzoukakia (cumin-scented charbroiled meatballs), taramosalata (fish roe dip) and patatokeftedes (Greek potato pancakes). Look for great gyros (grilled slices of marinated lamb served in pita bread) and tzatziki (cucumbers, with garlic and sour cream).

During our visit, a friendly restaurant owner proudly pointed out pictures, on the wall, depicting the white stucco buildings and azure seas of his home in Greece.

Sponge diver tile wall mural
Sponge diver tile wall mural
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Epiphany celebrations in January

Tarpon Springs' Greek residents celebrate their heritage with an annual Epiphany celebration on January 6. After a mass in the cathedral, a choir sings as elaborately garbed priests and costumed parishioners walk in procession to the local bayou.

The bishop tosses a white cross into the water. Young men dive in to retrieve the cross and, with it, blessings and luck for the coming year.

The procession winds its way to the waterfront where priests in Byzantine robes board the sponge boats to bless the fleet. Greek music, dancing and food complete the day-long festival.

For the thousands of people attending, the atmosphere is certainly more Mediterranean than Floridian. The Greek culture that it celebrates is, without a doubt, as absorbing as the sponges that brought it here.

Flying and driving directions to Tarpon Springs

From Canada, WestJet flies from Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax to Tampa International Airport. Tarpon Springs is located 28 miles northwest of Tampa and 24 kilometers north of Clearwater on Florida's Gulf Coast.

From Tampa, take Hwy 60 west to US 19 N and drive north to Keystone Rd (Tarpon Avenue). Turn left on Keystone. Follow it to Tarpon Springs. Turn right on Alternate U.S. Highway 19 (Pinellas Ave.) then left on Dodecanese Boulevard.

Where to stay

You can stay in a Tarpon Springs' motel, bed & breakfast, apartment, condo or four-star resort. Tarpon Springs is also an easy day trip for vacationers staying in St. Petersburg or Clearwater.

Visitors who stay at the Clearwater Cay Club's 336 one-, two- and three-bedroom residences have access to restaurants, tennis, volleyball, fitness equipment, a marina, fishing charters and nearby golf. Located in Clearwater, on Tampa Bay, the resort is just 15 miles south of Tarpon Springs.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB: www.VisitStPeteClearwater.com

More things to see and do in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater & Tampa area:

Caladesi Island State Park - Beaches, Birding, Hiking and Kayaking

St Pete Dali Museum

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay - Caring for Baby Animals

Tampa Florida Museum Exhibit Blows You Away