For most visitors, Florida is nothing more than two long beaches, with a dot-of-Disney between. But off-the-beaten-path types know there’s much more to the Sunshine State.
We lived in St. Augustine, Florida for a few years, which enabled us to discover many wonderful small towns, and one of our favorites is Tarpon Springs.
Located in west central Florida about 25 miles northwest of Tampa, Tarpon Springs is known as the “Sponge Capital of the World,” and provides “a visit to Greece in America.” It’s a truly unique little town, and makes a fun day-trip.
Tarpon’s charming downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic places, and its brick streets are lined with galleries, antiques, and coffee shops. The 47 mile-long Pinellas Trail (a rail-trail) passes right through, which makes it a popular spot for cyclists.
The town was established in the 1870’s as a winter haven, and a number of turn-of-the-century mansions still overlook the scenic Spring Bayou in the heart of town.
Just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the most prolific sponge growing areas in the world, and in the early 1900s, a very successful sponge industry was launched. Greek sponge divers were recruited, and by the 1930s the industry had grown to millions of dollars per year.
Today, the town has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the US. A stroll down Dodecanese Street passes shops selling the normal tourist fare, as well as sponges, sponges, and more sponges.
Also, it seems that every other building is a Greek restaurant. In fact, by my estimation, this is the home of the best gyro sandwich in the world … seriously.
No trip to Tarpon Springs is complete without a stop at The Plaka for a gyro and a glass of retsina wine.
Directly across the street on a boat-lined bayou is the most interesting sight in town – a sponge dock. The boats moored here aren’t tourist props, but are working boats owned by local divers who harvest sponges just offshore.
Sponges are filter feeders which survive on plankton and organic debris. The sponges we use in our homes are actually the skeleton, but the living sponge is covered with a dark elastic skin with holes to allow water to circulate. They have a gelatinous inner and outer skin, which must be removed. We were lucky to see a diver just back from a successful trip, and shot a video of part of the washing process. He’s obviously a practiced-hand.
One of the small shops we visited was buzzing with gossip about the latest boat to come in. A big haul is good news for everyone in this tight-knit community.
So if you venture into this part of Florida, definitely put Tarpon Springs on your list. Buy a sponge or two, have a gyro, and watch the sponge boats. It’s a unique place, and you won’t be disappointed.
*Music Credit: I Wanna Be Like You. Performed by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
This is very cool! You got my attention, when I read about Greece. My dad is from Greece, and I use to live on the Island of Skiathos and Athens as well. If you like to ever hear more about Greece, please visit my page at http://www.kouzounaskitchen.wordpress.com
Thanks for the Great article! Opa and I will try the Gyros there if I ever go. Thank you
Thanks Kali, for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Tarpon Springs is a truly unique place, and what a surprise that it’s in Florida. I visited your blog, and it looks great. We really enjoy Greek food, and I’m looking forward to searching through your recipes. Opa! James
You are welcome! I would love to visit Florida. One of these days I will take a mini vacation to go there. Thank you for stopping by at my food blog & yes please check back for great recipes to come. :)-Opa!!
Darn it, here’s one I missed! We were in St. Pete’s one year and I had Tarpon Springs planned. Sadly there’s only so much you can do with a week and we never made it.
Too bad that you didn’t manage Tarpon Springs Jo. It’s a bit of a drive from St. Pete, but worth the trip. I’m surprised that it doesn’t get more publicity in the tourist press, because it really is a unique place. Luckily, we have family in Clearwater, so we go to TS on every visit. ~James
That’s a good place to have family. 🙂
Sounds like a delightful little town to stay and wander around. I would have loved the docks and watching the sponge boats come in.
Thanks for sharing the video too.
Thanks Vicki. On our last RTW we spent 6 weeks in Greece, and I had to come to Tarpon Springs, Florida to see sponge divers. It’s pretty funny really. And I loved watching the sponge divers. BTW, are there sponge divers in Oz? The Great Barrier Reef must have loads of sponges. ~James
i have never been here before, or even heard of it! but, you can bet it’s on my list of places to road trip to now, being that i love greece so much. thanks for the tip!
Thanks Liz. The west coast of FL tends to be beaches, beaches, and more beaches, and it’s difficult to find places with character. Tarpon Springs is a real surprise, and is nothing but character. When you get back to the States, definitely check it out. ~James
Looks like a fun place! And educational…I’ve never thought so much about sponges before in my life! Thanks for another great post.
Thanks Leslie. I’ve always loved research and learning new things, and our blog provides a great way to do this. And after visiting your informative blog, I’d say it’s the same with you. Also, when I travel, I’m always more observant, knowing that I could be writing a post about the place. It really enhances the experience. ~James
Thanks Jennifer. It really is a neat place. ~James
I love Tarpon Springs!!! Every time I am in the area I stop at the bakery and get some fresh éclairs…they are to die for!!! Last time I was there, I took the charter out to Anklote Key. Happy travels!
Personally, I always go for the flaky, honey-dripping, nut-covered baklava, but all the pastries in the shops are enticing. Was that the charter that has the sponge-diving demo? We’ve always talked about doing one of the boat trips, but after a gyro, a couple of glasses of retsina wine, and baklava, we somehow lose our motivation. ~James
They don’t do a demo on this trip, it goes out to Anclote Key and you have time to wander around for a bit. There is a state park out there and you can see the lighthouse.
Tarpon Springs sounds like a great place to visit. And Greek food is wonderful. Retsina… hmm, not so much, although I have found if I can choke down a shot or two, it’s fine after that. 🙂
Mike, in the interest of full disclosure, Terri is the fan of retsina. It’s an acquired taste which I haven’t altogether acquired. Me, I just knock back a beer with my gyro. Opa! James
What a lovely little community – a taste of the med
It is lovely Dallas, and imagine, a taste of the med in touristy Florida. ~James
This is a fun place to visit. Thanks for sharing!
You’re right Pam. Florida’s west coast doesn’t have that many places with unique character, but Tarpon Springs is certainly one of them. ~James
That is a lovely place to visit! Thank you for the tour.
Thanks Amy. TS is not only lovely, but unique and interesting, and if you get down that way, it’s worth a detour. ~James
Hard to believe – an orthodox monk just chilling on the verandah.
This was one of those “Quick, get the camera!” moments. We wanted to sneak the shot and not get caught, so thank goodness for zoom lenses. I’m not sure what the conversation was about, but the monk was very animated. And as sometimes happens, it worked perfectly for a post about a Greek-American town. ~James
Very interesting history. My closest friend growing up was Greek-American. When her grandfather arrived in Ellis Island, they asked his name. Not speaking any English, they thought he asked his occupation, so he replied “sfugaras”, which means sponge diver in Greece. The name stuck and generations of the family are now named Sfugaras instead of their actual name (which I never knew). I wonder if there are any people names Sfugaras in Tarpon Springs? 🙂
Interesting story Jeannee. As it happens, I also have a similar story. My sir name is Vance. I did some genealogical research, and found that my family came to America from Germany where there name was Wentz. The immigration officers wrote this as they heard it, and our family name became Vance. Interesting stuff. ~James
Well, at least Vance is easier to say. 🙂
Wow. Your pictures are so much better than mine. I definitely need to learn for your example. Great job! 🙂
Thanks for the comment Gene, and for dropping by the blog. Tarpon Springs is a very photogenic place, and that certainly helps. ~James