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, interesting historical sights, and wildlife in abundance. Recently, we returned to one of our favorite small towns, 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