Soaking it all up in the Sponge Capital of America
With dockage among downtown boutiques, Greek restaurants and the sponging fleet, Tarpon Springs, on Florida’s west coast, is delightfully unusual in a state that’s been succumbing to condominiums and other non-marine waterfront development.“Tarpon Springs is fighting to keep its marine-oriented waterfront and remain ‘Old Florida,’ ” says Ted Musnicki, a former Annapolis, Md., patrol boat skipper who became City Marina dockmaster five years ago.
Marinas and marine businesses line the Anclote River’s well-marked channel three miles to City Marina in the historic Sponge Docks district. Musnicki advises cruisers to make advance reservations. “Tarpon Springs is just what we look for when we cruise — a small waterfront village where we can enjoy its unique culture,” says Robert Creech, of Southport, N.C. Creech, who was completing a Great Loop cruise with his wife, Kay, in their 43-foot Jefferson, C-Life. “Here we’re immersed in Greek culture. It’s like we‘ve gone to Europe.”
The Tarpon Springs riverfront does resemble Europe more than modern Florida. Greek divers from the Dodecanese Islands arrived here in the late 1800s and commercially harvested the Gulf’s deep-water sponge beds through World War II, giving the city its “Sponge Capital of America” moniker. Many of the boutiques and restaurants — family-owned for generations — occupy former sponge warehouses along Dodecanese Boulevard and brick side streets. Sponges, olive-oil soaps, souvenirs and imported crafts fill downtown shop windows. Museums, videos and narrated cruises explain the sponge industry.
The Creeches and their friends, Louis and Diane Wade aboard their Cape Dory 40, Bella Luna, arrived in time for the annual Old World-style Epiphany celebration, held annually on Jan. 6 and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The Greek Orthodox Church commemoration of the baptism of Jesus begins with services at St. Nicholas Cathedral. Worshippers, clergy and celebrants in traditional dress then parade to the Sponge Docks for the blessing of the fleet, then on to Spring Bayou.
As some 8,000 people watch from the shore, the bishop tosses the white Epiphany cross into the water. Sixty youths dive for the cross, which is said to bring the finder good luck for the year. A festival with music, dancing and feasting continues into the night at the cultural center. “We loved the Epiphany celebration, such an exciting day,” says Kay Creech. “We’re having such a good time that we’re staying longer than we’d planned.”
What delights the Creeches — and most visitors — is the Greek cuisine. “Mama’s, Hellas and Costa’s have wonderful food, especially the flaming cheese, gyro sandwiches and baklavas,” she says. “In fact, yesterday we had such a large lunch that we only ate pastries for dinner.”
They flip a coin for their next restaurant choice. “Pick Mykonis, Mr. Souvlaki, Plaka, Santorini Greek Grill or any of them,” one local says. “They’re all good.”
You needn’t be intimidated by the ethnic food names — souvlaki, spanakopita, saganaki, avgolemono, skordalia and such. Menus and the waitstaff will explain each dish. Portions are hearty; a single-serving Greek salad (greens, feta cheese and olives over potato salad) is almost basketball-size. It can be agonizing to choose only one heavenly pastry — baklava, kataifi, kourambiethes, Greek chocolate mousse, milopites, or whatever strikes your fancy.
Crave familiar American food? Rusty Bellies restaurant (and retail market) serves seafood fresh off its own boats. Capt’n Jacks at Tarpon Landing Marina (just across the bridge) and most Greek restaurants serve burgers and fries. You’ll also find Italian, Cuban and Asian restaurants and snack shops, many with outdoor riverside tables. Nightlife includes theater performances, live music and belly dancing.
“Everybody comes to the Sponge Docks,” Musnicki says. But there’s much more to see and do in Tarpon Springs, a city of 21,000 that first flourished as a Victorian winter resort.
Pick up brochures and maps from the visitors center in the marina, then walk, bicycle or hop on the trolley (11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday). Its 45-minute circuit threads the Greek and Victorian districts, stopping at the aquarium, cultural attractions and St. Nicholas Cathedral, a replica of St. Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul. Its ornate Byzantine interior is extraordinary.
The city’s shallow, convoluted waterways — the Anclote River, six bayous, lagoon, canal and two lakes — are best explored by dinghy or kayak (rentals available). Each shoreline has a distinct character — marinas, shipyards, 1890s mansions, 1920s bungalows, modern residences, parks where massive live oaks shade waterside picnic areas, and sandbars and mangrove islets supporting flocks of birds and schools of fish.
Manatees frolic in Spring Bayou’s warm waters, protected from motorized vessels from Nov. 15 to March 31. Craig Park, a short walk from City Marina, is a good vantage point for watching them. Spring Bayou abuts the Victorian retail district of antique shops, art galleries and more Greek restaurants (notably Greek Pizza Kitchen, Danny K’s Alley Cafe and Toula’s Trailside Cafe).
Stretch your legs or bicycle on the Rails-to-Trails Pinellas Trail, which runs through Tarpon Springs past the 1909 railroad station (now an historical museum) to St. Petersburg, almost 30 miles south. For sandy beaches and the sunset-watching ritual, bicycle to Sunset and Fred Howard parks on the Gulf of Mexico, about three miles from City Marina.
Al Phelps of Wisconsin, who trailered his 21-foot sloop to Apalachicola, Fla., then cruised here across the Gulf of Mexico’s “Big Bend,” speaks for most visitors. “I thought I’d better get down here and see Tarpon Springs while it still is Old Florida.”
Stroll down Dodecanese Boulevard, hear snatches of Greek conversation, sample the cuisine or just sit on a riverside bench and watch the people, the boats, the fishermen curing their sponges. You’ll agree.
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This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.