Tarpon Springs, Florida – A mear 30 minutes drive North West of Tampa off US Highway 19 is a seaside haven that makes you feel like you have been transported to a Grecian fishing village from the 1900s.
Early History of Tarpon Springs
Originally a playground destination for wealthy Northerners in the 1800s, Tarpon Springs also became a famed location for winter health spa resorts because of the beds of sea sponges discovered off its coastline in 1905. Highly trained and specialized sponge divers immigrated from the Dodecanese Islands in Greece to harvest the sponges. The divers’ knowledge about identifying, harvesting, cleaning, and preserving the sponges was a key component in making Tarpon Springs the sea sponge destination it is today.
Historic downtown Tarpon Springs is a picture book reflecting the town’s Victorian-era with vintage turn-of-the-century homes. These vintage buildings grace the seaside boardwalk and are now home to a delightful assortment of eclectic boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, cafes, and restaurants.
What to Do in Tarpon Springs
One of the must-see places to see is the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral built in 1943. It was designed after the St. Sophia in Istanbul featuring Byzantine architecture. It has an impressive display of 23 stained glass windows, three massive Czechoslovakian glass chandeliers, and 60 tons of Greek marble that make up its pillars and archways.
St. Nicholas Cathedral hosts the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere. During the celebration, the town is covered in banners commemorating the baptism of Christ. A large procession parades to the Spring Bayou where the Archbishop blesses the waters and throws a white cross into the river. Young men ages 16-18 dive into the water in a mad dash to retrieve the cross. According to Greek customs, the man that retrieves the cross will have good fortune for the year.
Sea Sponge Capital
Tarpon Springs has a mix of shopping and tours located on the seaside boardwalk making it easy to talk to each of the companies and book a tour that suits you best. There are half-day tours and full-day eco-tours to learn about sea sponges, how they are harvested, what the different sponge types are and how to use them. I would highly recommend taking at least a half-day tour learning about the history of sea sponges from an authentic sponge diver while you are in Tarpon Springs – they are the sea sponge capital of the world.
There are tours where the diver looked like he stepped straight out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. He was wearing an oversized white dive suit with a round multi-porthole-window copper helmet and leather boots strapped to lead shoe-like soles. His air supply was from a hose and compressor on the boat. It was quite interesting to watch him get into the water and follow his bubble trail as he collected a sponge for us to examine. Back on the boat, he described the different grades and type of sponges. He explained that natural sponges will never mold due to the way the holes or ‘pores’ are created to run into one another allowing for airflow and moisture dispelling.
It is common for local residents, many of whom are of Greek descent, to be sitting in benches along the boardwalk with a story to share with those who stop to chat. The boardwalk benches are also a great place to relax and admire the wooden fishing boats, you just might feel like you have been transported to a Greek Isle. Greek restaurants and bakeries also dot the side of the boardwalk serving authentic Greek meals and sweet treats like baklava and Saraglifa created from heirloom family recipes.
How to get there
Getting to Tarpon Springs from Clearwater Florida is a simple 12-mile drive north on US Hwy 19. If you are coming from Tampa then head NorthWest on FL HWY 589 or if you would like to drive across the roughly 10-mile W Courtney Campbell Causeway bridge then take Hwy 60 to Hwy 19. The causeway was completed in 1934 and at the time, the longest bridge to span an open body of water in the United States. The bridge does have a toll of $2.50 each way – so have your coins ready.
Tarpon Springs is not only the sea sponge capital of the world, but also the has the highest concentration of Greek Americans in the United States, making you feel as if you are visiting the Greek Isles without getting on a plane. As I listened to bits and pieces of conversations it was the quiet tones of the voices that spoke Greek which caught my ear.
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