Ahh, fall in Florida. The snow birds have not yet descended and the heat has subsided a bit. With that in mind, may we recommend a trip to Tarpon Springs.
If you are heading south on I-75, you’ll find Tarpon Springs approximately 25 miles west of the interstate. You will want to take FL-56W, an easy 40-minute drive with lots of signs leading you to the sponge docks, and downtown Tarpon Springs. We suggest you begin your visit at the sponge docks.
We met a lovely woman at the Tarpon Springs Visitor’s Center, one of the first building you encounter as you enter the town. It seems she and her husband grew up and lived in a small New England town where everyone was Italian. Her husband wanted to retire in Florida, but she was skeptical. She really didn’t want to leave the small town she dearly loved. One of their first stops happened to be Tarpon Springs, a small, close-knit community of Greeks. When she saw the older women dressed in long black skirts and shawls and heard the locals call them ya-ya, she realized she was home. They looked no further, instead, heading back north to pack.
She recommended we begin our day at the Sponge Factory across the street and recommended we take the time to watch the short movie playing there which would orient us to the Greeks who immigrated to Tarpon Springs and the sponge trade. She was also kind enough to point out a few bakeries that were off the beaten path, and a few of her favorite restaurants.
Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
We arrived at approximately 10 am and the streets and parking lots were not very crowded. We did watch the movie on sponge diving. We learned that some African-Americans and whites from Key West retrieved sponges using long hooks. However, the industry blossomed in 1905 when John Cocoris introduced the technique of sponge diving to Tarpon Springs by recruiting divers and crew members from Greece. The sponge industry soon became one of the leading maritime industries in Florida and the most important business in Tarpon Springs, generating millions of dollars a year.
We walked along the docks. There are numerous boat tours to choose from where sponge diving is demonstrated. If you are lucky enough to catch the 11 am tour you also get to see the diver suit up. There is a small aquarium for the kids and lots of sponge shops!
Around noon we noticed that the streets got rather crowded. Clearly, Tarpon Springs is a great place for lunch. We avoided Hellas Restaurant and Bakery, which has great ratings on Trip Advisor because it was so large. We eat at Mykonos which was smaller and had a family-owned feel. Be advised the portion sizes are share-able. We started with the grilled octopus appetizer which could have been a meal.
I asked why all the Greek Salads on the menu had lettuce, and she explained Americans expected lettuce. Since this American knew that Greek Salads didn’t have lettuce, she was kind enough to provide mine without lettuce. The feta was fresh and salty, much better than the kind you buy in the grocery store. We witnessed platters set on fire and cries of “opa” from time to time. All in all, a very pleasant experience in Tarpon Springs.