An enjoyable day at Tarpon Springs

We left Orlando at 8:40 a.m., and took Interstate 4 West first, then changed to Interstate 275 South. The town of Tarpon Springs is 115 miles or 185 kilometers away from Orlando, and it took us just a little over two hours to reach our destination. When we started in the morning, the weather was still fairly cool, but by the time we reached Tarpon Springs it was already warming up.

We headed straight for the Sponge Docks which is the main tourist attraction of the town. This is a lively area with its mix of boats, boutiques, Greek restaurants and bakeries that line the waterfront. When we were there, they were having an Arts & Crafts Show and the place was packed with people. Luckily, we found a parking lot and it was only $3.00 for whole day parking. A few minutes later, just across the street we discovered another parking lot for only $2.00! Oh well.....

Our first stop was the Sponge Factory where they supposedly have the world's largest selection of natural sponges. There is also a small vintage museum there with free admission which is certainly worth a visit. Next, we walked over to the Visitors Center nearby to obtain some maps and information.

Tarpon Springs was named for the fish found in abundance in nearby waters. The town flourished over the years, beginning in 1905 with the introduction of sponge diving which was the brainchild of John Cocoris, the first Greek man who came to the city and started a sponge diving business. This innovation became a thriving industry, and its success spread to Greece quickly. Hence, the migration of Greek people to Tarpon Springs continues to this day. You can see quaint and quirky shops on the adjacent streets of the docks offering everything from natural sponges harvested by local divers to elegant clothing, accessories, swimwear, jewelry, shells and many other souvenirs. The primary sales item here is of course the natural sponges, and we saw strings of them in all shapes and sizes swaying in the breeze in front of the waterfront stores.

The sights, sounds and sensuous aromas of an authentic Greek village fill the air, and one almost feels like you are visiting Greece without leaving the United States. Some 20 restaurants and bakeries beckon with genuine Mediterranean dishes and we had a hard time choosing where to have lunch. We finally settled for Yiannis Greek restaurant at the waterfront. (Separate review to be posted).

After lunch we took a 35 minute boat cruise on the Anclote river. The price of the cruise tour operated by St. Nicholas Boat Line was only $8.00 per person which is definitely worth it as it was a pleasant experience. The boat captain is very knowledgeable about the history of sponge diving and gave us a running narration. The highlight of the cruise was when the diver in full diving gear gave a demonstration of sponge harvesting by going over the side to locate a sponge while the captain explained the various steps of the diver going under the water, finding the sponge, rising to the surface and re-boarding the boat. The commentary was very informative as well as entertaining because both the captain and diver interacted with us. As usual, I was the only non white person in the group and the captain asked me where I was from, and I am used to this question in all my years of traveling particlularly when I am the only Asian in any tour group. Anyway, when I replied to his query, he said (with a twinkle in his eye), "You're a long way from home!" Frank, the diver was also quite friendly and came around to chat with the people and posing for photos. On our return to the dockside the boat crew/handlers came around to sell a set of 7 postcards for $1.00 which I thought was pretty cheap. I mean, there are not many tourist sites in the world where you can get 7 postcards for only a dollar! Wait a minute, there's more - and, wonder of wonders - I noticed that all the postcards were made in the USA, not China, hooray!

We then strolled along the promenade browsing at the gift shops and treating ourselves to a generous slice of baklava the traditional Greek dessert. On our way to Sunset beach, we stopped at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral situated downtown. This impressive and Byzantine Revival church is patterned after St. Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey features unique stained glass windows, 3 massive glass chandeliers, Byzantine style icons and 60 tons of Greek marble.

Sunset Beach is located just outside town at the end of a causeway at Fred Howard Park, a large wooded retreat. Sunset Beach itself is a favorite spot for both locals and out of towners with sheltered picnic pavilions, public restrooms, showers, boat launching, wind surfing, plus a children's playground. Best of all, it has free parking spaces which you seldom find at Florida beaches nowadays. However, the beach was not as white or sandy as we were told it would be, and the water was not so clear, but it was warm.

After spending more than an hour at the beach we headed back home to Orlando and passed through Tampa, stopping only briefly at another beach near Tampa called Ben T. Davis beach, and arrived home at 8 in the evening, tired but happy.

It is said that Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek-Americans of any city in the United States, so if you want a taste of Greek culture, cuisine and customs, outside of Greece, this is the place to go!