Tarpon Springs: A Quaint Greek Fishing Village on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Lisa Fritscher July 18, 2014 No Comments

  Facebook
  Twitter
  Google

Beyond the world-famous cities of Orlando and Tampa, Central Florida is dotted with towns that still pay enormous tribute to their heritage. Located on the Gulf Coast, Tarpon Springs is arguably one of the most interesting. The town has been both an authentic Greek sponge diving community and a favorite among tourists since the early 1900s, and has changed surprisingly little in more than 100 years.

Tarpon Springs at dawn is beautiful.

About Tarpon Springs
The community was established in the 1870s by Northerners seeking a warm location for their winter homes. The name was taken from the huge tarpon that were frequently spotted in the local waters, and the town incorporated as Tarpon Springs in 1887. Greek immigrants arrived in the 1880s to join the growing sponge industry, and the ancient art of sponge diving came to town in 1905. By the 1930s, Tarpon Springs was well-known for its sponges and the divers that harvested them.

In 1947, a red tide algae bloom wiped out many of the sponge fields, and a lot of sponge divers switched to fishing or shrimping. Over the next few years, many of the warehouses and processing facilities became tourist attractions. The sponge

Mykonos

Mykonos is a favorite restaurant with tourists and locals alike.

industry has been making a slow but steady comeback since the 1980s, with a record haul reported in 2007.

The community remains steadfastly Greek, with the highest proportion of Greek-Americans in the United States as of the 2000 census. Many of the families are descendants of the original Greek sponge divers, and many make their living in the historic tourism industry. Reminiscent of a seaside village in Greece, the narrow roads of the Sponge Docks district are lined with authentic Greek and seafood restaurants, shops with their doors wide open, and vendors hawking everything from sponges to boat tours.

Our Experience

Dad and I visited Tarpon Springs with my cousin and her husband, and their 11-year-old daughter. We arrived in the late morning and stayed through dinnertime. Dad had been there before, but for the rest of us, it was a new adventure.

Spongeorama

Spongeorama was bizarre, kitschy and fun!

Upon arriving, my first impression was that the town was both quaint and extremely authentic. Used to the plastic packaging of the Orlando theme parks, I was pleased to see this side of Central Florida—a place that has figured out how to monetize its authenticity without losing it altogether. In that respect, Tarpon Springs reminded me very much of New Orleans’ French Quarter, as well as some of the islands of the Caribbean.

We paid less than $5 to park for the day behind a shop. Free spots were almost impossible to find, but very inexpensive lots seemed to be the norm. We parked at the end of the Sponge Docks district, and found it easy to explore the entire region on foot.

Spongeorama

Opened in 1968, Spongeorama was the gateway to the Sponge Docks region. Today, the strip has built out a little further, and Spongeorama is about halfway down. Nonetheless, it still serves as an excellent starting point for your Tarpon Springs adventure.

Spongeorama Sign

You know the place is a true roadside attraction if they advertise on the back of a truck in the middle of a garbage heap!

The free retro kitsch museum is slightly transcendent, almost otherworldly, and a whole lot of fun. The experience begins with the original 1960s film, shown in a theater that is not much more than a room full of benches. The first 15 minutes are largely an infomercial for the attraction’s gift shop, but the rest of the movie depicts the old sponge diving techniques, once the hallmark of the industry but now generally used only on tourist boats. In the last few minutes of the film, a voiceover chants “need it, need it, need it…” while other voices call out some of the many uses for natural sponges. The 11-year-old and I broke into giggles at that point, sharing a bonding moment that will likely never be repeated.

After the film, we entered the museum’s display halls, virtually untouched since they were built nearly 50 years ago. Behind the hazy glass are a series of dioramas that depict the life of a sponge diver. One somewhat gruesome diorama showcases the hazards that sponge divers face, and a sign suggests that sponge diving is the world’s most dangerous job—something that the Bering Sea crab fishermen of “Deadliest Catch” might dispute. Nonetheless, there is no denying that sponge divers work hard for their money.

Sponge Diver

The old-fashioned diving equipment was amazing to see up close.

St. Nicholas Boat Line

A seemingly endless number of tour companies are located along the Sponge Docks, ready to take you on a sightseeing cruise. But only with the St. Nicholas Boat Line will you get a full demonstration of turn-of-the-20th century sponge diver gear for $8 per person. The tours are guided by retired divers, and the demonstrators actually dive for sponges and bring their haul back on board for visitors to examine. The 30-minute cruises depart throughout the day, and are a wonderful way to step back in time. Bring a few dollars in cash, as souvenir postcards are sold on a cash-only basis on the boat, and tips are very much appreciated.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Completed in 1943, the current St. Nicholas Cathedral replaced the original 1907 St. Nicholas Church. Modeled after the St. Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul, St. Nicholas is the hub of religious festivities for many of the Greek-Americans of Tarpon Springs. The beautiful building is well worth a visit, regardless of your religious affiliation.

St. Nicholas Cathedral

Don’t miss the breathtaking St. Nicholas Cathedral!

We happened to arrive during a baby’s baptism. We respectfully stood in the anteroom, watching through the doors. Every one of us, from my 61-year-old father to my 11-year-old cousin, was entirely transfixed by the pageantry. Greek Orthodox rites are quite lengthy, so we did not stay for the whole thing, but we all agreed that we had witnessed something truly special that day.

Dining
I have been told that it is hard to get a bad meal in Tarpon Springs, and the authenticity and clear pride that the residents have in their heritage seems to confirm that. We chose Mykonos, a casual yet highly authentic Greek restaurant that is a favorite with both locals and tourists. The prices were very reasonable and the portions were enormous! Plan to share unless you have very hearty appetites.

Shopping
Part of the fun of Tarpon Springs is visiting the vast array of shops. From kitschy items carved from sponges to imported bath products, the shops offer something for everyone. As we are used to paying highly inflated theme park prices, we were shocked at how inexpensive even the imported items were. A family could easily spend the day souvenir shopping in Tarpon Springs without breaking the bank. Due to the reasonable prices and large number of shops, this is an excellent place to give kids a bit of financial freedom. Consider giving each child a few dollars and encouraging them to find the best value for their money.

Share
avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

Tags: , Home Slideshow, Reviews, Sharing Experiences, Tips and Hints, Travel Excursions

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.