In historic Tarpon Springs, about 30 miles northwest of St. Petersburg, the blue and white flag of Greece flutters in the breezes of the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the sponge capital of the world, this quaint Greek Mediterranean village offers you an authentic Greek cultural experience. It dates back to the 1890’s when Greek sponge divers and their families started immigrating here to continue their trade and brought their colorful heritage with them.
Today, Tarpon Springs continues to dominate the world-wide sponge market, and has many activities and attractions—from sponge diving exhibitions, a museum, a saltwater aquarium, cruises on the Anclote River, and deep-sea fishing, where visitors can experience the history and current activity of the sponge industry.
Visit the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts and Cultural Center, and you’ll be able to view an excellent video, produced by National Geographic, on the history of sponge diving in Tarpon Springs. The narrator and main character of the video is former sponge diver George Billiris. He and his wife Beverley (the town Mayor) own a sponge shop in the downtown Tarpon Springs area, and they also operate a sponge diving boat tour where you can watch a driver haul up a basket of soggy sponges from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. While you’re at the cultural center, check out their calendar because it also offers theater, concerts, and a variety of other exhibits and programs.
Because there are so many unique items imported from Greece, shopping is a main attraction at Tarpon Springs. Of course, since the sponge industry continues today, there’s also plenty of opportunity to purchase quality sponges as well. Stroll down the brick streets in Tarpon Springs Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can browse through an eclectic variety of antique stores, art galleries, boutiques, and specialty shops, all housed in buildings dating from the late 1800’s.
Every year on January 6, when the Greek community here celebrates Epiphany, people from the around the world gather to get a close up look at a genuine Greek ethnic celebration. After a service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, festive paraders march through town to the Spring Bayou, where Greek boys dive into the water to capture a tossed white wooden cross that will bring them good luck during the remaining year. Competition is keen here as young boys cross themselves for good luck and, at the same time, are poised to nudge out their competitors.
During this festival there’s also plenty of Greek music, dancing, handcrafts, plus generous helpings of authentic, mouthwatering Greek cuisine. Of course, with a plentiful supply of Greek family restaurants in Tarpon Springs, it’s a good idea to come hungry whenever you visit.
At Mykonos, for example, you can savor authentic Greek delicacies such as Taramosalata (fresh caviar spread), patatokeftedes (pan-fried Greek potato patties), and Soutzoukakia (ground beef and Greek herbs, charbroiled on a skewer), plus delicious Greek village bread and pastries from their own bakery. It’s especially fun when you order a variety of foods and pass them around. Warning, before long, there will be so many dishes that you won’t be able to see the shiny wooden tables.
Tarpon Springs Information http://www.tarponsprings.com/