Tarpon Springs, Florida - My Family Travels

Check out Florida's Greek village for a bit of history, fishing and wildlife viewing along the Anclote River and the Gulf of Mexico.

The charming blend of Victorian homes, Floridian-style residences, and the early settlement site at Spring Bayou constitute only a part of what Tarpon Springs, Florida is all about. The entire community revolves around Dodecanese Boulevard, the main street that runs alongside the Anclote River, often referred to as the “Sponge Docks.”

Despite popular belief, the sponge industry began about a decade before the Greeks arrived in the early 1900’s.  It was European settlers from the impoverished Dodecanese Islands off the Turkish coast who brought the diving experience responsible for the rapid growth of the sponge trade and the expansion of commerce in Tarpon Springs.  Until the middle of the last century, the sponge trade was the main source of income to the state of Florida, above even citrus and tourism. Even to this day, sponge harvesting remains a dominant force in the Tarpon Springs community.

Take a stroll (or a volta as the Greeks say) on the pedestrian walkway along the docks and chances are several boats are filled with freshly cut sponges drying in the sun. Many of the local souvenir shops sell these sponges, commonly used as decorative items or as a gentle, natural exfoliator for the skin. A bronze statue of a sponge diver dressed in a diving suit stands by docks, signifying the continuing presence of the still thriving industry.

The rest of the downtown area consists of the gift shops, antique stores, galleries and dining options at several Greek, seafood and pub style restaurants. This area is a convenient place to hop on one of the Tarpon Springs Trolleys. They operate daily except Monday at the very affordable rate of $1 per ride or $3 per day, and are a good way for families to get oriented and organized quickly. Stops on the trolley tour include the Tourism Office and City Marina, Spring Bayou Heritage Center & Craig Park, St. Nicholas Cathedral and the Cultural Center. The Downtown Historic and Art District sponsors awarded winning live music, entertainment and food events throughout the year.

Most of the tour companies for boat cruises and deep sea fishing trips are consolidated around the docks, taking the emphasis off planning family excursions far in advance and leaving room for spontaneity. 

Hour-long boat rides depart from the sponge docks several times per day. Available through Sunline Cruises (727/944-4468; 776 Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689) and Spongeorama’s Cruises (727/943-2164; 510 Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689), they are guided by enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalists, each widely educated on all aspects of the wildlife that inhabits the Anclote River area. The tours also include useful information on the small islands and mangroves protected by the Pinellas County Aquatic Reserve. It is especially apparent during breeding season that the mangroves, high treetops and even abandoned ships of this area are ideal nesting places for cormorants, osprey and eagles.

There is opportunity here to see another Florida shorebird in action, the American Oystercatcher, as they catch their meals on the river’s natural “oyster bars” with their distinct long, red beaks. One of the most exciting parts of the boat ride is a visit to the place where the Anclote River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, site of Anclote Key Light House and the perfect playground for dolphins and sea turtles.

Marine Experiences

Be sure to check out the Tarpon Springs Aquarium (727/938-5378; 850 Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689) which is small in size, so only a couple of hours are required for a full exploration. A 12,000-gallon underwater tank houses the aquarium’s living reef, filled with live coral, sponges and 30 species of fish, including nurse sharks, snook, tarpon and Jewfish. Alligators, eels, lobsters, octopus and anemones also live at this special aquarium. Kids love the “Touch Tank,” a safe place to gently feel the smooth skin of stingrays and small sharks. The tank attendant sells cups of food that patrons can purchase to feed these fascinating sea creatures. A trained diver enters the tank several times a day to hand feed the residents of the reef complete with an educational narration, so these are the best times to pay a visit.

Preserved and protected by the Pinellas County Park Department, Fred Howard Park and Beach (727/943-4081; 1700 Sunset Drive, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689) has it all — a beach, mangrove estuaries, saline wetlands and a beautiful butterfly garden. A one-mile long causeway provides easy access to the Gulf of Mexico for families to enjoy a day of fun and swimming on the white sandy beach. The park hosts recreational events all year long, such as guided nature walks, night hikes and family fishing days. Picnic shelters, playgrounds, a softball field, a windsurfing area, as well as a boat launch for canoes and kayaks are just a few other perks offered at this park. Public restrooms, beach showers and payphones are available for use.

Details, Details

The Hampton Inn and Suites at Tarpon Springs (727/945-7755; 39284 US19 North, Tarpon Spring, FL 34689) offers a comfortable stay and convenient access to all the listed attractions.  With its location just 10 minutes from Dodecanese Boulevard and the beach at Fred Howard Park, no precious vacation time is lost on lengthy drives.  A full hot and cold breakfast is served daily, with a variety of options for every appetite.  A heated outdoor swimming pool, fitness center and internet access is also available to guests.  Room rates for 2008 start at $109/N for standard rooms with two queen beds and $149/N for one bedroom suites with a King bed, fold-out sofa and kitchenette; AAA members receive discounted rates.  For additional lodging options in the area, see Hotels in Tarpon Springs.

All of this exploring is sure to work up an appetite, so a stop at Hella’s Restaurant and Bakery (727-943-2400; 785 Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689) is called for. Voted the #1 Greek Restaurant in the “Best of the Bay” competition and a winner among locals and visitors, Hella’s is the best of the best when it comes to authentic Greek cuisine. Family-owned and operated since 1970, this full-scale Greek restaurant serves everything from classic favorites like kebobs, gyros, and spanakopita to elegant dishes like roasted spring lamb with herbs and sautéed shrimp with feta cheese. The Kiddy Corner offers a good selection of hot dogs, chicken fingers, hamburgers and Greek style spaghetti for kids 12 and under.

Waterfront seating is available with scenic views of the sponge boats that line the docks on the Anclote River. Hella’s is also famous for their traditional Greek and French pastries, all in a mouthwatering display in the gourmet bakeshop adjacent to the restaurant. Chocolate dipped baklava, tyropita and European four layer cakes are among many tantalizing selections. It’s enough to make anyone say “Opa!”

Lindsey Abram, author and photographer, is an avid traveler, nature lover and outdoor adventurer based in Boston, MA. In addition to writing and editing, her passions include, kayaking, snorkeling, and camping. Lindsey has traveled extensively in the US and in over a dozen countries, including France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, St. John and Dominica. Through these experiences, she has discovered the significance of ecotourism and teaching children and adults to minimize the negative impact on their places of travel.

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