Venturing out to beautiful Tarpon Springs

  • The Spongeorama Sponge Factory and the Sponge Exchange in Tarpon Springs sell sponges from about $6 each and upward, way upwards in some cases. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
    The Spongeorama Sponge Factory and the Sponge Exchange in Tarpon Springs sell sponges from about $6 each and upward, way upwards in some cases. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

I have lived in Florida for decades now – Miami, Gainesville and Fernandina Beach – and have seen most all of the state, but I had never been to Tarpon Springs. Now, with the pandemic, I have been travel-free for far too long and I was going nuts here on the island every day, day after day. I sorely needed a change of scenery, and added to that, it was my birthday and time to choose something to do. Coronavirus be damned, we decided to take a two-night field trip to Tarpon Springs to celebrate.

We didn’t venture out lightly. We took our own pillows, covers, and Lysol for our hotel room, and we were able to get a room at the Inn on the Gulf in Hudson Beach, Fla. that no one had occupied for five days previous to us. We had masks and wore them. We avoided crowds – not hard to do since there weren’t any – and washed our hands frequently. Whatever risks we faced were weighed against watching my mental state deteriorate. So, off we went!

Hudson Beach made a perfect place to stage our weekend. The restaurant attached to our inn served quality fresh seafood in ample portions for amazingly low prices, and a beach bar across the street provided local color and views of the Gulf of Mexico. From there, it was only a half- hour down the road to Tarpon Springs.

Tarpon Springs itself had just reopened most of their shops and restaurants, but the usual massive volume of tourists hadn’t yet returned. Perfect for us! Tarpon Springs was settled primarily by Greek immigrants who brought their sponge-diving skills to harvest the large sponge beds of the Gulf. Sponges are still a big business there, both for sale and for the tourists who come to see the sponge boats, sponge auction, sponge festivals, and the like.

Helmeted divers no longer harvest sponges, replaced by scuba divers who use a knife to cut off sponges by hand, leaving enough of the sponge behind to ensure re-growth in this sustainable fishery. Sponge boats based in Tarpon Springs leave on multi-day fishing trips in waters ranging from the Keys to the Panhandle. Finding and cutting sponges from the ocean floor is just the start of the work involved. Each sponge needs to be manually cleared of its living “skin,” soaked until the remaining residue disintegrates, and rinsed many times before they are ready to be sold.

In Tarpon Springs, we admired the sponge boats at the dock, visited the Spongeorama Sponge Factory to view an educational video, and perused a number of shops selling – you guessed it –sponges and other sea life. But that was far from all there was.

It was the Greek culture infusing Tarpon Springs that really attracted us and many other visitors. Tarpon Springs has one of the largest Greek populations in the United States. Greek restaurants and cafés line the main dockside street and side roads. Deciding which Greek restaurant to visit for lunch was a big task; there were so many, all with great reviews on the internet. For those like me who enjoy baklava and other Greek pastries, this was heaven, with a number of bakeries selling these and other fresh-baked products. Anyone in the market for Greek food items can find any imported product they like from a myriad of Greek grocery stores. On the main road into town, the historic St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral stands proudly. It is a focus of the Greek community and welcomes visitors to their church services, which are often conducted in Greek. When we entered various shops, the shopkeepers were often speaking Greek among themselves until turning their attention to us in English.

To make matters even more interesting, there is also a Cuban theme here. If you don’t want Greek food, plenty of cafés sell Cuban coffee and food. A number of shops specialize in hand-rolled Cuban cigars and other related items. There was also an abundance of sea air, commercial and sport boats, and loads of fresh seafood everywhere.

As far as my birthday celebrations go, this hit all my favorite things. I gorged on grouper, flounder, scallops, clams, and shrimp. I ate moussaka (eggplant, beef, and cheese), dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), and spanakopita (spinach and feta pie), which brought me back to my recent work in North Macedonia. I saw a place I had never been before. Best of all, I had my husband of four decades, Bucko, to share it all with me. The benefits certainly outweighed the coronavirus risk.

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.