Originally developed in the 1880s as a winter resort for wealthy Northerners, the arrival of the Greek sponge divers in 1905 changed the city forever. The early sponge divers created a need at the docks for eating places for the boat crews. Then as news of the industry grew, people began coming to the docks to see the sponges. Shops opened so people could buy the sponges and other souvenirs - thus the tourism industry in Tarpon Springs was born.
That industry was nearly wiped out in the 1940s when red tide destroyed the sponge beds off Florida's coast, but was re-established in the 1980s when new beds were found.
Today, the "Sponge Capital of the World" boasts over 100 shops and a dozen or more restaurants lining the sponge dock area that covers several blocks. Visitors can shop, dine, cruise down the Anclote River to the Gulf of Mexico or go deep-sea fishing.
The Sponge DocksOn our first trip to Tarpon Springs a few years ago, our hopes of taking a scenic cruise into the Gulf of Mexico were dashed. The beginning of a tropical storm making its way to the Gulf was pounding us with wind and rain, but we decided to brave the weather anyway and seek our treasure in the quaint shopping village bordering the sponge docks at Tarpon Springs. Our most recent visit found us seeking shelter from the sun, instead of the rain. Both times, we parked in a waterfront lot – one of the many parking areas available for a $2 or $3 per day fee – and began to make our way from one end of the docks to the other. This is a trek of several blocks.
Besides the usual prevalence of sponges – sponges for bathing, washing cars, decoration, and other uses – there are a wide variety of souvenirs available. The Greek influence is prevalent in the street music and themes of many of the stores. Many of these stores have been in families for generations, so you get a real "feel" that the shop keepers love the area and truly enjoy and appreciate the visitors.
Our visit held some surprises. What surprised us the most were the number of specialty stores and boutiques that have sprung up over the years – flags, kites, collectibles, etc. If you are a collector or have a particular interest, chances are you will find a store here to please. It is worthy to note that although there are a couple stores where the stock seems terribly tacky or out-of-date, for the most part each store was well-stocked and unique. We also were surprised at the volume and variety of merchandise that was reasonably priced.
Restaurants and sweet shops are scattered throughout the area. Dining options range from authentic Greek cuisine to French and Italian or enjoy seafood featuring your favorites or the catch of the day. You might prefer to stop in a bar and grill for sandwiches and a brew or enjoy one of the sidewalk cafes, and a stroll by the sweet shops will have you drooling over the French and Greek pastries that are every bit as good as they look.
Weather permitting, there are several cruise and deep-sea fishing options available. Some prefer a narrated eco-tour of the Anclote River, the Gulf of Mexico, and the bayous that offer insights into local history, the sponge and shrimping industries and wildlife sightings; while other may enjoy a day of wrangling a big fish on a deep sea expedition. Most rates are reasonable, and while reservations are not required, some cruises fill up quickly.
More Things to DoJust a short distance from the docks, Tarpon Avenue is part of the National Main Street program and features antique shops and artists' galleries. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is open daily to visitors and worshippers. It is an exact replica of St. Sophia Cathedral in Constaninople. During the annual Ephiphany Celebration held every January, young men dive into the frigid waters of Spring Bayou (located a few blocks from the Cathedral) to retrieve a white cross tossed into the water by the Archbishop. Thousands are usually on hand to witness the event and the young man who successfully retrieves the cross receives a special blessing.
The Shrine of St. Michael is a small chapel built by a Greek family in thanks for the miraculous cure of their young son. It is also open daily. Walking and trolley/bus tours of the city are available and include the Cultural Center on South Pinellas Avenue.
Monthly themed festivals take place at the Tarpon Springs Castle Winery. The winery is constructed to resemble an 1820 Federal Style building with bubbling fountains and a lush courtyard. Guests are invited to taste the handcrafted wines.
Those that seek adventure might enjoy walking, hiking, biking or rollerblading along the Pinellas Trail. The 38 miles of continuous paved trail stretches from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.
Named for a former Tarpon Springs mayor, nearby Fred Howard Park is located on the Gulf of Mexico and offers picnic shelters, playgrounds, trails, canoeing and kayaking, fishing and a white sand beach. The park and the beach is one of the nicest in the state.
No matter what you plan to do in Tarpon Springs, this is one destination that is definitely worth spending a day... or two!
If you decide to go, lodging is plentiful just a couple of miles away along Highway 19 between Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor and Clearwater to the south. Camping is available at the waterfront Bayshore Cove RV Park, 403 Riverside Drive, Tarpon Springs. This makes a perfect day trip if you're staying along Florida's Beaches — Clearwater, Sand Key, Indian Rocks, Madeira Beach, Treasure Island or St. Pete Beach.