Driveable Destinations: Tarpon Springs

A short drive away from the Horse Capital of the World is the Sponge Capital of the World, where you can find plenty of places to shop, dine and explore, including the historic Sponge Docks and the nearby Anclote Key Preserve State Park.

A trip to Tarpon Springs offers a picturesque and endearingly kitschy Florida experience, transporting you to Greek isles of yesteryear, the scenic shores of the Gulf Coast and The Sponge Capital of the World. 

The area’s biggest draw is the Tarpon Springs Historic District and Sponge Docks, where the village-like setting harks back to the distant homelands of Kalymnos, Hydra and other Aegean Islands communities and where Grecian traditions add life to Pinellas County’s northernmost municipality. 

Tarpon Springs has the nation’s highest per capita representation of Greek immigrants. The town’s Hellenic traditions started with the sponge divers who brought their families and underwater finesse to the Gulf Coast around 115 years ago and commercialized what is now the historic Sponge Docks district. 

On arrival, you will feel you have crossed through a portal to Europe via the Aegean Sea. Dodecanese Boulevard, the main thoroughfare in the sponge docks area, resembles a market street on a Greek island, albeit with Floridian touches. Palm trees and antique lampposts line the sidewalks. Whitewashed storefronts and Mediterranean Revival buildings attract shoppers and diners alike. 

With around 1 million tourists visiting annually, the Sponge Docks can get crowded. We recommend you visit on a weekday or arrive in the morning or late afternoon. A sunset stroll by the old fishing boats will reveal skies of cotton candy pinks and oranges. Here, you get real Florida beauty and old world Greece converging in one spectacular moment. 

Delectable Dining
While strolling Dodecanese Boulevard, you will be overtaken by the olive oil and garlic aromas of marinated gyro meats spinning on spits by the Hellas Restaurant & Bakery window, along with moussaka, pastitsio and other Greek staples. 

For more than 50 years, the venue has brimmed with diners, some of whom ooh and ahh at the flaming Saganaki cheese presentation at their table as if it were Fourth of July fireworks. The bakery, however, is the true scene-stealer here, boasting a colorful drool-worthy display of puff pastries, cakes, baklava and kok, Greece’s answer to the creme puff.

After dessert, break the Grecian spell for a moment for a cafe con leche from Sabor a Cuba, in the Sponge Exchange Shopping Village. The cafe also sells hand-rolled cigars.

The Sponge Exchange complex is a great place to park for free—as long as you frequent one of the businesses. One of Tarpon Spring’s best restaurants, Mama’s Greek Cuisine, can be found there, along with a slew of retail and specialty shops. Greek folk musicians strumming the bouzouki often frequent the tiled patio or headline at Mama’s with belly dancers. 

In 1980, Demetrios Salivaras opened the family-friendly Mykonos eatery, which serves grouper sandwiches, gyros, moussaka and other Greek favorites. In 2010, he opened Dimitri’s on the Water, a Greek seafood-steakhouse on the waterfront at the south end of the Anclote River. Here is where you can enjoy a romantic sunset meal with a heart-stopping view, delicious chargrilled octopus and other surf-and-turf delicacies.

If you’re buying gifts, shop the area’s wide array of natural sponges (of course) at places such as Tarpon Sponge Company or the Spongeorama Sponge Factory. 

Anclote Key
The afternoon sun can get oppressive over the Sponge Docks. Cool off with Gulf Coast breezes by hopping on a ferry to the idyllic island chain of Anclote Key Preserve State Park. You are almost guaranteed to see playful dolphins jumping alongside the boat as you become mesmerized by the twinkling turquoise waters.

Photo by Julie Garisto

Three islands make up the chain: Anclote Key, a 440-acre nature preserve; Three Rookers Island, a bird sanctuary; and the North Anclote Sandbar, the only patch where dogs are allowed. While strolling Anclote’s shores, you might catch a glimpse of an American oystercatcher, American bald eagle or the scuttling piping plover.  

A portrait-worthy lighthouse still illuminates the islands, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Anclote Key State Park & Lighthouse, a group that recommissioned the beacon in 1995 after it fell into disrepair. The landmark has been partially restored with interpretive signage and its light was relit in 2003.

The amount of time you spend at the preserve will depend on your mode of transportation. If you take your own boat or charter one, you can camp there overnight. 

Odyssey Cruises and Spongeorama both provide dolphin sightseeing trips and other options, all at reasonable prices.

Windsong Charters & Boat Rentals and Private Island Charters provide captained and un-captained boats, pontoons and other vessels. 

More To See
While Tarpon Springs is renowned for its Greek heritage, the town has more facets than most visitors realize. 

Downtown Tarpon Springs offers a slew of boutiques, breweries and the Replay Museum, a repository of vintage arcade games and pinball machines. Surrounded by colorful bungalows, the pedestrian-friendly downtown area has become a destination in its own right. 

On the campus of St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs, you’ll find the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, which holds a respectable collection of original fine art.

Travel east and you’ll find the sprawling nature of Brooker Creek Preserve and Lake Tarpon, a favorite of local anglers. 

Throughout the town, roads wind through hilly landscapes and along idyllic waterways such as the Spring Bayou, where big oaks and stately Victorian homes take you back in time to turn-of-the-20th-century America.

Getting there
Expect to drive around two and a half hours southwest of Ocala to reach the Sponge Docks. En route, you’ll encounter lush natural beauty and vintage Florida sights. Take State Road 200 to U.S. Highway 41 and you’ll drive through tree tunnels and pass lakes and rivers framed by moss-laden oak trees. Dunnellon, Hernando, Inverness, Floral City and the rolling hills of Brooksville are on this route. 

If you’re hankering for a hot meal, stop at classic spots such as Stumpknocker’s or Red’s Restaurant, both near the Withlacoochee River at the Marion-Citrus County line, or grab some sandwiches or wraps at Subs, Salads & More in Hernando and picnic at Lake Hernando Park.  

In Brooksville, the Florida Cracker Kitchen is a favorite for breakfast and its younger sibling, the Florida Cracker Cook Shack, serves “Florida soul food” for lunch and dinner. Or try the “world famous” hotdogs at the Coney Island Drive-Inn.

Another option is to head west on State Road 40 to U.S. 19 then head south. Picturesque Crystal River and Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park provide worthwhile stops. 

Farther south on U.S. 19, the classic roadside mermaid attraction, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, also beckons visitors with a nature cruise and, in the summer months, the Buccaneer Bay water park. 

A detour through the small fishing village of Aripeka offers sweeping views of grassy wetlands. It’s where world-famous artist James Rosenquist lived. Once there, you’ll understand why.

The south-by-southwest trip to Tarpon Springs offers a fun-filled tranquil escape with a nice ratio of recreation, relaxation, historical quaintness and mind-blowing scenery. 

On the ride home, you’ll feel like you really got away for a spell, having experienced old world Europe, Main Street USA and swatches of authentic Florida paradise all in one excursion. OS

To learn more, go to visitflorida.com/places-to-go/central-west/tarpon-springs; exploretarponsprings.com; or spongedocks.net

Posted in Living, RoadTagged

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