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It's All Greek to Me: Tarpon Springs, Florida

It's All Greek to Me: Tarpon Springs, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

Weathered vessels bob in the river as men with tanned, lined faces throw nets of sponges onto the nearby docks.

Several blue and white flags flutter in the breeze while dozens of people wander in and out of the shops that are just a few feet away from the water.

If you listen carefully, you might even hear a shop owner call "Yassas!" to those visiting.

It's All Greek to Me: Tarpon Springs, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

Even though all signs might lead you to think otherwise, this tableau isn't found somewhere in Greece. Instead, Tarpon Springs, Florida, is a thriving village about 45 minutes north of downtown St. Petersburg, and holds the largest population of Greek Americans of any city in the U.S. Its residents specialize in sponge diving, another unusual profession in this area of deep sea fishing, spring break entertainment, and maritime recreation.

It's All Greek to Me: Tarpon Springs, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

On our short 2014 trip to the St. Pete/ Clearwater area, I read about Tarpon Springs, but wasn't able to include a visit since our schedule was already packed with visits to the Dali Museum, the Chihuly Collection, and Busch Gardens. On this year's FSSLA road trip, I had a little more wiggle room in our itinerary, so off to Tarpon Springs we went one day.

I hadn't done much research on the area before we set off on our day trip, so we ended up in the downtown area of Tarpon Springs instead of at the sponge docks (where all of the action is!). Once we got our bearings and discovered the way to the sponge docks, we started up North Pinellas Avenue--only to get very distracted by our grumbling stomachs.

When in Rome Greece sort-of Greece, you've got to have some Greek food, so Landon and I located the closest Greek restaurant: the Original Mama Maria's. As we walked in the restaurant, Greek folk music hummed over the loudspeakers, and an older woman greeted us in heavily accented English.

It's All Greek to Me: Tarpon Springs, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

The entire set-up looked so much like something out of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" that I half-expected to see Tula (in her pre-self-awareness phase) slogging around the kitchen!

It's All Greek to Me: Tarpon Springs, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

When Stella (who doubled as a hostess and the restaurant's only wait staff) brought out our food, Landon and I both nearly cried. My souvlaki platter and Landon's Greek Village Pasta were so good that I wondered where this restaurant had been my entire life. Even Britton's spaghetti and marinara kid's plate stunned us--no jarred sauce here!

It's All Greek to Me: Tarpon Springs, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

Even though we were stuffed to the brim, we managed to make room for some authentic baklava for dessert. The three of us managed to nibble away at one piece before we then waddled back to the car.

With full stomachs, we renewed our journey to the sponge docks, which were just a short drive past Mama Maria's. We headed to the very end of Dodecanese Boulevard and found some parking, then piled out to see what the sponge docks had to offer.

The stretch of real estate along Dodecanese Boulevard is dominated by shops, most of which offer at least a few types of sponges: larger bathing sponges, smaller makeup sponges, and tougher cleaning sponges were very popular. You can bypass purchasing anything labeled "Loofah/Luffa sponges" as these aren't sponges from the ocean, but rather are the fibrous fruit of a vine in the cucumber family.

It's All Greek to Me: Tarpon Springs, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

Although sponges have been harvested in this area since the late 1800s, John Corcoris, a Greek businessman, introduced the traditional Greek sponge diving techniques to the area in 1905, and the entire community began growing into what you see today. Corcoris brought sponge divers over from Greece (from the Dodecanese islands--hence, the street name) and established what would become a century-old tradition of Greek Americans here in this corner of Florida.

It's All Greek to Me: Tarpon Springs, Florida | CosmosMariners.com

There are a few points of interest in the area:

  • The sponge shops (of course). I particularly liked Lori's Soap and Sponge Market on the corner of Dodecanese Boulevard and Athens Street since they sold soaps that had local sponges already embedded in them. My family received a few of these as souvenirs. 
  • The food. While I'm partial to Mama Maria's (which isn't in walking distance of the docks), there were plenty of options for traditional Greek food here. Don't get too full, though, or you'll have to miss a stop at the two bakeries in town: Hellas and Parthenon. (And that would be a serious shame!)
  • The cruises. Spongeorama Cruises will take guests out on dolphin or local island tours, while the St. Nicholas Boat Line offers a glimpse into the life of a sponge diver and demonstrations on how the sponges are harvested. 
Experiencing a little bit of Greek culture on our road trip was quite a fun surprise, and I'd highly recommend it if you find yourself in greater St. Pete, Florida, with a little bit of time on your hands. Allot at least a half day to fully explore the area. 

Would you be interested in visiting Tarpon Springs? What's your favorite Greek dish?

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