Showing posts with label Florida. Show all posts
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
For Gibson's first trip, I decided to head down to Walt Disney World for a long weekend. I'd pinpointed WDW for a few reasons:
1) We've been there more times that I can count, so I was comfortable taking both a 3 month old and my 3.5 year old potentially by myself,
2) It's about as kid-friendly as it comes, so no one would give me death glares if both the infant and the preschooler had simultaneous meltdowns, and
3) It's just far enough away from home to feel like a vacation, but no so far that I'd have to take both of them on a plane (I'm building to that milestone).
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
I'm not one to stand still for very long, literally or figuratively. As a travel blog, CosmosMariners.com has grown beyond my wildest imagination, and I can't wait to see where it will take me in the coming months and years. Even though I love the narrative driven posts and the must-do lists that you see on here most of the time, I've had an itch to try something new that still fits into my travel brand.
Friday, February 26, 2016
Even though I live in a pretty mild climate--coastal South Carolina isn't exactly known for its polar vortex winters--I still get antsy for sunny skies and white sand beaches in those colder months. Every year about this time, I threaten to my husband that I'm moving somewhere warm (preferably next to an ocean) so I don't ever have to go to bed with freezing cold toes again.
Every time, he talks me down, and I'm back to dreaming about 80 degree weather 12 months out of the year. This year, I decided to preempt my usual mid-winter blues and head down to Florida's Space Coast where, in the middle of January, it was a balmy 82 during my stay.
Coastal Creativity: Revitalization and Preservation in the Eau Gallie Arts District, Melbourne, Florida
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
In the sprawling tangle of roads, palm trees, and sandy beaches that is Melbourne, Florida, the intersection of Eau Gallie Boulevard and Highland Avenue might seem like one more stoplight along your destination.
Monday, January 25, 2016
When I was about 9, I had two dreams:
1) I would become an astronaut, and
2) I would became a paleontologist specializing in protoceratops (my favorite dinosaur at the time. The fact that I had a favorite dinosaur should tell you a lot about the type of kid I was.)
When I was about 12, I realized that
1) I was severely claustrophobic,
2) I doubted I could bring myself to eat space food, and
3) I enjoyed reading about space and dinosaurs (and, well, anything) more than I would enjoy studying astrophysics or digging for months in a hot desert.
Friday, January 22, 2016
I love driving down Florida's A1A highway: the ocean is right there, and if you're not in a tropical state of mind before you get on the road, you will be within in the first quarter mile.
When my daughter and I head down to the Space Coast, we didn't arrive until after dark, but I could still feel those island vibes and hear the roar of the Atlantic as we hopped on AIA and headed towards our hotel: Tuckaway Shores in Indiatlantic, Florida.
Monday, January 18, 2016
When I visit a place that has a deep history, I like to close my eyes and think for a moment about all of the people who have stood where I now stand, the things that the surrounding buildings have seen, and the unrelenting march of time that somehow seems to pass these amazing places by.
If you've ever been to St. Augustine, Florida, there are plenty of places to experience such moments. After all, this is a city that has been continuously inhabited since before Jamestown, Virginia. Flags from Spain (twice during the city's history), Britain, and the U.S. have all been hoisted above the town.
Saturday, October 17, 2015
Does anyone else here LOVE Key West? I went to the Florida Keys for the first time when I was 16 and fell in love! Over the years, I've tried most of what the island chain has to offer from scuba diving to snorkeling to parasailing, but there's always something new to try at every stage.
I can't wait to go back with my daughter one day--and that's where today's guest post comes in. Cymone from The Block is Haute is sharing her favorite family friendly sites and treats on the southernmost key. Key West is fun for the whole family!
Hello! I'm Cymone - I blog over at The Block is Haute, a life & style blog. I'm so excited to be featured on Natalie's blog. Today I'm sharing some of my family friendly activities to do while in Key West, Florida.
Sunset in Mallory Square
Mallory Square is right on the waters edge where everyone gathers to see the very first sunset in the United States. We used the weather app to check what time the sunset would set that day and made our way over to the square. We got a prime seat right on the edge and just took it all in as the sun was setting.
Families and couples gathered and sunset cruises passed us by. It was really a beautiful and peaceful moment. I made sure to pause and take the experience all in.
Mile 0 marker
I've always thought it was cool to see the very first mile of an interstate. The Mile 0 marker indicates the beginning and end of US1 - the highway that stretches through most of the east coast, connecting major cities from Maine all the way down to the southern most city in Florida.
On the corner of Whitehead Street and Flemming Street is a fun photo-op for the whole family.
Key Lime Pie & Mattheessen's
Dessert is a can't miss meal when you are in Key West. Luckily, my family has no shortage of a sweet tooth. We tried Key Lime Pie at Kermit's Key West Lime Shoppe and stopped twice for giant cookies at Mattheessen's, both on the famed Duval street.
The half pound cookies at Mattheesen's were like nothing I've ever seen before. Trust me, you'll want a cookie that big once you taste it!
Key lime pie is a Key West staple. We tried a few different places and Kermit's was the best mix of all the varieties. Classic and delicious key lime pie. Their key lime salsa and sauces were also pretty cool.
Brunch at Firefly
So my family and I stumbled upon Firefly in search of brunch and not willing to wait 45 minutes at the popular Blue Heaven. Firefly was right down the street - and Southern themed. I'll admit, being from Louisiana and living in Texas, we were a bit skeptical about Southern food in Florida but I'm happy to report that Firefly was on point.
I don't always try chicken and waffles at new places for fear of being disappointed but I'm so glad I did. This chicken and waffles is way up on my list of the best I've had. The chicken had the crunchy exterior and super juicy insides with a little Sriracha kick to spice things up. It was wonderfully seasoned. The waffles had pecans in them which made for the most wonderful flavor combination with waffle, pecan, syrup, and chicken. We also tried their famous biscuit which was fluffy, delicious with strawberry jelly, and almost as big as my three year-old cousin's head. Turns out, one for the table was enough for all to share.
We loved Firefly so much that we even went back for their Key Lime Pie Cake. I'll be sharing details on that experience back over on my blog. Be sure to come check it out!
Have you visited the Florida Keys? What did you do?
find even more on Cymone & her travels here:
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Hugging the western coast of Florida just outside of St. Petersburg is a 23-mile stretch of white sand and blue water. Welcome to the St. Pete Beach/ Clearwater area!
From Caladesi Island State Park at the northernmost point to Pass-a-Grille at the bottom, this beautiful collection of beaches and resorts has something for everyone. Whether you're visiting for the day from Tampa or downtown St. Petersburg, or you're here for a week long family vacation, you'll be dazzled by the wide, flat beaches, the stunning sunsets, and the wide variety of activities.
Plus, there's plenty of history along the way for people who want their beach vacation to have a side of culture!
Although the area is often referred to as St. Pete Beach or St. Pete Beach/ Clearwater, this stretch of Gulf Coast is actually composed of a series of communities, each with their own feel.
Pass-a-Grille, in the south, is eclectic with a bit of a hippy vibe while St. Pete Beach is filled with high rises, lots of gift shops and restaurants, and a lively, happening atmosphere. Indian Shores and Indian Rocks Beach are both laid back and homey feeling; Belleair Shore and Belleair Beach have some beautiful--and gigantic--houses! Clearwater, at the top of this stretch, always has something going on, and you'll find plenty of restaurants, dancing, and gift shops.
Where to Stay
|Coconut Inn, Pass-a-Grille, Florida|
- The Coconut Inn, Pass-a-Grille. This adorable inn dates back to the 1920s, but it has every modern amenity a visitor could need or want. Relax in the pool, flip burgers in the outdoor kitchen, or walk across Gulf Way to get to the beach. You might also want to check out the sister properties, Havana Inn and the Sabal Palms Inn, both of which are also in Pass-a-Grille.[Read my review here.]
- Don CeSar Hotel, St. Pete Beach. The Pink Palace defined the beach vacation for the rich and famous for a decade--during the 1920s, the Don CeSar was the place to see and be seen. It's been completely restored, so you can now stay where F. Scott Fitzgerald rested his head.
- The Plaza Beach Hotel, St. Pete Beach. For a kitschy experience with a throwback to the old mom and pop stops of the 1950s, the Plaza Beach Hotel is your spot. The hotel is aimed towards families and adventurous young travelers, so you'll find plenty of activities on-site, including water sports, a pool, a volleyball net, shuffleboards, a lifesized chess board, and a 9-hole miniature golf course. [Read my review here.]
- Barefoot Beach Resort, Indian Shores. Since each of these units are personal apartments that are rented out by the management company, they feel more like home and less like a hotel room. Swim in the pool, go fishing off the docks in the Narrows, or step just across Gulf Boulevard to the gorgeous water. [Read my review here.]
- Cay Pointe Villas, Indian Rocks Beach. These four apartment units are still run by the same family in quiet Indian Rocks Beach who built the property in the 1970s. You'll be well taken care of by the live-in property managers--so much so that you'll feel like you're part of the family by the time you leave! All of the units have huge porches that face the Gulf, and the beach is about ten steps from the back of the units. It's your own private paradise. [Read my review here.]
|The view from our apartment at Cay Pointe Villas, Indian Rocks Beach.|
What to Eat
One thing I love about this stretch of the Gulf Coast is that there are only a few national chains. Stop into one of the many locally owned restaurants for fresh seafood, a quick breakfast, or some evening cocktails.
|Having fun at Hurricane Restaurant in Pass-a-Grille!|
Shaner's Land and Sea Market, Pass-a-Grille. On our last trip to the area, my husband, my toddler, and I stopped by here at least three times. There's a delicious sandwich counter for quick lunches, and a huge selection of freshly caught seafood in the back. I loved the stuffed chicken breasts--we had those two nights in a row. The market also offers a small selection of grocery basics (fruit, veggies, beer, bread).
Lighthouse Donuts, Indian Rocks Beach. On our first morning of our first visit to the St. Pete Beach area, Landon and I discovered this place, and it quickly became a favorite. The doughnuts are freshly made each morning, and they've got a nice selection of coffees, bagels, and breakfast sandwiches as well.
Toucan's Bar and Grill, Clearwater Beach. After we'd attempted Frenchy's one night and discovered a 2 hour wait, we began to wander in search of food and came across this place. It's nothing fancy--a sports bar, really--but it's a sports bar with a great view. Try to eat outside if the weather's nice: you'll be able to people watch, and you'll have a view of the Gulf.
Frenchy's Rockaway, Clearwater Beach. This place is a Clearwater institution, and the hours-long wait is a testament to that fact. To beat the crowds, we went right as they opened one morning. After eating there, we were glad we'd found a way to try it out. The conch fritters and spicy dipping sauce were worth the entire trip.
I've also heard amazing things about Snappers Sea Grille (St. Pete Beach), Crabby Bill's (Clearwater), and Seared 1200 Chophouse (St. Pete Beach) from my readers, but I haven't had the chance to try them out myself. Next time!
What to See
|Standup paddleboarder near St. Pete Beach|
Don't forget to do that staple of beach vacations: go putt-putting! There are plenty of courses all along this area. We had a blast one night at Smuggler's Cove in Indian Shores, where you can pause halfway through your game to feed some alligators.
Spend the day at Caladesi Island State Park or Honeymoon Island. Caladesi Island is only accessible by ferry, kayak or personal boat, so it's one of your last chances to see a Florida beach completely unspoiled! Honeymoon Island was Florida's most visited state park for the last six years.
Don't forget to go to Pier 60 in Clearwater at least once on your trip. There's a nightly festival held there (much like the one in Key West's Mallory Square) two hours before and two hours after the sunset. Check out the street performers and see what the local crafters have on offer.
|Soaking in the arts history at the Dali Museum in downtown St. Petersburg|
|Our surrey at Fort De Soto!|
What to Know
- While the stretch of land from Pass-a-Grille to Clearwater is only 23 miles long, you won't go anywhere quickly. If you have dinner or activity reservations, make sure to allot plenty of transit time. Between the busy areas of St. Pete Beach and Clearwater, stoplights, and everyone being on island time, traffic is often fairly slow.
- Make sure you clarify which side of the land your hotel is on. There's water on both sides of the St. Pete Beach/Clearwater area, but if you're interested in an Gulf view (and not just a "water" view), it's worth a call to your hotelier.
- Carefully choose where you'll stay. Because the ambiance of each area is so different, you'll want to make sure that your accommodations match your expectations. If you're looking for lots of nightlife and restaurants within walking distance, St. Pete Beach or Clearwater are safe bets. If you'd rather enjoy quiet evenings and uncrowded beaches, head to Pass-a-Grille or Indian Rocks Beach.
- There aren't many grocery stores directly on the Gulf coast. While there are a few scattered here and there, you might find that the closest grocery store is actually back towards St. Petersburg, Seminole, or Largo. Use that GPS!
Have you visited the St. Pete Beach/ Clearwater area? What did you like doing there?
If you liked this post, you'll love my other first-timer's guides! Check out the guide for each city by linking on the image below:
Monday, June 29, 2015
Over its 450 years of existence, St. Augustine has had to reinvent itself many times to stay relevant and to continue thriving. The modern day city is no exception, and St. Augustine has found new life in reworked classic attractions, daring chefs, and upfitted shops and streets. It might have plenty of history, but St. Augustine, Florida, is anything but old and stuffy!
Where to Stay
Since I'm a huge proponent of staying at locally owned accommodations, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the city's 25 bed and breakfasts within the historic district. The St. Francis Inn, where I stayed during my most recent visit, dates to the 1790s, and is located at the intersection of St. George and St. Francis Streets [read my review here]. The Hemingway House (just a block off of the bay) and the Inn on Charlotte (which dates from the early 1900s) are popular and well-situated.
|Lobby of the St. Francis Inn|
Other popular places to stay include the recently built Hilton Bayfront Hotel, which overlooks the Mantanzas Bay, and the Casa Monica, a hotel from the Flagler era of St. Augustine, and upfitted in a beautiful neo-Moroccan style.
What to Eat
So. Much. Good. Food. Come with an empty stomach because you're going to find plenty of places that will tempt your taste buds!
|Tapas at Taberna del Caballo|
- Johnny's Oyster Bar: fresh seafood, overlooks the bay
- The Raintree: upscale food in a romantic setting. A St. Augustine staple!
- O.C. White's: casual vibe, live music, amazing options from seafood to pasta, great drink menu
- Taberna del Caballo: Spanish tapas and cocktails in the heart of the historic district
- Hot Shot Bakery and Cafe: to-die-for breakfasts and paninis, home of the chocolate datil pepper challenge!
- Hyppo: gourmet popsicles in over 450 unique flavors
- Claude's Chocolate: handmade chocolates and sweets
- Ancient Olive: not a restaurant, per se, but an olive oil and vinegar shop filled with unusual flavors and varieties
- A1A Ale Works: craft beers served with Floribbean dishes, great location near the Bridge of Lions
- Vino del Grotto: unique wines, and wine smoothies to go
- Cafe Alcazar: Greek-American food in an unusual location (the deep end of the Hotel Alcazar's former pool!)
- St. Augustine Distillery: tours of the facility and free samples of their gin and vodka
For a more in-depth opinion on many of these restaurants, check out my guide to eating your way through St. Augustine.
|Beef Wellington at The Raintree|
What to See
This section would be much easier for me to write if I just entitled it "What not to see" (a list that would include practically nothing since St. Augustine is so awesome!). But that's not exactly compelling travel writing, so let's talk about some of the can't-miss sites in this beautiful city.
Castillo de San Marco has been a staple of the St. Augustine attractions for as long as I can remember. In fact, taking a guided tour of the Spanish fort is one of my earliest memories of visiting the city. Allot at least half a day to full explore the fort, and make sure to take one of the ranger-guided tours. Catch one of the re-enactments for a taste of life in the fort!
Other classic, been-there-forever attractions include Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth (which really has no historical basis for Ponce's famed water, but it's still fun), the world's first Ripley's Believe it or Not, and the Old Jail (where Martine Luther King was held after his arrest in 1964).
Just across the street from Castillo de San Marcos is the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, a pet project of Pat Croce, television personality, author, and former Philadelphia 76ers basketball team president. With pieces from his own personal collection and extensive research throughout, the museum is focused on education--and is far less hokey than you'd expect.
|Artifacts in the Pirate Museum|
The shops and restaurants along the pedestrian-only St. George Street are at the heart of the historic district. Check out the Colonial Quarter to walk through 400 years of St. Augustine history--you won't be disappointed with the amazingly talented (and thoroughly amusing) tour guides who will have you enthralled to learn about the diverse history of the city.
|The thoroughly entertaining Colonial Quarter guide, Mr. Grimm, at the artillery demonstration|
Head over to the quiet Aviles Street to browse through art galleries and cute boutique shops, or sip your coffee at one of the sidewalk cafes. The Ximenez-Fatio House Museum is down this road, and is a great place to learn more about the entrepreneurial women who helped create 19th century St. Augustine.
|Aviles Street: supposedly America's oldest street!|
It might be an institution of higher learning now, but a guided tour of Flagler College allows you to walk through the building that helped define St. Augustine's golden period under Henry Flagler. You'll see the opulent ladies' room, the stunning Tiffany windows in the dining hall, and the incredible details that Flagler put everywhere in his hotel. These tours are run by students and all proceeds go back to help the ongoing preservation efforts of the property.
|The former Ponce de Leon hotel, now the women's dormitory at Flagler College|
The nearby Lightner Museum was also a Henry Flagler hotel and now houses an eclectic collection of antique housewares, costumes, and home furnishings.
While a walking tour is a great way to see the city, you might want to check out the two tram companies: Old Town Trolley Tours (the green and orange trams) and the Red Train Tours (the red ones, obviously). Both zig zag all over the historic district and include running commentary to help you with your local history.
Another great way to see the city is through a boat tour: with an emphasis on environmental protection and education, the staff at St. Augustine EcoTours goes out of their way to make each boat tour more than a trip around Mantanzas Bay. All proceeds from EcoTour go back into the preservation of St. Augustine's waterways and a joint research venture with Flagler College.
What to Know
- Parking is extremely hard to come by in the historic district. The city recently put up a parking garage near the Visitors' Center to help alleviate some of the parking woes. Look for the well-marked signs pointing you to the Visitors' Center and the garage as you enter St. Augustine.
- September 2015 marks the city's 450th anniversary of continual habitation, a milestone that makes it an older city than both Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts (which were founded earlier, but have not had people living there continuously). While the biggest events--including potential visits by both Pope Benedict and the Spanish royal family--are in September, St. Augustine is celebrating throughout the year with concerts, a special exhibit in the Visitors' Center, and tours.
- Be prepared to walk. While historic St. Augustine isn't a huge area to cover, you'll still want to strap on your best walking shoes to get the most out of the city. Because of the parking issue and the many pedestrian-only areas, your best bet for navigating the city and its attractions quickly and easily is to hoof it.
- The least crowded times to visit the city are in early fall (after school takes back in) and early spring (late January and February). If you plan your trip during these times, you'll have more of the attractions to yourself and you don't have to traipse around in the sweltering heat of the most popular months: July and August.
Have you visited St. Augustine? What are you favorite places to see? Where is your one can't-miss restaurant?
If you liked this guide, you'll love my other first-timer's guides! Check out the guides to other cities by clicking on each image:
If you liked this guide, you'll love my other first-timer's guides! Check out the guides to other cities by clicking on each image:
Friday, June 19, 2015
Monday, June 15, 2015
Tucked away on a quiet street in the middle of Historic St. Augustine's residential quarter is a three story timbered building. At first glance, it blends into this area of beautiful historic homes, but if you venture into the courtyard, you'll notice that you've stumbled onto one of the city's most revered bed and breakfasts.
Now in its 3rd century of existence, the Inn holds two historical record in this very historic town: it's the oldest property that's currently being used as an inn, and it is the longest running lodging in St. Augustine.
With excellent customer service, a quiet location, and a purported ghost, the St. Francis Inn offers a gorgeous spot for anyone looking to create new memories in this old town.
Built in 1791 by a Spanish soldier (who may or may not have been dipping into the coffers to pay for the house), the St. Francis Inn was a private home for the first few decades of its existence. In the 1800s, the Dummett family purchased it as a city home when they needed time away from their plantation.
By the 1840s, the house had passed to brothers in the Dummett family; they allowed their sister to stay, free of charge, in the house, but did not give her any other financial support. To help cover her bills, she began to take on boarders, and the Inn's long history of lodging began. In the 1880s, it became overflow housing for Henry Flagler's Ponce De Leon hotel, one of the poshest spots in its day.
As the inn changed hands, so too did its name. It was originally known as the Dummett-Garcia House (and is still called this on the National Historic Register), then as the Graham House. Finally, it was renamed the St. Francis Inn when it was bought in 1948, and the owners wanted a title that focused more on the area's geography and less on each individual owner.
The current owners, Margaret and Joe Finnegan, are celebrating their 30th year of running the St. Francis Inn, and still continue to reinvent what the Inn offers to its guests.
"Everyday at a bed and breakfast has the potential to be an adventure," Joe told me, so he, his wife, and their staff stay prepared for whatever might arise. When one of the innkeeping staff, Linda, was asked about her strangest experience, she mentioned the goose in diapers that has frequented the property, as well as the family of ferrets who make regular appearances each year. (As you might deduce, the Inn is very pet friendly--even to non-traditional pets!)
The St. Francis Inn is (as its name suggests) located on St. Francis Street--at the corner of St. Francis and St. George, to be more exact.
It's only about three blocks north to the pedestrian-only area of St. George and just a block to the waterfront. Everything that you'd want to see in St. Augustine is within an easy walk, yet, because the Inn is nestled among private houses, you'll escape most of the hustle and bustle you'll find on the larger streets.
Plus, if you're planning on riding the Old Town Trolley, stop #17 is just four houses down on St. Francis in front of the Gonzalez-Alvarez House.
I stayed on the 3rd floor in the Dummett Room. I loved stretching out in the queen bed while watching television each night before I went to bed. The large soaking tub (with jets!) was a great way to relax my sore muscles after I'd hiked all around St. Augustine each day.
The room also had a mini refrigerator, small closet (with fluffy robes!), and cream sherry each day.
For a single traveler or couple, the room would be fantastic. For those who want more room, or for larger families, the Inn offers a variety of sizes of rooms in the main building, the cottage, and the Wilson House. There are 17 rooms and suites at the St. Francis property, and another 5 at their sister property on St. Augustine Beach.
Know that there is no elevator on the property, so guests in wheelchairs or who have mobility issues will need to secure a room on the first floor of the Wilson House or in the cottage. The stairs are quite steep in the main house, so use caution as you're walking up and down to the 2nd and 3rd floors.
The day that I checked in, the desk staff was getting a workout with all of the guests coming in at once. Even though they were swamped, the ladies working the front desk remained calm, put-together, and polite to everyone.
When it was time for me to check in, Beverley walked me through the check-in process and then took me up three flights of stairs to my room. My stay was punctuated with personal touches like that.
Anytime I had questions, the staff was there to answer them. The Finnegans have worked hard to assemble their 14 staff members, and it shows!
For a smaller inn, the St. Francis has plenty to offer. Start the day with a home-cooked buffet breakfast: I was treated to a delicious quiche and strawberry soup one morning, and cheesy eggs and biscuits another. There's also fresh fruit, coffee, cinnamon rolls, apple and orange juice, and homemade granola.
Stop by throughout the day for coffee, ice tea, and fruit-infused water--and don't miss out on the afternoon cookies.
Then, in the afternoon, there's a cocktail hour in the courtyard where you can mix and mingle with the other guests if that's your thing.
If you want to get out of the city for the day, head over to the Inn's sister property at the beach, where you can use their chairs, umbrellas, and parking area.
The Inn also has a heated pool, Wi-fi, electric car charging stations, complimentary bikes, and off-street parking across from the main hotel.
And, if you're into the paranormal, you can count the Inn's supposed ghosts among its amenities! Lily, the resident ghost, as well as a male figure, have been seen throughout the hotel by guests. While most of the activity seems to concentrate on Lily's Room (on the 2nd floor) and on the 3rd floor, the innkeepers mentioned having strange experiences throughout the main building. I didn't have any out-of-the-ordinary experiences (I was actively trying to avoid them, actually, since I'm about the most scaredy cat person ever), but the inn has quite a few fans who come there in the hopes of learning more about Lily! (For more about the Inn's ghosts, see their website.)
Believe it or not, I've never stayed in a B&B on any of my travels before--but now, I feel completely spoiled since my experience at the St. Francis Inn was so wonderful. Although the historic district of St. Augustine has many small inns and bed and breakfasts, none other have the charm, history, and location that the St. Francis Inn has.
The next time you're in St. Augustine, book a room, and tell Joe that I sent you!
Have you been to St. Augustine? Do you like staying in B&Bs? Would the rumor of a ghost at an inn be awesome or terrifying for you?
Disclaimer: I was provided a complimentary stay at the Inn in exchange for my honest opinions.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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?