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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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Cruising around the Western Caribbean: An Overview

Cruising around the Western Caribbean: An Overview | CosmosMariners.com

We're back, people! After eight wonderful days of sailing through the crystal clear waters on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, eating far too much, working on our tans, and meeting some new friends, we've returned home.

We didn't take our daughter since the cruise was our fifth anniversary present to ourselves, and we missed her so much while we were adventuring. Landon and I were both incredibly happy to see that little face waving at us on our porch as we drove up!

So, what did we do while we were missing our daughter?

We explored a cave in Jamaica that has served as a pirates' hangout, an escape route for Spanish government officials, and a night club at various points in its career.

Cruising around the Western Caribbean: An Overview | CosmosMariners.com
Green Grotto Caves, Jamaica
We walked 12 miles in and around Cozumel, Mexico, and figured out how to haggle in (very bad) Spanish.

Cruising around the Western Caribbean: An Overview | CosmosMariners.com

We individually ate about nine pounds of bacon. Every morning.

We saw the hugest, grossest, greenest eel while we were snorkeling in Grand Cayman. It was like a train wreck: it wasn't a pretty sight, but we couldn't look away.

I finally got around to reading Gone Girl. Spoiler alert: Amy Elliott is just as insane in the book as she is in the movie.

We discovered what a silent disco is--and loved it!

We watched a cultural dance, band, and gymnastics show in Haiti. Even the best cultural offerings are improved with a background of gorgeous blue water.

We learned that it is possible to climb a waterfall, and that there are no problems in Jamaica, only small situations. (We must have heard "No problem, mon!" at least a hundred times while we were there.)

Cruising around the Western Caribbean: An Overview | CosmosMariners.com
Dunn's River Falls, Jamaica
When you consider that all of that occurred while we had not one, but two major medical emergencies (both of which caused us to detour from our planned route), it's pretty impressive. Even with those delays, this cruise was fantastic.

Cruising around the Western Caribbean: An Overview | CosmosMariners.com

I have so many great pictures and stories from the cruise that I can't wait to share over the next few weeks. Keep checking back for those updates!

Have you ever been on a cruise? Where did you go? What were your favorite shore excursions?

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Packing More Travel into Your Summer

Packing More Travel into Your Summer | CosmosMariners.com

Now that Memorial Day has come and gone, it's official:

Summer's here! And those summer travels are ready to begin.

For as long as I can remember, those hot days have been my favorite part of the year, filled with long, lazy days at the beach, surfing lessons (before my husband broke the fins on my surfboard), swimming at the pool, and family gatherings (usually with lots of watermelon and strawberries).

But my favorite part of my favorite time of year has to be the summer traveling. When we were small, my parents would pile my sister and I into our car (which varied from a 1989 Oldsmobile to a 1994 Volvo as we got older) and head out on the open road. Some years, we'd end up in Walt Disney World, while other years took us to Canada, Mexico, or any of the states along the eastern seaboard!

Now that I'm older and have a kid of my own, I'm still carrying on the tradition of family trips: we've got some fun jaunts planned to Edisto Island, South Carolina; St. Augustine, Florida; and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Between those trips, we'll be doing everything we can to pack even more fun and travel into our summer months. Here's how:

Make a summer bucket list. If it's written down, you're more likely to accomplish it. So, have a big gathering with the kids, your spouse, your friends--whoever you'll be with during the summer--and see what you'd like to accomplish. Ice cream all around if you manage everything on the list by August 1!

Use your long weekends wisely. Make use of those extra days you get off of work on Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day, and take a road trip. You could also take a longer trip each of those weeks, but only have to take four days off from work. Make the system work to your advantage!

Packing More Travel into Your Summer | CosmosMariners.com
St. Simons Island lighthouse, Georgia
Utilize the free stuff. With warmer temperatures comes the ability to use those water-based activities. For the most part, going to the beach, lake, or pool costs little to nothing, which makes them all attractive options even for the traveling family on a budget.

Summer's also a great time to visit a few county, state, or national parks. They're packed with activities for the whole family, and the entrance fees are very reasonable.

Packing More Travel into Your Summer | CosmosMariners.com
Indian Rocks Beach, Florida
Check out the deals. Even though summer is the high season for travel, you can still find great ways to save money through travel rewards programs and attractions. Some theme parks run specials on ticket packages or hotel rooms to make the most of those fleeting summer vacation days. Don't assume that you won't find a great price on travel just because it's peak season.

Packing More Travel into Your Summer | CosmosMariners.com
The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida
Combine family visits with sightseeing. Summer's a great time to catch up with family, and many people are driving or flying to visit the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children. Make use of that time away from home by exploring your destination: when you're at Grandma and Grandpa's in Tampa, go see the Dali Museum or Fort De Soto. While you're out in California seeing your siblings, make a detour at the Hearst Mansion or have an impromptu road trip up U.S. 1. See what's nearby and make a family outing of it!

What are your summer travel plans? Do you have a miles program to help you make the most out of your travels?

The Ultimate Paris Food Guide: All of the Amazing Things to Eat in Paris

The Ultimate Paris Food Guide: All of the Amazing Things to Eat in Paris | CosmosMariners.com

Today, you, my awesome readers, are in for quite the treat (literally, since this post is about food), so I hope you're hungry!

 Jordan from The Hungry Traveler has been kind enough to create the ultimate Paris food guide so you can head to the City of Love with confidence for some tasty cuisine. Below, she leads us the best things to eat in Paris--and where to find them--so newcomers and foodies alike can experience the culinary delights of the City of Lights to the max.

She's very passionate about food and traveling, and has been to 30 of the states in the U.S. and over 15 countries; when she's not eating her way around the world, Jordan is a chef and culinary instructor in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Bon appetit, Cosmos Mariners!

Experience the Magic of Glacier Bay, Alaska: Guest Post by Dirt In My Shoes

Good morning, lovely readers! I'm floating around somewhere in the Caribbean for my fifth anniversary cruise and enjoying every minute of it. I'm really excited to hand the blog over to Ash from Dirt In My Shoes today because she's had some amazing adventures in parts of the U.S. that I haven't visited. Plus, her posts are peppered with gorgeous photos! 

Enjoy her guest post about one of Alaska's most beautiful national parks. See you in a week!

Hello, fellow Mariners!  My name is Ash and I write over at Dirt In My Shoes.  Because I am a former park ranger, I love to help people create unforgettable memories and experiences in our beautiful National Parks.

I was blessed to live and work in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, and I truly believe it is one of the most magical places on this earth.  Nowhere else is as wild with the sheer beauty that comes from being untouched by the human hand.  It took my breath away just to stand and watch the forces of Mother Nature hard at work, shifting and shaping the landscape.  The grand and majestic glaciers move with such force that the rocks and the trees bow down to their power.  Living creatures dot every inch of the region, some big and some small, that make me grateful to be a part of this incredible world.

The thing that people always said was that they wished that they had made it to Glacier Bay sooner, and that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.  Although I can’t get you on a plane and take you there, I can provide you with these 5 things to do to experience the magic of Glacier Bay!

1.  Go Halibut Fishing
Halibut fishing with Forrest Braden of True North Sportfishing
I am not much of a fisherwoman, but I could not pass up the opportunity to go fishing in the Alaskan Seas.  I will never forget the feeling of reeling in not only one, but TWO fish that each weighed in at half of my body weight.  What a grueling process trying to wrestle those things into the boat.  Oh yeah, and then there was this time that a very rude sea lion ate my fish while I was reeling it in.  My heart was pounding frantically.  Halibut fishing in Glacier Bay is an experience that will forever be etched in my memory.

Fishing is a part of life for all who live or lived near Glacier Bay.  The area was once inhabited by members of the Huna Tlingit Tribe, who were long ago displaced by the glaciers creeping through the waters and onto their land.  Even today, they depend on the ocean and its creatures to stay alive, and you can feel that reverence and respect being passed down to all who visit.

2.  Hike to the Bartlett River

Not many hiking trails exist in Glacier Bay, so the Bartlett River Trail was one that I hiked often.  I enjoyed weaving through a forest of old trees covered in a blanket of moss, listening to the warble of the birds perched high above me.  In the distance, I loved hearing the occasional crunch of a moose making its way through the brush.  And then there is the river.  That gorgeous river with such crystal clear water you can see every detail of the salmon swimming under its surface.

This was one of my favorite areas to just sit and watch and listen, taking it all in.  We need more places like this in the world.  Somewhere that we can truly experience nature.

3.  Explore the Intertidal Zone

The tides at Glacier Bay are a force to be reckoned with and something that should not be taken lightly.  Land that is exposed at one time of day can be completely immersed by feet of water within a few short hours.  At low tide, the area that was once covered in water becomes entirely visible and dozens of unique creatures can be found.  My favorites were the starfish and the sea urchins, but sometimes I would see things that I never knew even existed on this earth.

My supervisor at Glacier Bay was one of the first Rescue Swimmers for the Coast Guard.  He was actually interviewed for the movie The Guardian and was a great inspiration to me.  The most memorable piece of advice I learned from him was to take time to get down on your hands and knees and appreciate the smallest things before you.  While appreciating the small things, the big things start to make more sense.  That is how I felt peering into those tide pools, and that is why everyone needs to experience the intertidal zone at Glacier Bay.

4.  Kayak in Bartlett Cove

The magic of Glacier Bay is best seen from the water.  Kayaking gives you a chance to be close to the many animals that call this place home, and gives you a greater appreciation for the landscape that surrounds you.  I had some incredible encounters with marine wildlife from my kayak.  I felt the spray from a humpback whale, was playfully followed by a seal, had harbor porpoises swimming underneath me, and was caught in the middle of an otter play-time.

Harbor porpoises that were following me around in my kayak

Being on the water is a humbling experience as you submit to Mother Nature and her tidal mood swings.  In a way, you almost feel out of control because you never know what is going to happen.  Often, I wouldn’t even paddle.  It was so invigorating to be surrounded by so much beauty and to truly allow myself to be taken by surprise.

5.  See the Glaciers
Reid Glacier

Well, you can’t visit Glacier Bay without seeing any glaciers!  Have you ever seen a glacier calve and heard the thunderous roar that the ice makes as it drops into the sea?  You need to visit the Margerie Glacier and just wait in patience to witness this glorious sight.  

Margerie Glacier

Next, be sure to snap a photo of the Johns Hopkins Glacier with its dramatic mountain backdrop and seals hanging out on the drifting ice.  Then, if you are really lucky, you will be able to see the Reid Glacier from the shore at low tide, getting up close to appreciate its vastness.

Each glacier in Glacier Bay has its own personality and characteristics.  Taking a boat tour of the Bay will help you get to know the massive sheets of ice that give this beautiful National Park its name.  You will be awe-struck and inspired.

Thanks for joining me on this magical tour of Glacier Bay National Park.  While these 5 things are guaranteed to provide you some amazing experiences, I’ve got a few more ideas for you up my sleeve!  I am happy to help you plan your visit so be sure to keep in touch!

Make sure to show Ash and her fantastic blog some love!

Cruising into Our Fifth Wedding Anniversary

I first met my husband Landon in August 2003. We were freshmen, and he was helping my roommate move into our room.
Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
November 2003, just a few months after we started dating (the first time)

I didn't know it then, but seven years, many breakups (one that lasted over two years), and an engagement (to another person) later, Landon and I would get engaged. 

And unlike my first engagement, this one would actually stick. I'd still be petrified at the thought of getting married, and I'd seriously consider my dad's offer to go get ice cream rather than walk down the aisle, but I'd go through with it. And be so, so happy I did. 

Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
Getting hitched, May 2010

I've now known Landon almost half of my lifetime. We've watched one another grow from headstrong, stubborn teenagers into well-rounded, responsible adults (who are both still pretty headstrong--and stubborn). We've bought two houses together and supported one another as we began parenthood. 

We've traveled as much as our jobs, student loans, and budgets would allow since we've been married. We've ziplined in St. Maarten, explored Scotland, snorkeled in the Bahamas, watched plays on London's West End, and traveled all over the Southeast

Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
Edinburgh Castle, 2011

For our honeymoon, we decided to go on a cruise through the eastern Caribbean: I'd just finished my graduate program, and I wanted nothing more than to relax for a few days. That week-long trip allowed us to learn about one another's travel habits (good and bad!) since we hadn't done much traveling with one another while we'd dated.  

Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
Honeymoon cruise, 2010

We enjoyed ourselves so much on that trip that we've made the anniversary trip an annual tradition. We went to Jekyll Island, Georgia, Balsam, North Carolina, and St. Petersburg, Florida, for our 2nd, 3rd, and 4th anniversaries, respectively--they were smaller trips, but just as much fun. 

Cruising into Our Fifth Anniversary | CosmosMariners.com
Jekyll Island, Georgia, 2011

Now, five years into this marriage gig, we're headed back out on another cruise--but this time, we're going to the western Caribbean. Even though the locations are different, I hope we manage as much relaxation and fun as we did on our honeymoon cruise. 

Since I'm going all out on this trip and making it a real vacation, I won't be working next week. (Plus, have you seen how much wifi is on a cruise ship!?!) 

However, I am leaving the blog in the hands of some very competent guest bloggers while I'm lazing by the pool and soaking up some sun, so show them some love next week. I'll be back to life as usual on Monday, June 1 with lots of pictures, stories, and adventures from our Caribbean cruising. 

Happy 5th anniversary to us! 

How do you celebrate your anniversary? Have you taken a cruise? How did you like it?

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History, Picnics, and a Surrey with the Fringe on Top: Fort De Soto, Florida

In between checking out of Cay Pointe Villa in Indian Rocks and checking into the Plaza Beach Hotel in St. Pete Beach, we had a few hours to kill. Most people would've headed straight to the nearest public beach access, but I'm not most people.

Instead, we headed to Fort De Soto, a park that sits at the mouth of Tampa Bay. It is the largest of the Pinellas County Parks and straddles five small islands.

When I'd written an intro about where we were going on our Superior Small Lodging road trip, I had several readers write in and tell me that Fort De Soto was not to be missed. When we had that free morning, I knew exactly where I would take Landon and Britton.

At first glance, the park was quiet with only a few bicyclists making use of the path. But as we drove further in, we began to notice all of the different things we could do. There were kayak rentals, a self-guided fort tour, six miles of beaches, a fishing pier, picnic areas and a little cafe just off the fort.

Normally, I would've headed straight to the historical stuff since that's my Achilles heel, but Landon and I had promised our toddler that she could ride a bike.

Of course, with her tiny legs and toddler coordination (or lack thereof), we didn't actually expect her to ride her own bike, but we were hoping that there would be a carry-on option for her. We lucked up and found that there were two and four person surreys, which absolutely delighted Britton to no end.

Landon and I loaded up the surrey with some snacks, drinks, and a picnic lunch, and headed out on the biking trails. Britton loved zooming along (at 5 MPH) with the wind in her face while Landon and I huffed and puffed. We needed a little exercise after all of the delicious food we'd tried on the trip.

First, we biked along the historical trails, where we saw some of the ruins from the military encampment that was once there. While the area was first scouted in the mid-1800s as a possible military defense spot, it wasn't until 1898 that the buildings and fort were constructed. Although the post house, cafeteria and barracks aren't standing any longer, there are markers outlining where each building used to be.

After we'd been doodling around in the surrey (with the fringe on top) for about an hour, Britton started hollering about lunch. We pulled into the nearest picnic area, plunked our cooler down, and enjoyed our food with only the waves and the birds as company.

Our bike rental was up after lunch, so we had to head back and return it.

Next, we headed to the fort, which (unlike the out buildings) is still is great shape. When it was being built, there was an issue with the stones that were being sent from the North down to Florida. Rather than wait for the delayed building stones, the workers decided to make use of the plentiful shells around the island to construct the walls and ceiling of the fort.

With walls that range from 8 to 20 feet deep and ceilings that are 5 feet thick, this place was built to last. Yet, the fort has never been in any battles and the weapons have never been fired! The men assigned to Fort De Soto didn't see any conflict--unless you count the hordes of mosquitos that harassed them day and night. The bugs were so bad that they even made it into the post quartermaster's report in the early 1900s. Yikes.

We perused the fort, ducking in a few of the rooms and reading the plaques that we came across. Along the way, we found this little girl had been thrown in the clinker for excessive noise, but we were feeling nice and posted bail.

It wasn't the longest trip, but we managed to pack a good bit in. I wish we'd had more time to play on the beaches or bike around more. Fort De Soto is definitely worth a stop if you're in the St. Pete area!

Do you like visiting county or national parks on your trips? Which activity would you have liked doing at Fort De Soto the most?


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