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A Day Trip to Tarpon Springs, Florida
A fun Day (or evening) Trip
Located slightly northwest of Tampa in Pinellas County, Tarpon Springs is about a 45 minute drive up the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This quaint, Greek influenced town was once the premiere spot for harvesting natural sponges. These days, Tarpon Springs is a tourist destination featuring shops, food and fun!
History of the Sponge Docks
Although some settlers came earlier, Tarpon Springs wasn't "on the map" until the 1880's when Greek Immigrants were brought over from the Islands of Greece for their extensive diving skills to harvest and process ocean sponges. By 1930, sponge harvesting was a booming business for Tarpon Springs, bringing in millions of dollars per year.
In 1947, a red tide algae bloom nearly wiped out the sponge reefs all along the gulf coast. Divers coped with this loss by turning their attention to fishing and shrimping instead. Most of the building structures that were once part of this booming operation were converted into tourist attractions featuring restaurants, shops and museums.
Tarpon Springs, FL
On your next visit to Central Florida, will you be visiting Tarpon Springs?
Featured Places at the Sponge Docks
There is something for everyone at the Sponge Docks. The main thoroughfare is Dodecanese Boulevard. Here are some of the places you will encounter:
- Coffee Shops
- Authentic Greek Restaurants
- Handmade Soap Shops
- Imported Trinket Shops
- Florida Tourism Shops
- Greek Bakeries
- Cosmetic Shops
- Wine Tastings
- Spice Shops
- Cigar Shops
- Live Entertainment
- Tarpon Spring Aquarium
- Fishing/Dolphin Excursions
- Boat Tours
- Antique Shops
- Art Galleries
There are over 100 unique shops to visit at the Sponge Docks.
On my visit to the sponge docks, the main boulevard was shut down to car traffic for a festival. There were many restaurants offering al fresco dining and music. Shops remained open late to accommodate festival participants. After having a gloriously delicious Greek meal, I made my way down the boulevard to visit virtually every shop and walked away with more handmade soap than I think I will ever use in a lifetime!
On my way out of Tarpon Springs, I stopped at a fine Greek Bakery for some snacks for the car ride back to Tampa where I was staying. This was just a small snippet of my trip to Florida, but one of the best and most enjoyable places I visited during that trip. Even though it was crowded when I visited, it still seemed to me that the sponge docks were a well kept secret. Maybe it was the quaintness of the town or maybe tourists just didn't stick out like a sore thumb like they do on other vacations.
What Exactly are Sponges?
The sponge is an aquatic animal similar to that of starfish or anemone. They cling to a hard object such as rock or coral. Through a system of chambers it eats plankton , which is its primary food source.
Every two months the growing sponge increases in diameter by half an inch. The sponge is coated with a dark elastic film or skin. The skin has openings through which the sponge breathes. Gurry, a gray, jello-like substance, is found between the outer and inner skins of the living sponge.
Divers gently squeeze out the Gurry as they gather their sponges. Then they pound them down and clean them. The sponges are covered with wet burlap sacks on the ship’s deck. The heat releases a gas that rots the sponges’ skins. The natural sponges we use are actually the skeletons of aquatic animals.
Resurgence of the Sponge Trade
Up until the 1980s most of the sponges sold at the sponge docks were actually imported and only a small few were being harvested out of the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to a renewed interest in the sponge docks, more and more sponges sold there are directly harvested out of the gulf. In 2007, there was a record broken by one boat for the most sponges ever harvested in one year.
The Gulf Coast = Perfect Sunsets
You have never witnessed a great sunset until you have gone to the gulf coast. Some of the best sunsets are found there! Spending the late afternoon and evening in Tarpon Springs was a real treat. I got to view the sunset with the sponge boats in the foreground. It makes for great vacation photos!
Planning Your Trip
Unlike most city destinations, central Florida doesn't have an extensive public transportation system. Your best bet is to rent a car if your vacation will include sightseeing instead of just sticking to the beach or resort.
Most places of interest, like Tarpon Springs are under an hour drive from Tampa. Driving also can help you discover some smaller beaches that aren't as crowded as the popular tourist beaches.
Don't forget to bring your camera to capture those perfect sunsets!
© 2014 Lisa Roppolo