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Tarpon Springs: America's Greek Isle
Story and photos by Kathleen Walls - American Roads Travel Magazine

The Aegean Isles display in the courtyard of The Sponge Exchange

America is known as the great melting pot. Occasionally, a group of immigrants settle an area and do not blend into the great homologous masses. Instead, that town becomes a tiny enclave of the mother country. Tarpon Springs, on the gulf coast of Florida, is such a place. Its culture is as Greek as any Aegean Island. As you stroll down Dodecanese Boulevard, the honey-sweet aroma of Baklava wafts from the Parthenon or Hellas Bakeries. The sharp tang of Feta Cheese assails you from Louis Pappas Restaurant. In Plaka Restaurant you watch as a swarthy man expertly carves lamb from a slowly revolving spit to create a mouthwatering gyro.

A gentle sea breeze plays a tinkling tune on the seashell mobils and sways the dangling lines filled with freshly harvested sponges. The mournful sound of a Greek love song drifts from the courtyard of what was once the old Sponge Exchange, now converted into upscale boutiques, gift shops and food and drink establishments. Inside the gleaming whitewashed walls, tables are arranged so you can rest from your sightseeing and sip a glass of Retsina or nibble on a flaky pastry as you enjoy the music of The Islanders. On one side of the courtyard stands a refurbished sponge diving ship, the Aegean Isles. Her smart black and red trim stand out in sharp contrast to her sparkling white hull. On a front wall of the Sponge Exchange there is a hugh Byzantine style painting of a sponge diver. At the bottom right of the picture is a small plague. It reads "In memory of John M. Cocoris from Leonidion, Greece. The founder of the sponge diving industry in 1905 in the city of Tarpon Springs.

Plaque honoring John Cocoris

These two displays encapsule the Greek heritage of Tarpon Springs. When John Cocoris, a Greek sponge diver, arrived in Tarpon Springs in 1905, it was a winter vacation town for wealthy Northers seeking respite from the bitter cold. When he discovered the quality and extent of the sponge beds in the Gulf of Mexico, he sent out an invitation for many of his compatriots to join him in harvesting the beds. They came with their families and found these beds even more lucrative than the ones in Greece. Boats like the Aegean Isles, over two hundred of them in the heyday of the 1930's, crisscrossed the shallow gulf waters in search of their quarry. These intrepid divers wore full dive suits and helmets with an air hose attached to the compressor on the boat. They weighed their bodies down with heavy weights. For their risks, they were amply rewarded, bringing in as much as three million dollars a year of the sponges. Then in the 1940's, tragedy struck. A bacterial infection declaimed most of the beds. It wasn't until the 1980's that new healthy beds were discovered and the divers began again exporting the finest natural sponges in the world. Tarpon Springs is still a leader in the world's market but that market is greatly reduced due to the introduction of synthetics. However, the romance and culture of the divers are still an integral part of this colorful city. No synthetic "tourist attraction" can create the vibrancy that exist in Tarpon Springs.

A shopper browses Tarpon Springs Sponges

Today, you can board the St. Nicholas at the sponge dock and observe an authentic sponge dive. This is a great way to get the feel of the place. The boat is not just a tour boat, although those are available, too. It's a genuine sponging boat. The young diver dons a real suit and heavy iron helmet. His air line lies across the deck as he descends into the water is search of a living sponge. You hold your breath while he is down. Soon, he signals to be raised. He breaks the surface and holds aloft a real sponge.

As you amble the weathered boards of the old Docks, you can glimpse what life was really like here in the early 1900's. Whether you take a cruse, go deep sea fishing, tour the salt water aquarium, visit the Sponge Diving Museum, or view the movie about the sponge diving industry you realize life here was geared to the sea. The swooping gulls, the salt spray of passing boats and even the tangy salt smell of the breeze, remind you of that.

Of course, there are other things to do here. If you're a gambler, the new state of the art floating casino may tempt you to court Lady Luck. There are restaurants in abundance. They vary from the elegant Louis Pappas, with it's three dining rooms overlooking the Anclote River, to the unusual Lighthouse Restaurant.

Tarpon Springs is still boasts a working waterfront.

Take time to stroll through the many small shops on Dodecanese Boulevard and along the side streets. Aside from the sponges, you'll find many unusual items such as embroidered Greek blouses and amber colored kombolis, Greek worry beads. The shop owners are friendly and proud of their heritage. They enjoy explaining their culture to visitors. Stray a bit off the main streets for a glimpse of the homes with their colorful flowers and unique design.

Tarpon Springs has several parks you will want to visit. At Sunset Beach, toss your burgers onto a smoldering grill then sit back and watch the waves break on the sandy beach. You can take a dip or launch your boat here, too.

Fred Howard Park is another scenic gulf beach. This 150 acre county park has a mile long causeway connecting the swimming area with the mainland. It also has barbecue grills, shelters, fishing spots and restrooms.

If you're not interested in swimming, A.L. Anderson Park is a great place for picnicking or fishing and boating. It's located on Lake Tarpon to the east of the city.

For a different close to nature feeling, try Highland Nature Park. This small city park focuses on the natural beauty of the area's foliage.

Hikers and bikers will savor a trip along the Pinellas Trail. This winding path extends from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. It's a great way place to walk off the excess pounds Greek cuisine tends to add.

The Islanders play as one of the members' young son watches

If you only visit one nightspot, make it Zorba's. On week- ends, you will be treated to a genuine belly dancer. Inside the dusky club, with the strident sound of the bouzouki beating in your eardrums, it's easy to imagine yourself transported, in time as well as space, to a Mediterranean Bazaar. To further the illusion, the local men often preform an impromptu version of the syrtaki or one of the other traditional male dances.

Another site that may evoke a feeling of deja vue is St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. And for good reason. The church is an exact replica of St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople. It was built in 1943 from 60 tons of Greek marble donated by the Royal Greek government. From the three hugh Czechoslovakian chandeliers to the weeping St. Nicholas icon in the vestibule, it is an exquisite work of Byzantine art.

The historic downtown section, located several blocks southeast of the Docks, has been named a National Historic District. This was the original business district of Tarpon Springs, predating the arrival of the Greek divers. It has been restored to its former glory, circa 1880. The nostalgic brick sidewalks with their quaint green benches and old fashioned gas style street lamps have drawn a diverse collection of artistic studios, unique shops, Bed and Breakfasts and restaurants. Nearby, the restored homes of many of the earlier city founders add a diversity to the Hellenic influence of the homes near the Docks.

Tarpon Springs is big on festivals. Almost any time of the year is an excuse to celebrate. One of the more unique events is the January observance of the Epiphany. It begins as a religious celebration then stages a diving competition among the young boys to retrieve a cross tossed into the waters of Spring Bayou. Greek dancing, music and food are provided. This event draws over 20,000 annually. The Taste of Tarpon Festival, held on the Docks in March, pay homage to the towns restaurants with creative cookery as well as arts and crafts. The arts do have their hour in the sun with the two Arts and Crafts Festivals, held in April and November. Of course, September's fishing tournament is a big deal for fishermen from all over. Several other festivities are held including Christmas and Halloween celebrations.

At day's end, you have two choices in R.V. parks: the Linger Longer R.V. Park or the Hickory Point Mobile Home R.V. Park. Both parks have water access and cater to short or long term guests.

Tarpon Springs is often called the "Venice of the South"because of its many bayous and lakes. Altogether, it has over fifty miles of waterfront.

A visit to Tarpon Springs is a great way to experience "The grandeur that was Greece," without ever leaving our own great country.

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.