It’s Two Towns in One

The boats tied up at the sponge docks are interesting and photogenic

Generally when we travel, we head out to some kind of festival or special event. Most recently it was the inaugural Opa Palooza in Tarpon Springs. But as we traversed both the downtown areas and the world-famous sponge docks, it became glaringly apparent that the best parts of a visit are there year ’round.
Make no mistake, there is much to be said for the live music, eating contests and dozens of pop-ups that line the streets offering everything from mermaid swimsuits to natural honey and honey products during these festivals. However, walking the sidewalks we observed the myriad of Greek restaurants and bakeries that are part of the permanent attraction which is the sponge docks. There was a kiosk with hand-rolled cigars and there was no shortage of boat tours.
And of course there were sponges – lots and lots of sponges. In fact, there is a courtyard which historically had served as the international sponge exchange.

Tarpon Sponge Inc is a compendium of natural sponges and other treasures from the sea.

“At one time all the sponges bought and sold in the United States came right through here,” said Athena Klimis-Tsardoulias of Tarpon Sponge, Inc.
Her small shop at the corner of the Exchange is all things sponges. From personal bath sponges, to utility sponges and sponge baskets she has them all. And most all of them are locally harvested.
“We have a few varieties that come from Greece – but those are the ones that don’t grow here,” she said.

A direct descendant of sponge harvesters and sellers, she has a large photo of her great grandfather standing beside a mountain of sponges at the turn of the last century, waiting for the auction to begin. She also has a family heirloom on a nearby shelf – an actual deep sea helmet worn by family members who went down into the Gulf in search of those sponges.
In addition to the sponges, the shop has shells, olive oil products and even DVD copies of the 1953 film classic “Beneath the 12 Mile Reef.” Starring Robert Wagner and Gilbert Roland, the motion picture depicts the fierce competition among sponge fishermen, which forces a Greek-American family to fish in the dangerous 12-mile reef area of the Gulf of Mexico.
Apparently, there has been a company open with a very similar name, but Tarpon Sponge, Inc. is the real deal.
Shopping for sponges can work up an appetite, which took us to Hella’s restaurant and bakery. It is the home of all kinds of Greek specialties including Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), Spanakopita and naturally, the world-famous Saganaki – the flaming cheese dish.
Generally served as a appetizer, we had it for dessert.
“Don’t we always save the fireworks for the end?” asked my wife.
Indeed, when they bring the Saganaki to the table, they set it on fire and all nearby shout the traditional Greek salute “OPA.” Apparently, “opa” has no translatable meaning, save some who say it is roughly like “cheers,” but with a great deal more gusto.

Next door is Hella’s bakery. An entity unto itself, there is a long glass case full of opportunities such as baklava, flogeres, katafiti and kourambiedes. The staff will help you with the pronunciations, suffice to say that everything from the cakes to the cookies, to the breads are spectacularly delicious.
And that’s just the sponge docks.
A few blocks away, historic downtown Tarpon Springs has an equal variety of restaurants, stores and points of interest that can keep you strolling for hours. For instance, there’s the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum, the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center and the Depot Museum.
For the shoppers, stops by Unique Finds, Bayou Vintage Antique & Arts, The Court of Two Sisters Antiques, Custom Cotures and the Global Folk Arts stores feature a wide array of new and collectable keepsakes literally from all over everywhere.
As we said before, browsing and buying can leave you in search of some taste temptations and downtown Tarpon Springs offers many options. There’s snack food at Sweet E’s Kettle Popcorn, there’s also the KC Barbeque and the Crusty Bread Bakery shoppe.
But for dining, our favorite hands-down is the Olive the World Bistro. Home to a vast selection of olive oils and balsamic vinegars, diners have a chance to sample the different options on the dishes they serve. the Insalata Caprese comes with samples of lemon, apricot, blueberry and dark cherry balsamic vinegars with which to experiment. My roasted turkey came with a honey/ginger vinegar mixed with Dijon mustard.

It may have been the best restaurant sandwich I have ever enjoyed.
Afterword, my wife bought several bottles to take home to experiment with.
While a trip to Tarpon Springs is rewarding at any time, they still have plenty of events. Downtown celebrates each First Friday with a festival. July of course will be themed red, white and blue. In August, the Hippie Fest will hit the sponge docks – there’s lots of tie-dye fashion and a large VW vehicle show with bugs and busses from mild to wild.
But whether you go on a regular weekend or wait until some festivities, a trip to Tarpon Springs is well worth the time and effort. What’s your view of Tarpon Springs? Please let us know! Visit our Florida Fun Zone Facebook page or drop us a line at floridafunzone@yahoo.com.

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