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Seeing "Real" Florida in Tarpon Springs

Submitted: August 4, 2009 by Linda M. Erbele

Travelers in modern Florida often have the impression that the state is one shiny amusement park after another. But there are more authentic places to see the state, like the sponge docks on the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs (30 minutes north of St. Petersburg.) Greek immigrants began coming here to harvest sponges in the early 20th century. In the 1930s it was the busiest sponge dock in the world.

Visitors stroll along Dodecanese Blvd. through white stucco shops offering Greek linens, loofahs, sponges, chamois leather, and a variety of charms to ward off the evil eye. There are sightseeing boat tours and sponge diving exhibitions. A statue on the docks pays homage to the old copper-helmeted diving outfit that changed the industry from harvesting with long-handled hooks.

People here speak to each other in Greek and lively bouzouki music drifts over the street. You'll smell the sea and boats, but the authentic Greek restaurants here will draw you in with their comfort-food aromas, offering moussaka, dolmades, even ouzo and flaming saganaki. Save room for dessert - there are plenty of bakeries that offer a variety of baklavas and other pastries.

The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs houses the "weeping" statue of St. Nicholas, and is host every January to the largest Epiphany Celebration in the country. Crowds gather on the banks of Spring Bayou to watch the Bishop toss a cross into the bay and the young men vie to be the first to retrieve it.

There are large arts festivals in March and September, as well as Second Saturday celebrations each month. Just a mile south of the docks on Tarpon Ave. is the downtown historic district with antique shops, galleries and restaurants. Westward along Tarpon Avenue, Victorian homes look out onto Spring Bayou. But other than the trolley tours offered seasonally, there are no roller coasters or thrill rides in this little slice of "old" Florida.