Tarpon Springs, Florida
The server poured a small blue glass of liquid over the thick slice of Graveria cheese on the plate and lit it with her lighter. ‘Opa!’ She cried with a smile as flames swooshed up, dancing over the cheese to grill it- en plate- to perfection.
‘Oreilla!’ The greek word for beautiful flew from my mouth. ‘Ouzo?’
The server looked surprised, then shook her head. ‘Brandy.’
She set the plate of Saganaki on the center of our table and vanished back into the bustling restaurant. It was Sunday afternoon and the river ran with tourist boats, ferrying families to nearby sandy beaches. Around us people chattered and dined. A typical Sunday scene in a Greek island port town, but we were nowhere near Greece- we were dining on the deck at Dimitris on the Water in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Located on Florida’s west coast, stepping through the port streets of Tarpon Springs transports you to a town reminiscent of the Greek Islands. Signs are displayed in Greek, wares spill from the shops onto the sidewalks like a market day. The smell of salty sea air mingles with sweet aromas of baklava and moussaka. Filled with Greek descendants who immigrated in the early 19oo’s with the promise of sponge diving work, Tarpon Springs is a snapshot village captured in time.
Oddly enough, the best things to do in Tarpon Springs have more to do with ‘family’ and quality time, much as they would if you had arrived in a Greek village. A long leisurely lunch with family, a swim and beach time. Slow travel to savor the best moments of life, because one simply does not rush in Greece.
Learn About Sponges in the Sponge Capital of the World
Known as the Sponge Capital of the World, the Tarpon Springs shops overflow with sponges- not those bright yellow rectangles wrapped in cellophane, but buckets and tubs and baskets of natural sponges, harvested from the Gulf.
We visited Sponge-O-Rama and paused to watch an old film about sponge harvesting. Divers fitted in heavy suits and helmets would dive into the sea with small rakes and gather their sponges in a net bag, surfacing with their bounty only to return to the sea again. This process takes hours- even days.
‘They’re farmers’ my son said. ‘Underwater farmers.’
‘That could make good training for Mars,’ I mused, with an eye on the future. I noted the little plastic rakes they were using for sponge harvesting were the kinds of little rakes I had used for olive picking when I lived in Greece.
Later that same day, I met a young sponge diver and asked if they use scuba gear to collect the sponges now. He told me they have compressed air in a line from the boat that ran continuously so they could stay underwater for a long period of time. He also said when he went out, they would stay out on the water for a week at a time. Sponge harvesting was is a specialized skill that takes talent. And it makes Tarpon Springs one of the most unique farming communities in the world.
Try a Greek Coffee
Although I lived a decade in Greece, I confess, never once did I dare try a Greek coffee. It’s sludge, my friends told me, steering me towards the more European Nescafe. So, my first Greek coffee was in Taste of Greece in Tarpon Springs. It’s an adorable bakery on the main street with display cases filled with tempting treats.
When we ordered our coffee, the proprietor gave us specific instructions on how to drink Greek coffee:
- Lift the cup to your lips.
- Tilt the cup up ever so slightly.
- Blow on the liquid and take a sip. (This moves most of the dregs out of the way.)
You will end up drinking some of the thick dregs, but if you let your coffee sit, the dregs start to settle. Of course, if you let it sit too long, it’s a tiny cup and it will just get cold. Drinking Greek coffee should be considered an art form. Order sugar in it if you like it sweet.
Take a Boat to Anclote Key
There’s no sense in being so near the Gulf of Mexico without experiencing it. Several companies along the port side of Dodecanese Boulevard vie for business, offering cruises along the Anclote and out into the Gulf.
Odyssey Cruises has a 2-hour relaxing guided trip up the Anclote River with a stop for shelling and a swim on Anclote Key. You can learn the history of Tarpon Springs during your cruise. Bring sunscreen and wear a swim suit if you plan to swim.
Dine Like a Greek
Dining Greek-style does not mean throwing plates and dancing with precariously balanced furniture- what it does mean is enjoying a leisurely long meal with good company, good conversation and good food. And experiencing an array of Mediterranean delicacies is by far the best thing to to in Tarpon Springs.
We by-passed the indoor seating and enjoyed a meal on the riverside patio of Dimitri’s on the Water. We watched the tourists roll in and out on the touring boats, enjoyed the sun dipping low over the river.
I had lived in Greece for a decade, but that life, B.C. (before children) seemed so long ago- until Tarpon Springs. I could read the words around us- knew what Baklava and Moussaka tasted like- and knew the moment we were handed the menu that the sampler-platter of Tsatsiki, Taramasalata and Melangena, though tempting, was too sedate for our palates.
‘Tyrikeftiri- I said. Whipped feta and ricotta with jalapeno peppers. Yum! I remembered a taverna owner in Agni, Corfu wrapping feta and jalapenos in tin foil and throwing it on an open fire. When he took it off the flame, the cheese and pepper had melted together- the taste was pure heaven.
I then steered us towards the pickled octopus. I had a friend who used to take his fishing boat out into the Ionian Sea, drop plastic pipes onto the sea bed and go back two weeks later, when octopus had made their homes in them. He proudly presented his pickled octopus to all of his visitors.
Start your meal with an array of appetizers to share. Forgo the loaf bread and request pita. Ask the servers for suggestions if you are unsure. Be brave and daring. Appetizers are the best way to try new foods. Enjoy a glass of wine or ouzo. And if you are still hungry, move on to a main entree or share an entree and salad.
Embrace the Greek, and enjoy shopping the imports from the home of greats like Socrates, Plato and, Alexander. From olive oil soaps and komboloi (worry beads) to jewelry, clothing and food- tinned dolmatas anyone? Be sure to pick up a sponge or two- almost every shop has a selection.
Take Home Dessert
It’s hard to walk past all of the tempting treats in the bakeries, but if you had that long leisurely meal, chances are you are too full to bite down on a honey soaked baklava or nibble on some koulourakia. If you have a sweet hankering, stop and take a box of fresh made baked goods with you to enjoy later. Hellas Bakery has a wide array of Greek cakes, sweets and pastries.
Places mentioned in this post:
- Sponge-o-rama Sponge Factory is located at 510 Dodecanese Blvd, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
- Taste of Tarpon Springs is located at 709 Dodecanese Blvd, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
- Odyssey Cruises can be found at 776 Dodecanese Blvd, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689 (727.934.0547)
- Dimitris on the Water can be found at 690 Dodecanese Blvd, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
- Hellas Restaurant and Bakery is located at 785 Dodecanese Blvd, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
Things To Know Before You Go:
- Parking costs money- and everyone is renting a space. Pay from $5 up for a parking space around Dodecanese Boulevard.
- Touting- if you have never experienced business owners trying to get you to eat in their restaurant or take their cruise, it may surprise you, but don’t get offended. Keep it polite. A simple ‘no thank you’ works wonders.
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- Celebrating Greek Easter in Corfu