Greek Food, Quaint Seaside Village and Sponge Diving in Tarpon Springs FL

Published: July 3rd 2018
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This blog will be unlike most in that I spent almost no time sightseeing during a two-week, three-stop stay in central Florida. I have a cousin who lives in Brooksville FL, an aunt who lives in Sanford FL and a friend in Interlachen FL. My plans were to visit all three, to see only one attraction and to research some of the regions I will visit before I head to Alaska in July – regions that were left uninvestigated over the winter due to my focus on Alaska. I began with a drive from I-65 RV Campground in Mobile AL to Topics RV Resort in Spring Hill FL on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. According to Google Maps, that drive is 467 miles and 7 hours 8 minutes – an exceptionally long drive by Uncle Larry’s standards. I arrived well after the RV park office had closed for the day but found the instruction set posted on the “late arrivals” board, as promised.

My only tourist day was spent in Tarpon Springs FL, a 45-minute drive south of Spring Hill, so named by newly arrived settlers around 1876 for the jumping tarpon. It is located in a region with a series of bayous
Memorial to the Sponge DiversMemorial to the Sponge DiversMemorial to the Sponge Divers

All Around Tarpon Springs FL
feeding into the Gulf of Mexico. In the 1880s, John K. Cheyney founded the first local sponge business, and many blacks and whites from Key West and the Bahamas settled in Tarpon Springs to “hook” sponges for processing. In 1905, John Cocoris introduced the technique of sponge diving to Tarpon Springs by recruiting divers and crew members from Greece. The sponge industry soon became one of the leading maritime industries in Florida and the most important business in Tarpon Springs, generating millions of dollars a year. In 1947, a red tide algae bloom wiped out the sponge fields in the Gulf of Mexico, causing many of the sponge boats and divers to switch to shrimping for their livelihood, while others left the business. Eventually, the sponges recovered, allowing for a smaller but consistent sponge industry. In the 1980s, the sponge business experienced a boom due to a sponge disease that killed the Mediterranean sponges, and today there is still a small active sponge industry.

Tarpon Springs is also known for elaborate religious ceremonies hosted by the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, including the January 6 Epiphany celebration – a remembrance of the baptism of Jesus Christ in the water of Jordan River 2000 years ago. In the old country, Jesus Christ baptismal day was celebrated with spiritual emotion and a long procession. Following tradition, the Greek community established that January 6th of each year will be celebrated with the sanctification of the waters and the immersion of the cross on “Cross Day” or “Epiphany.” The first observance of Epiphany in Tarpon Springs was celebrated by the early settlers in 1903 and was attended by only a few people. In the next few years, as the news spread throughout the U.S. and Canada, the celebration grew. Now, devoted Greeks and Americans make the pilgrimage from all over the nation and Canada to take part in the celebration of Epiphany. The blessings conclude with the ceremonial throwing of a wooden cross into the city's Spring Bayou, and boys ages 16 to 18 dive in to retrieve it. Whoever recovers the cross is said to be blessed for a full year. Following the blessings, the celebration moves to the Sponge Docks where food and music are made part of the festivities. The city's population is said to triple during the three-day festival.

Today, Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the U.S. The Greektown Historic District of Tarpon Springs is both part of the traditional Greek community and the city's primary tourist destination. The community’s main drag passes the marina, the docked sponge boats, the Sponge Exchange and the working fishing boats. Numerous restaurants serve traditional Greek cuisine and fresh seafood, and small shops sell everything from natural sponges to imported goods. After making a stop at the visitor center, I took a quick survey walk of the downtown before making a stop at Yiannis Greek Restaurant. Just in case there was something I didn’t like (now that would be a rare occasion), not wanting to put all my eggs in one basket and not having any knowledge about any of the items on the menu, I decided to order the Greek Combo Platter – Mousaka, Pastitso, Dolmades, Gyro, and Spinach Pie. When my platter – and I do mean platter, not plate – arrived, my waitress was kind enough to give me a quick orientation course. Guess what! Uncle Larry found all of the items good with, obviously, some better than others. A take-out box definitely was in order.

After lunch, I resumed my journey through the picturesque village and found a tee shirt with a Ronald Reagan quote that I felt compelled to buy: "Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don't have that problem.” Unfortunately, the only shirt in stock was the one on display, a medium (thirty years ago, perhaps, but today, I don’t think so). Jumping ahead, I found one online and ordered it. Continuing my stroll, I happened on an “off-the-beaten-path” outdoor pedestrian mall with a violinist street performer pumping out the tunes. Cal Morris is one of the most extraordinary musicians I have ever seen in the street performer arena; however, he is not only a street performer. I guess that’s how phenomenal artists who love their work spend a day off! I have included links to two selections, one by Cal and the other by his brother, an equally talented violinist, Daniel Morris - Cal Morris Violin Cover of "Hello" by Adele (YouTube 4:56) and Despacito - Daniel Morris violin (YouTube 2:29). Intrigued and ready for a break, I sauntered over to a nearby pub with a patio, ordered a craft brew, Diver Down Imperial Red Ale, and enjoyed 10-12 songs and 30-45 minutes of people-watching.

Back at the RV park in Spring Hill, it happened that my cousins’ son was in town from New York City. Rest assured that I picked his brain about my 2019 visit to the megalopolis. After spending some time with my cousins in nearby Brooksville and some major catching up, I relocated to Mount Dora FL to visit my 95-year old aunt in Sanford over Mother’s Day. One of her children lives in Sanford and another was in town from North Carolina. Of course, Mother’s Day drew in a myriad of grandchildren and great grandchildren. The Monday following Mother’s Day, I drove to Palatka FL to visit a friend who lives in nearby Interlachen. She was the first woman to join the Rockford IL Fire Department back in 1978 and happened to be in my recruit class. Over those 6-8 weeks of fire training and another stint in EMT training, our group got pretty tight. After 5-6 years on the job, she moved to Florida. I knew she was in the state but had no idea of where. Recently we got reconnected through another firefighter who was in our class. It
Part of the Fishing FleetPart of the Fishing FleetPart of the Fishing Fleet

All Around Tarpon Springs FL
turns out she became active in the VFW Auxiliary and is now the state regional something or another. We went to her watering hole, and she introduced me to several friends. Pretty cool.

I spent one day out of my two-week stint in north central Florida acting like a professional tourist, but that day was stellar. There are a few locales where people-watching is ripe for the taking for Uncle Larry – Tombstone AZ, Silverton CO, Provincetown MA, Virginia City NV, Port Townsend WA and Tarpon Springs FL among several others. I can’t say Tarpon Springs is a killer destination that will keep you busy for a week but a day, you betcha! The Greek food was outstanding to my uneducated palate; however, the pronunciation of the names of the dishes on the combo platter – well, they're all still Greek to me!

Additional photos below
Photos: 11, Displayed: 11


Sponges, Sponges EverywhereSponges, Sponges Everywhere
Sponges, Sponges Everywhere

All Around Tarpon Springs FL
Cal Morris – Totally UnexpectedCal Morris – Totally Unexpected
Cal Morris – Totally Unexpected

All Around Tarpon Springs FL

4th July 2018

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