Tarpon Springs is known for two things; Greek food and sponges. The two may seem like an unlikely pairing; however, the relationship started in the early 1900s, when Greek sponge divers settled in Tarpon Springs and created a thriving industry selling natural sponges harvested from the Gulf of Mexico. Today, Tarpon Springs relies mainly on the numerous tourists who visit the area to learn about sponge harvesting while walking the streets eating gyros.
I recently visited Tarpon Springs on a whim. And with zero planning or research done before stopping by this tiny waterfront town, I left it to fate to reveal what it had to offer. Fate did not disappoint.
The Sponge Docks
The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks are a mix of creaking sponge boats lining the canal of Anclote River, authentic Greek restaurants with crowds of people waiting for a table, and souvenir shops that smell of handmade soaps and salty sponges freshly picked from the Gulf. A light melody of guitar music is showering over the sidewalks from the light poles above.
Because I didn’t have a plan for the day, I found myself weaving in and out of the souvenir shops; gift shop tchotchkes have not changed since I was a kid. Besides the endless containers of sponges, gift shops sell poorly designed souvenir tee shirts and perfectly symmetrical shells in any shape and size you could want. A few of the shops played informational videos on the history of Tarpon Springs or the benefits of using a natural sponge.
The marketing for these sponges is undeniably convincing. Natural sponges are antibacterial, making them ideal for household cleaning. When the divers harvest the sponges, part of the sponge is left in the ocean to regrow. This renewable resource will repeatedly regenerate, unlike their plastic counterparts found in stores. The best part is for just a few bucks; visitors can bring home these unexpected souvenirs, rather than a tee-shirt that says, “someone who loves me when to Tarpon Springs and bought me this shirt.” (Insert a big eye-roll every time I see a poor child wearing one of these shirts).
Tarpon Springs Dolphin & Nature Tour
As I hopped from one shop to the next, I came across Dolphin and Nature boat tour. The ticket price was a reasonable $11. I prepaid to include a glass of wine in the event the boat was packed with screaming kids; I wouldn’t be as affected. Being out on the water for an hour sounded like a nice change of pace for the day. As we loaded into the boat, I found a seat along the outside edge to have the best vantage point to see a potential dolphin. I was perfectly settled until a group of middle-aged women on a girl’s trip sat beside me, pushing me to the edge of the seat. We set sail as I uncomfortably clung to the rail of the boat with one butt cheek gripping the boat cushion with everything it had.
The tour was a simple out-and-back ride down the Anclote River. The boat’s First Mate took our drink tickets as we settled in on our hour tour. He pointed out historical sights along the river while sprinkling in cheesy dad jokes. Seeing how none of the ladies (including myself) were willing to move to the boat’s center, I made friends with the person I was sitting shoulder to shoulder. Come to find out, she was a marine biologist who studied in South Florida for her undergrad. We bonded over our knowledge of Florida shorebirds and our disdain for (sea) gulls.
As we slowed into the marina, a disappointed passenger exclaimed she was sad she didn’t see a dolphin on the Dolphin & Nature Tour. At that exact moment, a dolphin’s dorsal fin broke from below the water. The First mate cracked a joke about giving SeaWorld a run for its money when training dolphins.
River Wild Kayaking
While I do enjoy sardines on my pizza, I don’t like feeling like one on a boat with 30 strangers. Kayaking the Anclote River with River Wild Kayaking is an intimate eco-tour leading you through the alleys of winding mangroves and oyster beds mounds. The tour guild poured knowledge into my brain about the Florida wildlife seen along the way, and the tranquil river showed little resistance as we paddled.
This small microcosm just north of the busy sponge docks felt miles away as we continued to paddle further into the remote area of the river. As my tour guild, Austin led me upstream; I quickly realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about the ecosystem. As wildlife emerged from the mangroves, Austin was quick to tell me how they played a role in the river’s life.
Nature is an unscripted story, making each tour different from the last. As impressive as birds and dolphins can be on a kayaking tour, they are not always available to make appearances (union rules). The plant life filtering the river’s water and providing shelter is a cornerstone of the health of the Anclote River and a favorite topic of mine to learn. I don’t want to give away too many of the tour’s nature facts, but the one that stuck with me was learning there are three different types of mangrove trees in Florida; Black, White, and Red. Each has a distinct leaf shape, color, and root system. Red is most commonly seen along the river banks; its spider-like roots become exposed during low tide.
As we returned to the kayak launch, I felt as if I’d been on a tour through an art gallery with a docent explaining the deeper meaning behind each work of art. This immersive experience was the perfect balance of educational and physical outdoor activity. The souvenirs you will take home will be a long-lasting list of wildlife facts to wow your friends and family.
Downtown Tarpon Springs
If you are looking for less touristy areas to explore, the Tarpon Springs Downtown area is more modern. If Greek food is not to your liking, the downtown area has a wider variety of restaurant options. Breweries such as the Tarpon Tavern and cafes like the Bayou Café are within walking distance.
One unique stop downtown is Replay Museum. This retro museum is a wall-to-wall vintage pinball museum offering unlimited play on 100 vintage arcades & pinball games. It would be an excellent stop for a date night activity after spending the day at the sponge docks.
Tarpon Springs Distillery
As I walked in, two women were standing at the door, hoping to catch a tour. I couldn’t have asked for better timing. The ladies in my group were on a girls’ trip to escape the cold in Pennsylvania. (Being absorbed into other women’s excursions seemed to be a trend on this day). Our tour guild through the distillery was Lisa, Chief Tasting Officer, and the owner’s wife.
Lisa walked us into the distillery thoughtfully, explaining every step in the distillery process of making moonshine, gin, and ouzo. Each piece of machinery in the distillery had a descriptive name. The chiller was named Olaf after the snowman in Frozen. The still was called Amazing Grace because the rustic wooden panels wrapping around the outside were reclaimed wood from a church.
After touring the distillery, Lisa took our group outside to taste the products they produced. We started with straight moonshine, which is always my favorite way to start a tasting. It cleanses the pallet and makes the proceeding taste more amplified. My favorite from the tasting selection was the gin. Their Hot and Dirty gin is easily one of the best gins I’ve ever had. Lisa paired the gin with their bloody mary mix made from clamato as the main ingredient. It was the perfect balance of spice and heat. I made sure I went home with a bottle of the gin and the bloody mary mix.
Once the tasting was over, we all stayed a bit longer to continue enjoying each other’s company and soaking up the final bits of sunlight before the day came to a close. I had no idea where this day would take me when I set off exploring this historical Greek town. My expectation on visiting Tarpon Spring was to learn about sponges (which I did) and maybe grab a gyro, but in reality, I learned if you want to go on an adventure, show up and be willing to make friends with a few strangers. You might end up laughing until your stomach hurts over a glass of chilled ouzo.
The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm rates and details when planning your trip by following the links in this article. If you find out-of-date or inaccurate information, I’d love to hear about it to update the article. Use the comments section below. Thanks!