By Elizabeth Byrd
In the northern Tampa Bay Area, a little piece of Greece is less than an hour north of downtown. Here you can explore the sights, sounds, and aromas of Greece. Dodecanese Boulevard is the spine of the Greek sponge docks of Tarpon Springs. Step out of your car and onto a Greek Isle. The waterside village is home to Greek stores, art galleries, restaurants, bakeries, museums, and boat tours.
Sponging is the primary sea activity in the area. The natural sponges were discovered in the Gulf of Mexico in 1890. By 1905, Greek sponge divers moved to the area, and the industry blossomed in this small town in Florida, on the Anclote River. The arrival of the sponge divers drove the need for restaurants to serve the workers, that was the beginning of the distinctive Greek ambiance of the area.
The area attracted tourists as early as 1924. Boat rides and sponging demonstrations have been available for almost 100-years. In addition to the tour boats, shopping is also a Greek adventure. Stores offering Greek food, soap, shells, coral, natural sponges, and other souvenirs line the streets.
Spongeorama’s Sponge Factory is a great place to start your time on Dodecanese Boulevard. It has a museum and a movie that tell the story of sponging in Tarpon Springs. Both attractions are free. After the movie, enjoy shopping the largest selection of natural sea sponges in the world. Once you are ready, you can choose from a variety of cruises offered by Sponge-o-Rama Cruises.
St. Nicholas Boat Line was established in 1924 and continues to operate a sponge diving exhibition. The tour includes a live diver sponge harvesting demonstration. Located across from the Sponge Exchange, tickets can be purchased on the dock, near the vessel.
The Sponge Exchange is the former hub of the sponge industry. It was the trading center for the sponge divers, allowing them to sell their sponges. Today it houses over 30 shops and restaurants. It provides shade and benches for those that don’t want to explore all the choices. One shop that travelers may want to visit is Cotton Patch Casuals. It sells fun, easy care, 100% cotton clothes for men and women.
Greece is known for its olive oils, but the tomato products from the region are very savory and intense. The tomato flavor is enhanced by the volcanic soil where the vegetables grow. The Agora Food Market is the place to shop for these products and more. Their offerings include dried pasta, Greek tomato sauces, fresh feta cheeses, and creamy Greek yogurt. Imported beer from Greece and packaged meats for many authentic dishes round out the selections.
After all the shopping and exploring, it’s time to make your food selections. From walk-up shops selling gyros to-go, to fine dining overlooking the water, there are over 25 restaurants in the area.
Hella’s is a full-service restaurant with an adjacent bakery. It will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2020. The waiters, dressed in crisp white shirts and dark neckties, are happy to answer questions about the menu which offers many Greek specialties. Spanakopita, moussaka, shrimp, octopus, hummus, dolmades, and gyro are a few of the items on the menu. The blue and white decor with clouds painted on the ceiling, is a lovely spot to enjoy a leisurely meal with friends and family. If you are too full for dessert, stop by the adjacent bakery and select a treat for later.
Mama’s Greek Cuisine located in the Sponge Exchange is like visiting your Greek grandmother for a home-cooked meal. A warm and welcoming atmosphere greets you as you enter. In addition to a menu full of Greek specialties, live music, and a belly dancing show is performed each Saturday night. You will feel like you have crashed a wonderful Greek Party. Open for lunch and dinner, lunch specials include a complimentary dessert.
During your visit to the Sponge Docks of Tarpon Springs, stash the car in one of the numerous parking lots, and begin your stroll down the boulevard. Don’t skip the side streets.
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