It's all about the sponge. An entire Florida Gulf village built on the heritage of Greek immigrant fisherman seeking the lucrative natural sponges abundant in the Gulf waters. It is a bit like stepping back in time, if not to the 1920's when this little town thrived, at least to the 1960's when tourists began arriving. And tourists are still arriving with their wallets and apetities. There seems to be no economic crisis in Tarpon Springs. Every table was taken at Greek restaurant after Greek restaurant, so much foot traffic, several bakeries, some with walk up windows to purchase freshly baked Baklava to go, and shop after shop after shop with their merchandise spilling out onto the meanering, aged sidewalks selling 15 cent post cards, colorful sundresses blowing in the wind, Greek fishermans hats, seashells, loofahs, imported and embroidered Greek linens, natural soaps made from olive oil in dozens of floral scents, tee shirts for babies saying "If Mommy says no, ask Yai Yai" (Greek for Grandma), and sponges; so many sponges. There are yellow sponges and wool sponges for washing your car, doing art projects or the shower, silk sponges to apply make-up, finger sponges for fish tanks and floral arrangements, giant flower pot sponges to use as homes for air plants or as containers for various bath or spa items. Talk about organic. Your 50 cent or $2.99 or $8.99 sponge investment can last and be useful for years. Some of the large basket like sponges are sought by collectors and can sell for hundreds of dollars.
I am a great meanderer and loved looking in the various shops, cafes and bakeries. Prices at all places were reasonable. What I call, The Florida Greed Syndrome of soaking tourists one time and then waiting for the next tourist/victim, never took root in Tarpon Springs. These family run establishments have carried on throughout the years serving their friends, family, community and tourists in the same manner and with the same prices, year round. And, this has served them well.
We ate at Mykonos and the owner greeted us as we entered, as I'm sure that he has greeted customers for many, many years, prior to us. Greek was spoken here. It was a small place but I counted no less than 10 workers all industriously busy, lighting flaming cheese dishes and exclaiming "OPA!", flipping sizzling, delicious things on the visible grill, re-filling ice tea glasses, taking orders, clearing tables. No lethargy or price gouging here. A fabulous gyro cost $5.95. Large greek salad with small slabs (not crumbled) of feta cheese were $7.95, delicious homemade white and wheat bread served with your food (free), fresh baked baklava with a nice cinnamon flavor $2.50. The menu states: "We are known for our authentic Greek cooking prepared from scratch daily in our open kitchen." I concur. The dinner plates that I saw coming out of the kitchen looked very appealing: stuffed grapevine leaves, Greek style shrimp and pan fried squid, ahhh to sample it all one day. The paper placemats (remember those!!; I brought mine home as a free souveneir) with a map of all of the Greek Islands also stated that Mykonos was highlighted in Everyday with Rachel Ray Magazine in 2007...as "Great Meal for a Great Deal."
Besides the shops and cafes you can also see a free, old film in a box like room to the side of a gift shop, describing each and every sponge known to mankind and their uses and an even older film on the danger and adventure of diving for the sponges. Then you are funneled through a dark relic of a tiny museum where various lifesize dioramas on sponge life are to be viewed. True, this museum perhaps had it's heyday in 1960, but I still found it a "must see", very educational and remember it's free. It really puts the appreciation of sponges into you and also into the sponge buying mood. Now, you see you really NEED sponges to make your life easier and complete. I'm in.
Dodecanese Boulevard contains most of these shops and restaurants and faces the docks and the water leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Up close fishing boats and sponge boats and many, many boat tours are available. You can take the Sponge diving demonstration tour boat for a 35 minute run for $8.00 or you can opt for an hour and a half boat tour of the waterways, going out into the Gulf of Mexico viewing the sponge collecting areas of the ocean and possible and probable dolphin sightings for $14.95. If you are eating in the restaurant or taking a boat tour, the parking is free for their customers or you may snag a generally free parking space. Otherwise, parking in various lots is $3.00 for all day.
The day that I happened to visit Tarpon Springs there was also the added delight of an arts and crafts show being held in the street. If you go, remember that this is the dock side area of Tarpon Springs and is known as the Sponge Docks. There is actually a separate and quaint little downtown area of Tarpon Springs that is lined with more Greek restaurants and antique shops that merit a walk about also. (There just happened to be another Arts and Crafts fair going on that same day in this downtown area.) So much to see.
Tarpon Springs definitely rates Day Trip status. Located just North of the Tampa/Clearwater area a day trip is possible from much of Florida and especially when zipping up and down, North and South on I-75. Get to old U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs. From here you can turn to the little downtown or you can turn onto Tarpon Ave. which leads to the Sponge Docks. The street with all of the Greek action is Dodecanese Blvd. If you want to mapquest, the address for Mykonos restaurant mentioned above is: 628 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs, FL 34689