Leafing through photo albums of past visits to Florida can leave you a bit cynical. The spring break jaunts may have been titillating a decade ago, but your interests have evolved since you won the gold for beer bonging and string bikini chasing.
You’ve done your sentence at the Magic Kingdom. While Orlando remains “the muggiest place on Earth,” the cost of a ticket, let alone a meal or souvenir, is anything but frozen in yesteryear. The degree to which inflation has struck Disney World evokes concern for the livelihood of its animated residents; When was the last time Minnie Mouse had a paying gig?
Your vacation needs a shot of turn-of-the-century ambience without the touristy glitz that seasoned travelers desperately try to avoid.
Tarpon Springs, about 30 miles northwest of the Tampa Airport, was once a playground for the Victotian-era rich and famous from up north, and the quaint city of 23,000 has become an Eden for antique collectors. Jetsam from the state’s large senior population–approximately 23 percent are retirees–make the local vintage shops a gold mine of treasures from bygone days.
But the attraction that brings many back year after year, even generation after generation, is the town’s Greek fisherman‘s village and sponge docks on Dodecanese Street. Tarpon Springs is home to the highest percentage of Greek Americans in the country.
Lining the dock is a strip of shops boasting the local wares: handmade goats milk soap and bath products from Getaguru Handmade Soap Company; baklava and other artisan desserts from Hellas Restaurant and Bakery and, of course, shells, loofahs and sponges from Yia Yia’s Gifts and Spongeorama’s Sponge Factory (the latter harvested from waters right off the coast of Gulf Harbor).
The shops and authentic Greek restaurants, such as Mynos Authentic Greek Cookery, grew up around a vibrant, working fisherman’s village of the 1900s. When the red ride algae bloom of 1947 chocked out the natural sponges that were the town’s economic mainstay, Tarpon Springs found a new livelihood as a tourist destination. Stores and food stands, once appealing to the fishermen who supported the town, have been transformed into boutiques and restaurants. Sponge diving has made a return farther off the Gulf Harbor and many fishermen have switched to lucrative shrimping.
Tarpon Springs has family appeal. The St. Nicholas Boat Line delivers sponge diving tours aimed to fill a junior captain’s eyes with wonder. The gilded fisherman’s statue and sweet shops are a wholesome alternative to an afternoon worshiping the Xbox. One of the most exciting attractions on the main drag is the Tarpon Springs Aquarium. Highlights include a 120,000-gallon tank containing 30 species of fish and sharks, lectures given underwater by divers, daily alligator feedings and a living reef. A touch tank allows visitors to feed and pet stingrays and small sharks.
You won’t find a Pride celebration in Tarpon Springs, or a bar flying a rainbow flag. Local Sapphic sisters and their gay bothers play in Tarpon Springs by day and neighboring Dunedin at night.
Dunedin’s Main Street features two side-by-side queer bars–Blur and The Chin-a-Boom Room. Queer locals also gravitate to performances and arts openings at Leepa-Rattner Museum and the Tarpon Springs Cultural and Performing Arts Center.
Elaborate religious ceremonies rooted in the Greek Orthodox tradition are surprisingly welcoming and inclusive to queer people. Tarpon Springs hospitality experts Lisa Warner, of Tarpon Springs Holiday Inn, and John Lulias, of Millennium I ravel, are currently forming a gay and lesbian tourism committee.
Greek Americans from across the country join tourists at the annual Epiphany Festival in January, when the Spring Bayou waters are blessed in the hope that fishermen will have a safe season. Young divers plunge into the gulf to retrieve a wooden cross, symbolizing protection throughout the coming year.
When the ceremonies, usually presided over by the metropolitan of Atlanta and sometimes the archbishop of American, conclude, authentic Greek folk music and food usher in a kaleidoscopic festival.
Little has changed since its heyday as a sponge diving and fishing village, making Tarpon Springs a welcoming, authentic and unexploited enclave.
* Photos by Nicola Cuti
Cuti, Jaymee R.