A bronze statue of a man holding a diver's helmet.

A statue celebrating Tarpon Springs’ sponge-diving history. Photo © Mark D L, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Tarpon Springs, a coastal town 15 miles north of Clearwater, has quite the past. John Corcoris, a sponge diver from Greece, brought his capabilities along with his sponge-diving equipment (a rubber suit and a heavy copper helmet) to Tarpon Springs around 1900. Soon, he persuaded friends and family, sponge divers all, to relocate from Hydra and Aegena, Greece, to this little Florida backwater.

The town is still more than a third Greek, with a nice Old Florida touristy charm and several fine restaurants.Soon, a booming town of Greek restaurants, Greek Orthodox churches, and Greek festivals was born, centering on the sponge industry. Tarpon Springs was the largest U.S. sponge-diving port in the 1930s, but a sponge blight and new synthetic sponge technology caused business to dry up.

The town is still more than a third Greek, with a nice Old Florida touristy charm and several fine restaurants. Sponges are everywhere, most of them imported from more sponge-rich lands.

Take an afternoon to see the museum Spongeorama (510 Dodecanese Blvd., 727/943-2164, 10:30am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 11:30am-6pm Sun., free admission) and the sponge docks, shop a little, and have dinner. A little down at the heels, the shop/attraction has mannequins dressed as sponge divers and shows an old crackly movie called Men and the Sea.

If you’re still angling for more sponge action, the St. Nicholas Boat Line (693 Dodecanese Blvd., 727/942-6425, $6 adults, $2 children 6-12, children under 6 free) offers a fun 30-minute narrated boat cruise through the sponge docks, with its own sponge-diving demonstration.

Out on the main drag, Dodecanese Boulevard, there are seven blocks of shops and restaurants. Before you settle on a place to eat, stop into nearby St. Nicholas Church (18 Hibiscus St., 727/937-3540), made of 60 tons of Greek marble. The church is a copy of the Byzantine Revival St. Sophia in Constantinople, with beautiful Czech chandeliers and stained glass.

If the weather’s nice, stroll along one of the paths in nearby Anclote River Park (1119 Baileys Bluff Rd., Holiday, 727/938-2598, dawn-dusk daily, free admission). The park boasts an easy two-mile round-trip trail, as well as fishing access, a boat ramp, a playground for the kids, a swimming beach, and picnic facilities. It’s also a notable destination for birders—favored for its resident reddish egrets and osprey nests. Actually, it’s part of a cluster of parks on the Great Florida Birding Trail, along with the nearby Key Vista Nature Park (2700 Baileys Bluff Rd., Holiday, 727/938-2598, dawn-dusk daily, free admission), which has even more diverse natural habitats, from fresh- and saltwater marshes to pine uplands and tidal flats, all the better for observing species like loons and migratory warblers.

So now you’re hungry. Everyone has a different favorite Greek restaurant here. One favorite is Hellas Restaurant and Bakery (785 Dodecanese Blvd., 727/943-2400, 11am-10pm daily, $10-20), a lively spot with a full bar and a wonderful Greek bakery attached to it. The best entrée is its slowly braised tomatoey lamb shanks. There are addictive garlic shrimp, gyros in warm Greek pita, and a delicious Greek salad. Others swear by Mykonos (628 Dodecanese Blvd., 727/934-4306, 11am-10pm daily, $10-20) for the lamb chops, Greek meat loaf, and slightly more upscale atmosphere. Still, Mama’s (735 Dodecanese Blvd., 727/944-2888, 11am-10pm daily, $7-14) often gets the nod for casual, family-friendly booths and delicious but messy chicken souvlaki sandwiches. If you’re visiting on a Saturday night, head over after dinner to the bouzouki club called Zorba (508 W. Athens, 727/934-8803), for some zesty belly-dancing and an ouzo.

For more information about Tarpon Springs, contact the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center (727/942-5605) or the chamber of commerce (111 E. Tarpon Ave., 727/937-6109).

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Florida Gulf Coast.

Map of St. Petersburg Clearwater and the Beaches, Florida

St. Petersburg Clearwater and the Beaches