If I were forced to describe my typical travel style in a few words–like if you held a gun to my head or an index finger to my rib cage–I’d call it…
- nerd central
- sometimes like the movie Inception
This has nothing to do with the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio hijacks all of my REM sleep, I promise, but more closely refers to the fact that I like to travel… within traveling.
When I can’t travel abroad I seek out the next best thing–abroad but actually a-close. I discussed this concept (incept?) in my article on The Ringling in Sarasota, Florida and how that’s where I go when I want my Italy fix. The art museums and sculpture gardens, the Roman/Florentine/Venetian architecture, and the twin babies suckling from the teats of a she-wolf all work together to mentally transport me to a better place–a place with red wine juice boxes and dogs in bars.
As an expert escape artist, I’m able to incorporate this practice into a large segment of my travelife, if only by accident. Some examples would be my annual trip to Orlando for the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, my penchant for getting lost in New York City’s Chinatown, or spending my honeymoon at the Okinawan festival on Oahu. Even my own house is a veritable smorgasbord of foreign delicacies (+ beer) thanks in part to my Try the World subscription and my Dominican friend Roberto who knows just what to do with beans, rice, and a Guatemalan convenience store.
I discovered the Sponge Docks of Tarpon Springs while living in central Florida, between Latin dance classes and Flamenco shows if I remember correctly, thanks to my friend Amanda who shares all of my inception wishes and DiCaprio dreams. Five years later, a mandated visit to the Sponge Docks is still included in every trip to Florida followed by the obligatory food coma.
This year, I was able to fit in a visit between my day of drinking around the world at Epcot and my day of drinking piña coladas on the beach in Clearwater. And for that I owe a huge thanks to E-Z Rent-A-Car, my favorite car rental peeps who hooked me up with my first-ever convertible (with the radio preset to some sweet bachata) then taught me how to use it. To say I’m hooked on the ragtop is a huge understatement. To say I’m hooked on that Latin beat is something even my distant acquaintances know well and will probably be the headlining topic in a future intervention.
WHAT ARE THE SPONGE DOCKS?
A long time ago in a strange galaxy of its own known as “Florida” the city of Tarpon Springs became home to the multi-million dollar industry of sponges. And if you’re anything like me, you just said, “Huuuhhh??”
Sponges? But weren’t they taken off the market?
Off the market? The sponge? No, no…no way. Everybody loves sponges.
Elaine’s right. The Tarpon Springs sponge industry was founded in the 1880’s and by just the next decade immigrants were pouring in from the Greek islands to take advantage of the bounty and to presumably shout Opa! a lot to passersby. Sponge diving quickly became one of the leading maritime industries in Florida, just ahead of booze cruises and training seagulls to steal wallets, an industry that went to shit as soon as Doritos were invented.
The history of sponge diving dates back to ancient times on the Dodecanese island of Kalymnos in the Aegean Sea. In the beginning, divers would dive naked (for reasons both unknown and uncontested by me) and would remain underwater for up to five minutes gathering sponges. Not unlike when I drop mine in the shower but I’ve got shampoo in my eyes.
In 1865 the diving suit was introduced and the world of nail salon fish tanks would never be the same. However, it wasn’t until 1905 that a Greek immigrant named John Cocoris introduced the technique of sponge diving to Tarpon Springs. There go the Greeks again… just inventing stuff and blazing trails. Sheesh, let someone else have a crack at improving humanity for once…
Cocoris recruited all his Greek pals from back home to come experience the American dream… of risking your life to decompression sickness so that others may be clean in places where the sun don’t shine.
Fast forward a century and some change and here we are at my go-to spot for delicious food and authentic Greek culture in America. Today, Tarpons Springs, Florida is home to the highest percentage of Greek Americans anywhere in the United States–and yet, John Stamos continues to elude me.
This map illustrates just where in Florida you can find the Sponge Docks and also that I really need to get my ass to the Bahamas. Holy turquoise water!
The Sponge Docks is a quaint Greek community proud of their sponge-diving past and of that cheese they set on fire at your table. I’m quite proud of them for that too, actually. The area is full of retail shops, restaurants and bakeries, attractions, and spelling errors.
There’s a museum dedicated to the history of the sponge industry, a plethora of both Greek and sponge-related street art, and a fish market with questionable advertising. You can take a dolphin cruise, a sponge diving tour, and a break from all of that with some booze and baklava.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT SPONGES!
Well, since you asked… turns out, sponging is a near-perfect business model.
Using special knives, divers remove the sponges about an inch from their bases–allowing the sponge to regenerate fully, creating an economical and sustainable product. Even better, this harvesting method actually increases future output by promoting the individual sponges to grow back larger and healthier than they were to begin with. Even discarded, broken-off sponge pieces will reattach themselves to the ocean floor and begin regeneration.
Can your $0.99 Target loofah say that?
BUT WHERE DO I EAT?
There are plennnty of gorge-worthy eateries at the Sponge Docks but my big, fat, Greek favorite is Hellas Restaurant and Bakery. I wish I was one of those foodie types who was able to describe to you how fantastic their food is, or even show you with a photo or two, but food blogging is immersive and meticulous and I have the patience of a child on Christmas morning following Grandma down the stairs. TOO. HUNGRY. MUST. EAT. NOM NOM NOM.
Instead, I’ll just give you my regular order:
- Mythos (beer)
- Saganaki–the imported Greek cheese they set aflame with a shot of ouzo and the magic Greek word that makes everything taste better, Opa!
- A massive platter of Spanikopita (aka, the “What do you mean, you DON’T EAT NO MEAT?)
- An order of baklava from the bakery next door (and sometimes a glass of milk if I’m feeling really saucy)
- and finally, a gurney to be wheeled out on
- Full restaurant menu here
So much blue–the color of Windex, you might say.
For time-budget travelers like myself who can’t always get to the other side of the planet and back over a three-day weekend, inception travel is a viable alternative. And if it’s Greek you want, the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks are as authentic as you can get this side of Nia Vardalos.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVE FOREIGN ESCAPE IN THE USA?
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