Spending a day at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks on Florida’s Gulf Coast is a perfect example of what I like to call Inception Traveling (patent pending). This has nothing to do with the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio hijacks all of my REM sleep, I promise, but more accurately 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. As an expert escape artist, I’m able to incorporate this practice into a large segment of my travelife.
In addition to the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, some other examples would be my annual trips to Orlando for the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival where I can visit 20+ countries in one day, my penchant for getting lost in New York City’s Chinatown, visiting Cuba without ever leaving Ybor City, Tampa.
Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
I discovered the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks while living in central Florida, between Latin dance classes and Flamenco shows if I remember correctly. All thanks to a friend who shares all of my inception wishes and DiCaprio dreams.
Five years later, I still mandate a visit to the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks on every trip to Florida, followed by the obligatory food coma.
What are the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks?
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.)
The Tarpon Springs 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, all with a Greek twist.
History of the Tarpon Springs 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??” in your best Tim “the Toolman” Taylor voice.
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). They would remain underwater for up to five minutes gathering sponges. Not unlike when I drop mine in the shower and I’ve got shampoo in my eyes.
If you want more historic Florida, head up and over to St. Augustine–the oldest city in the United States. For what all you can see, do, eat, and drink, check out my full guide to 1 day in St. Augustine.
Introduction of the diving suit
In 1865 the diving suit was introduced and the world of nail salon fish tanks would never be the same. There go the Greeks again… just inventing stuff and blazing trails. Sheesh, let someone else have a crack at improving humanity for once?
The sponge industry finally found its way to Tarpon Springs in the 1880s. By 1905, Greek businessman John Cocoris had done the same.
He recruited all his pals from back home to come experience the American dream. That is, of risking your life to decompression sickness so that others may be clean in places where the sun don’t shine. It worked, and immigrants began pouring in from the Greek Islands to take advantage of the bounty and to presumably shout Opa! a lot to passersby.
Sponge diving in Florida
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 down the tube as soon as Doritos were invented.
By the 1930s the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks were generating millions of dollars a year in sponges. Again, yes, sponges! Fast forward almost a century and here we are at my go-to spot for delicious food and authentic Greek culture in America.
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. This allows the sponge to regenerate fully, creating an economical and sustainable product.
Even better, this harvesting method actually increases future sponge output. It actually promotes 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 $2.99 Target loofah say that?
Where are the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks?
The Tarpon Springs Sponge docks are located on Florida’s Gulf Coast in Tarpon Springs, Florida–just about a 45-minute drive north of Clearwater.
This map illustrates just where in Florida you can find the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks and also that we should all really be spending more time in The Bahamas–look at that water! Google Earth, you had me at turquoise!
If you like local cultural hubs, you might be interested to check out nearby Ybor City in Tampa–the U.S.’s first true Cuban neighborhood. Check out my post on how to spend a day in Ybor City.
Things to do at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
As you can imagine, the tourism industry at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks is mildly centered around sponges. Mildly? Oh, I meant wildly.
The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks are incredibly walkable. You can park your car in one of the dirt cheap lots and you can spend the whole day on foot. For instance, check out:
Sponges. Sponges everywhere.
- There are sponge gift shops galore where you can find sponges in all shapes, sizes, colors, and prices. Even a $600 sponge if you need some serious exfoliation.
- There’s the Spongeorama Sponge Factory that boasts the world’s largest collection of natural sea sponges.
- At the Sponge Factory is also the Sponge Museum where you can learn everything I’ve already told you in this post… but in museum form.
- You can take sponge diving tours of your own on the St. Nicholas Boat Line. This cruise takes you around the sponge docks, and a live diver in a traditional diving suit will show you how it’s done and talk more about sponge harvesting and the history of the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks.
The Tarpon Springs Sponge docks are full of quaint little shopping streets where you can find tons of gift shops, clothing stores, specialty food and drink items, live seafood, and much more. Oh, and sponges.
Take a tour
- Besides the sponge diving tours, you can also take one of Spongeorama’s popular dolphin cruises or sunset cruises (because if there’s two things Florida knocks outta the park).
- Check out this 2-hour Eco Kayaking Tour around Tarpon Springs that leaves right there from the Sponge Docks. Learn all about Florida’s awesome wildlife from an expert guide and see some pretty great stuff while you’re out there! I’m a huge fan of kayaking tours and this one has all 5-star reviews!
- Other great ways to see and learn about the Sponge Docks is on this private bicycle tour of Tarpon Springs or by taking this easy walking tour. (They actually call it a ‘stroll.’)
Got motion sickness? If you’ve tried everything but haven’t found a solution, check out my post on the permanent motion sickness cure that changed my life! One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Eat Greek food
The fact that the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks is the United States’s largest Greek community brings with it some of the most delicious food in Florida. Don’t miss this – I promise you’ll be bak(…lava) for more!
Where to eat at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
There are plennnty of gorge-worthy Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks restaurants 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 (with a glass of milk if I’m feeling really saucy)
- and finally, a gurney to be wheeled out on
You can, and should, view their full restaurant menu here. The Hellas Restaurant and Bakery is a favorite of everyone who visits the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks and it’s right there on the main road–you can’t miss it.
So much blue–the color of Windex, you might say.
How to get to the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks are an easy drive from everywhere in Florida. You have GPS, you know. Florida’s just an easy place to navigate. It’s like a dream for
us Bostonians those of us who live in Boston but aren’t originally from here.
Once here, parking is not an issue. You can park on the streets, in lots that charge only a couple of bucks for an entire day, and some businesses (like Spongeorama) offer free parking if you’re taking one of their tours.
Additionally, you can even take the Jolley Trolley all the way here from Clearwater and many places between–also for just a few dollars. The Jolley Trolley is an easy, fun, and cheap way to get around this part of the Gulf Coast – check out the Jolley Trolley website here.
Where to stay near the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
Being that the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks are just a short drive north of Clearwater, I can’t recommend staying in Clearwater Beach enough. (Check out where to stay for all budgets in my post on a weekend in Clearwater.)
The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks make such a great day trip from Clearwater you don’t necessarily need to stay here. But, if you want to, you can find great deals at:
Fairfield Inn & Suites
This hotel has an “awesome” guest rating (their words, not mine), an outdoor pool (a must in Florida), has free WiFi and free parking, and is just an 8-minute drive to the Sponge Docks. Read reviews on Tripadvisor, then book your room here.
Hampton Inn in Dunedin
Almost a perfect 10 as far as guest reviews go and halfway between Clearwater and Tarpon Springs is a great place to be. Also with free parking, free WiFi, and a pool, they also have a convenient snack area. Read reviews on Tripadvisor, then book your room here.
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.
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