When I think of Greece, I think of its storied history, temple ruins, mythical gods and undeniable beauty, much like Helen of Troy, "the face that launched a thousand ships" in Greek mythology. The beautiful island of Greece is definitely on the family's bucket list of places to see, so when we heard of a little Greek community at the Sponge Docks at Tarpon Springs along Tampa Bay, Florida, we took the opportunity to experience a little taste of Greece.
A trip to the Sponge Docks from where we live is a short 30-minute drive, making it ideal for a quick Saturday family adventure. Despite what mythical stories may tell you, there is no Greek tragedy here. The Sponge Docks came into being after John Cheney discovered the business potential of selling sponges harvested from Florida's rich ocean floor. Cheney was an associate of a wealthy entrepreneur named Hamilton Disston who, in 1880, saved the state of Florida from bankruptcy by purchasing four million acres of land (Tarpon Springs included) from the government.
By 1890, the sponge industry was firmly established at Tarpon Springs. With news of a growing sponge industry, Tarpon Spring's population grew as experienced sponge divers from Greece were soon after hired to help meet a growing market demand. Along with this, tourism exploded as more tourists were eventually drawn to the Sponge Docks to purchase sponges, see the divers in action and indulge in authentic Greek food.
As more and more Greek divers came to Tarpon Springs for work, they later created a community that continued to celebrate the Greek way of life. Today, a life-sized statue of a sponger stands tall to honor the early divers who helped put Tarpon Springs on the world map as the "Sponge Capital of the World."
Sponges are aquatic animals that cling to a rock or coral. When harvesting, divers gently squeeze out the gurry, a gelatinous substance found in sponges. They then pound and clean the sponges on the ship's deck. Be warned: You'll likely get a whiff of rotten smell while walking by a ship with drying sponges. While the sponges' skin is drying, heat releases a gas that causes a salty, dead-fish smell.
Today, the Sponge Docks offers a lot of quirky finds, including decorated bicycles randomly displayed throughout the street, which are actually art installations by a local artist named Warren Gregory who was inspired to create art bikes from his time in Amsterdam. Visitors and diners may also enjoy acoustic music al fresco-style, with a view of the calm sea, docks and ships. Who could possibly resist a nice glass of wine, gyro or baklava with a stunning view?
At the Sponge Docks, there are surprises at every turn. There are many more to this adventure so keep an eye out of Part II of this travel diary.