Sponge Docks: A Little Taste of Greece (Part II)

For the uninitiated, the little quaint community at the Sponge Docks has long been known as the Greek Village because of its storied history. When early entrepreneurs discovered the profitability of harvesting and selling sponges, experienced Greek divers flocked to the Bayou to help create Tarpon Spring's sponge industry. Today, it's easy to have your full senses delighted by what you see, touch, smell, hear and taste at Florida's "Little Greece."

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TOUCH: At the Greek Village at the Sponge Docks, there are more than 100 unique shops to visit. It's an "Adult Disneyland" for the souvenir-shopper as there's always a little treasure worth bringing homewhether that's a rainbow collection of starfishes, handmade bomb soaps, a miniature sponge diver sculpture or a hand-carved wooden pelican that would make a lovely decor by the porch. 

Madhatters: Ariana and daddy tested out  the silly hats sold at one of the novelty shops.

Madhatters: Ariana and daddy tested out  the silly hats sold at one of the novelty shops.

SEE: When shopping along its rows of boutiques and novelty shops, take in every color and view. You'll be amazed by the contrasts of organic, neutral palette that evokes a farmhouse-feel in some of its shops to the explosion of colors of many of its trinkets, like the nut-made bracelets above.

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SMELL: It's impossible not to be drawn in by the shops' lovely aroma of handmade soaps, many of them made with olive and essential oils. One of our favorite shops around the block is Getaguru, which has the most fragrant lavender and peppermint soap we've ever found. Over at The Sponge Factory, be sure to grab a jar of the locally made body scrub in delicious scents. Ariana couldn't resist the Cotton Candy scrub, and mommy is not complaining as it left my hand ultra-soft.

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HEAR: Hear trivia about Tarpon Springs and how sponges are harvested while you enjoy the brief documentary movie inside its sponge factories. Who knew the place was first called Bayou before Mary Ormond, the daughter of the Bayou's early settler, named it Tarpon Springs after the magnificent fish that inhabited its waters?

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TASTE: You can never claim you've been at the Sponge Docks unless you've delighted in authentic Greek food. There are more than 10 restaurants and bakeries to choose from, some features live entertainment, belly dancing and authentic Greek music. There's Costas, which offers breakfast on the docks during weekends, Rusty Bellies Waterfront Seafood for either a serving of gyro or fresh-catch-of-the-day, and The Original Mama Maria's where the calamari is to-die-for. What better way to cap a Greek weekend adventure? With desserts, of course. Stop over at Hellas Bakery. We guarantee, you won't be able to resist the delightful desserts!

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EXPERIENCE: To get the full experience, don't just have the customary photo shoot at the diver's booth at The Sponge Factory, but take the cruise experience to see sponge divers in action, go dolphin-watching or spend the entire day sport-fishing on a rented boat.

At the Sponge Docks, there is no shortage of things to do. The only thing short in this little paradise is, you guessed it, time. 

Sponge Docks: A Little Taste of Greece (Part I)

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.  

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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.

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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. 

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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."

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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.

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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?

Clockwise:  Ariana with her Papaw Arvil at The sponge factory; playing with puppets sold at one of the gift shops and with the rest of the family for a customary photo shoot in front of the divers' memorial.

Clockwise: Ariana with her Papaw Arvil at The sponge factory; playing with puppets sold at one of the gift shops and with the rest of the family for a customary photo shoot in front of the divers' memorial.

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.

4 Reasons Why You Need to Put Mexico on Your Wellness Travel List

Just-turned-three Ariana catching the waves at Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

Just-turned-three Ariana catching the waves at Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

Next to the Philippines, Mexico is the second country Ariana had been on an international trip. She just turned three when we went to Playa del Carmen, one of Mexico's famed beach areas and more family-friendly than its neighbor, Cancun, a spring break favorite.

For many years, Mexico has a way of luring in the urban traveler with its natural landscape, Mayan ruins and Spanish-inspired culture. In fact, data from the Mexican Tourism Board estimates that from January to October last year, roughly 28.5 million tourists have traveled to explore Mexico.

But there's more to this tourist-favorite than the usual "been there, done that" experiences. For one, Mexico is slowly becoming a top destination of choice among wellness travelers seeking a quiet escape to reconnect with their inner selves.

Why should you add Mexico to your wellness travel bucket list? Here are four good reasons:

1. Affordable yoga retreat options

For many travelers, Mexico's appeal is its wide range of all-inclusive packages with price points that meet even those traveling on a limited budget. A quick research online shows yoga retreat centers like The Sanctuary located in Oaxaca, Mexico offers a personal retreat at $50 a day, inclusive of shared accommodation, food and yoga classes. Avoid the peak seasons, especially those that fall on major holidays like Christmas, New Year and Holy Week if you don't want to pay an extra $10 a day for a yoga retreat.

2. Beach meets mindfulness

One of the many reasons why Mexico is popular among tourists is its selection of splendid beaches. If you've never been to Mexico but are looking to combine vacation with moments of mindfulness by the beach, skip the often crowded Cancun and hit Playa del Carmen instead. It is a beachfront town along the Yucatan peninsula that is slowly earning a Euro chic-inspired reputation for its coastal beauty. Here, you don't only "see and be seen," but you also get to roll out your yoga mat and do your daily salutations by the beach, while basking in Mexico's glorious sunsets.

Another town known for its beaches is Tulum, where the popular Mayan ruins can be found. It is a coveted destination for luxury travelers because the place is secluded, giving you a semblance of a private escape while taking in the views of the Caribbean sea.

3. Spiritual awakening in cultural immersion

Mexico's blend of Mesoamerican and Spanish cultures help ensure that every traveler who visits the place gets to experience a unique cultural immersion. For wellness travelers wanting to recharge their chi, this unique culture serves as a wonderful backdrop for a spiritual awakening. After all, mindfulness can also be found in meeting the locals and appreciating Mexico's arts and crafts.

In between yoga sessions, head out to Mexico's mercados (market centers) to find colorful and hand-painted masks by the Hulchol Indians, an ethnic group who live in the Sierra Madre Mountains and known for their unique art pieces and embroidered manta garments. While souvenir shopping, look for intricately made clay pottery, weaved baskets and woodwork as Mexico is also known for these unique crafts.

4. Organic food with a Spanish flair

Mexico is also popular among travelers with a palate for organic and fresh foods. Mercado el 100, located in the trendy Roma neighborhood, is the first certified organic market in Mexico City. Produce sold at the street market are grown within 100 miles from the city; thus, the "100" in its name. Nearby is Mercado Roma, where you may choose foods from several different vendors selling and cooking their specialties next to each other in a packed warehouse space. Communal tables allow you to share meals with locals and traveling strangers brought to the place for similar reason: fresh and authentic Mexican food with a Spanish flair.

Ultimately, however way you want to experience Mexico, there's really only one way to do it right: Let go and get lost so you'll find your inner self in every adventure!

Have you ever been to Mexico? Tell us about your adventure in the comment box below.