Posted by: Barbara Evanhoe | July 21, 2011

Road Trip ~ Tarpon Springs

The campground workampers are enjoying some well-deserved days off now that things are slowing down for the summer, and Keith and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and head south to Tarpon Springs for a little adventure.

Tarpon Springs is a lovely little town that is famous for its sponge docks and the Greek community that has built up around the sponge business since the first Greek sponge divers came to the area in the late 1800’s.

Sponge Diver Mosaic

The “Sponge Dock” area of the town, where sponges harvested from the Gulf of Mexico were traded and sold until a red tide in 1947 killed off most of the sponges, now consists of a series of shops, restaurants, bakeries and an aquarium that sit along the waterfront, along with the old “Sponge Exchange” building.

We arrived just after noon, to find the streets bustling with tourists. There was a festive air about the place, and after parking the truck, we took off in the crowd to see what we could see.

Boat filled with sponges at the dock

It seemed like we were at a bazaar in “the old country”…people bustling about, merchandise sitting and hanging outside of the shops to tempt you to come inside, merchants hawking their wares, or passing out restaurant menus and discount coupons if you would stop to listen.

One of the places I wanted to be sure to stop at was a museum of sorts, built in the late 1960’s and called “Spongeorama”. I’d read about it online, and although it didn’t look like much on the outside, I loved the name, so we stopped.

Spongeorama Sponge Factory

Immediately upon entering, someone slathered our hands with a wonderful smelling lotion made from olive oil as we were ushered into a small “theater” to learn about sponges and local history.

The announcer took some time describing exactly what natural sponges are ~ interesting, actually ~ and how they are harvested, cleaned and sold. I never knew that the “sponge” animal is like a membrane that lives on the outside of the “sponge” we are familiar with, and it is stripped off in the cleaning process.

After learning our basics about sponges, the announcer introduced an old film strip about the Greek heritage of the sponge industry in the area. The film strip was old and grainy, but very interesting, and it made me feel like I was back in a grade school classroom in Ohio…kind of fun.

After the show, we emerged from the theater to choose a few sponges to take home with us. It certainly was easier for us to make our selections when we understood the difference between the grades and qualities of the different sponges.

We found ourselves ready for lunch after our trip to Spongeorama, so we walked down the street to “Dimitri’s”, a well-respected restaurant on the water, famous for its Greek and seafood, but which also caters to the American taste.

Dimitris on the Water

We were seated at a table just inside the wall of windows that face the water, so we had a lovely view throughout our meal. We watched all manner of boats and their passengers pass by.

View from our table at Dimitri's

A glass of sangria sounded good to us, as it was a hot and steamy afternoon. I love Greek food, and since there were so many wonderful choices on the menu, I took the easy way out and selected the Combination Platter with a side salad and chickpeas seasoned with rosemary. Keith chose “Thalassina”, a seafood medley of octopus, calamari, shrimp and scallops, along with rice and chickpeas.

Normally we don’t order an appetizer, but this was a holiday adventure for us, so we splurged and ordered a plate of fresh feta cheese and Greek olives drizzled with olive oil and spices.

Our server promptly delivered the cheese and olives, along with a basket of fresh, home baked breads ~ soft and moist on the inside, with a light, crisp crust ~ perfect for dipping in the olive oil. Delicious!

We could have made a meal of our appetizer, and it was delicious with the sangria, but before long, our server returned with our entrees…huge plates of gorgeous food that smelled heavenly ~ our table was covered with good things to eat, and we immediately knew that we would be taking some home with us.

I wish I had taken pictures of our plates, but I was so busy eating that I didn’t even think of it! My plate was heaped with tender & flavorful gyro meat, Dolmates ~ grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat, Mousaka ~ an eggplant and beef dish with a delightful sauce, and Pastitsio ~ an lasagna-like dish that begins with a bottom layer of a thin macaroni that is then covered with meat and an incredible bechamel sauce custard on top. I was in food heaven!

Keith’s reports that his seafood was excellent, especially the crunchy squid tentacles and the thick, tender chunks of octopus. I couldn’t bring myself to eat the squid – too many little tickly things to catch in my throat, but I did sample the octopus and was impressed. It was like eating the equivalent of a very tender steak, but with a seafood flavor.

We did our best to chow down on as much of our meal as possible, but we ended up walking out of Dimitri’s with satisfied, full stomachs and two large take-out boxes.

We wandered about town for a while longer before deciding to find lodging for the night.

One of the many boats lining the docks

The Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce hosts a small visitor center on the docks, and a friendly woman behind the desk suggested we try the Tarpon Springs Inn, just five minutes away on Highway 19.

We drove through the quaint downtown area on our way to the Inn, and as there was a cluster of intriguing antique shops, we decided to return the next day to check them out before driving down to Ellenton for a family visit of sorts.

The Inn was perfect for our stay…a mid-size hotel with all the amenities ~ pool, hot tub, sauna, refreshments and nice, clean rooms ~ without the high price of larger and more highbrow places to stay.

We spent the evening relaxing and munching on our leftovers after a lovely day.

In the morning we took our coffee to the pool for a nice, slow start to the day. The water was perfect ~ warm but not hot, and we enjoyed a nice swim before going back to our room.

Once dressed, we drove back downtown to the antique shops which held many treasures, but we only made one purchase ~ a vintage black sequin dress that just may make an appearance on the album cover of our Oldies CD to be released in September!

The open road was beckoning, so we said good-bye to Tarpon Springs, but I would love to go back to this quaint, friendly town another day.

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