The towering, witchy-armed oak trees in Philippe Park are so gnarled that the ancient faces of those who once worshipped here seem to peek out from their trunks. Or maybe I’ve watched too many Disney cartoon features. These Spanish moss-hankied oaks hunker around a 20-foot-tall Tocobago Indian mound that looms over upper Tampa Bay and stands as the first layer of mysticism and magic that springs forth from the city of Safety Harbor.
Tribes migrated here to absorb the healing powers of its natural mineral springs. Hernando de Soto, believing he had found the Fountain of Youth, named it Springs of the Holy Spirit. Odet Philippe was the first non-native settler and namesake of today’s park. He was the first to cultivate grapefruit in Florida, according to the state Division of Citrus.
By the late 1930s, ads for the Safety Harbor Sanatorium & Hotel proclaimed that “To visit the Sanatorium is to bestow upon yourself the gift of health brewed by the Great Chemist.” In 1945, the sanatorium became the Safety Harbor Spa, a landmark that still anchors the town to the bay and to a passion for good health.
You arrive in Safety Harbor because you are purposely headed there. It’s not situated where you’d just happen to pass through en route to another destination. You have to punch it into your GPS and work at finding it. You must willingly discover it, a happy side trip from St. Petersburg-Clearwater bustle.
“People come for the spa and the small town atmosphere,” says Helene Shepard, innkeeper at Ibis Bed & Breakfast.
A sense of holism and heightened consciousness pervades the streets of what on the surface appears to be your typical Florida hometown. Jars of herbs line the shelves of Bailey’s Naturals Herbal Apothecary.
A psychic and an astrological counselor each hang out their shingles on Main Street, where boutiques, gift shops, restaurants, and galleries crowd around a city park and lead from city limits east to Safety Harbor Spa & Resort. Nearby, Quiet Spring advertises as itself as “a place for wellness & healing."
For breakfast, folks gather on old-fashioned chrome counter stools at Paradise Restaurant or in one of the local coffee shops. Green Springs Bistro, my favorite town eatery, resides in one of the colorful old bungalows off-Main and is the favorite for cozy lunches and dinners, artistic surroundings, and creative Gulf Coast-Greek fusion eats. Green Springs happened to be closed the last time I was in town, so I headed to “the other side of the tracks” and discovered Whistle Stop Grill & Bar, where my fried green tomatoes came topped with feta cheese and creamy crawfish sauce, and a local band entertained us porch diners.
Folks in Safety Harbor definitely know how to enjoy their city, and for Floridians coming into town, its long schedule of festivals offers ample occasion to plan a stay. To start with, every third Friday means a downtown music festival in the park, along with shopping and dining, beginning at 6 p.m. continuing until 10 p.m. Thursday Farmer’s Market convenes weekly in season, November through April. Annual festivals center around family and the arts.
Safety Harbor draws a thriving artist community, and their work brightens walls and yards throughout the downtown. Syd entel galleries hosts changing exhibits right on Main Street and also is home to susan benjamin glass etc., which shows exquisite works of hand-blown glass and other art from the Tampa Bay region, as well as national and international works.
Across the street, stop in at the Chamber of Commerce for a walking tour brochure. Highlights of the three tours of varying lengths include the Museum of Regional History, where you learn how people were drawn to this place “where healing waters flow” long before history was written. Local lore talks of five springs that arise from the town’s aquifers, each with a special ability to target specific goals: beauty, pure water, and stomach, liver, and kidney health.
Safety Harbor Resort and Spa continues to build upon the bedrock of natural health that springs eternal. All water served on the premises, including coolers of it provided on each accommodations floor, comes from the springs – the same water once bottled and sold around the world. The spa gives guests and members opportunity to bathe and swim in the healing waters. In fact, mineral spring water fills all three of the resort’s pools.
The historic resort sits on Tampa Bay’s western shore, next to a public pier and marina. A hiking-biking trail along the bay takes health a step further than the old days of merely soaking in and drinking the waters. Today’s guests also drink in the views. The resort offers a full schedule of exercise, nutrition, and wellness programs, including its Kaylates class, combining a one-mile kayak paddle to Philippe Park with Pilates instruction.
After my Elemental Nature Massage and sips from the spring, I not only felt in touch with myself, but a deeper, older sense of connection to the earth’s own healing ways. Perhaps, after all, I had glimpsed the face of ancient wisdom in the trees of this powerful place.